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This series explores the history of the major American musical form. We track its development in African American culture, its rise to prominence with its golden age of popularity spanning from the 1920's to the mid 1940's both in its original form and in Swing through its popular decline and the rise of vital new sub-genres into the present day. Along the way, we learn of the lives and work of major contributors to the form such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Charlie "Bird" Parker and many others who helped form Jazz into the vibrant musical form it is. Moreover, we see how the music reflected the political and social issues of the African American community over the course of the form's history. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <email@example.com>
As a jazz fan for over 20 years now, ever since I first encountered the 6-LP "Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz" in the library of the college where my father taught, I could go on and on about all the stuff Ken Burns and company left out. However, part of me keeps imagining some kid latching onto this program the way I did with the Smithsonian LP's, then searching out jazz recordings, books on the subject, and recent copies of "Down Beat" magazine. Multiply this scenario by an unknown number (hundreds? thousands, perhaps?), not just with literal kids but all kinds of people open to discovery in the same way, and you get some idea of how I feel about the program.
Speaking again as a longtime jazz fan, even though I was a bit disappointed that more "modern" and avant-garde jazz wasn't included, the portions of "Jazz" covering swing were a revelation--I've never had such a direct visceral connection to that music before, though I've enjoyed it from time to time. This illustrates the major merit of "Jazz", the way it puts the viewer inside the world in which the music happened. One reason the swing segments are the best in that regard is that not only do we get to see what else was going on in the world at that time, we get to see the audience's interaction with the music--specifically, the dancing. This may be why "modern" jazz isn't emphasized as much; the audience's reaction couldn't be captured on camera in the same way.
The one theme I would have liked "Jazz" to cover in greater depth was its decline in popularity after swing had run its course and most young musicians were either getting into bebop or dixieland (the postwar revival of the latter being one of the program's more mysterious omissions). I think part of the problem lies in the definitional boundaries some of jazz's defenders have drawn around it. It seems to me that jazz was at its healthiest when its practitioners drew upon other musical traditions for ideas; this could mean classical music, showbiz pop, or most often other traditions of black music, notably the blues.
Once jazz had been firmly defined as an improvised music emphasizing certain kinds of instruments and instrumental combinations, there developed a tendency among jazz musicians to draw almost exclusively from earlier jazz styles, often the "purer" styles of recent vintage. After a certain point, any attempts at a new style were open to criticism over whether they were "really" jazz. (It's interesting, in this regard, that most of jazz's innovators have resisted purists' expectations of "jazz" musicians; just try to think of any musicians who added to the jazz vocabulary without doing something along the way that upset some group of purists or another.) Some new styles were accepted as the real stuff, others were not, which is a pity since some of them, especially rhythm & blues, might have lead to the reinvigoration of jazz as a popular art.
Louis Jordan is singled out in "Jazz" as someone who led black audiences awa y from jazz, yet his music developed directly from the swing music of the 30's and early 40's. How differently would jazz history be written if Jordan's kinds of innovations, which kept the music true to the experience of urban blacks without alienating potentially curious whites, were accepted as "real" jazz? After all, it's only a short step from Jordan to early rock &' roll.
It strikes me that, if jazz is really central to American music, an honest portrayal of jazz would include a full accounting of its influence on other American musical styles. Louis Jordan is one such example; the hard bop influence on the great 60's soul bands (notably Booker T. & the MG's, James Brown's bands, and the guys at Motown) is another; the use of jazz-schooled musicians by such disparate yet seminal bandleaders as Bob Wills and Spike Jones is yet another. Finally, jazz purism has robbed the music of some potentially valuable innovators, the best example being Jimi Hendrix, exactly the kind of instrumental prodigy who would have been a natural for jazz in an earlier time, but who went from r&b bands to rock & roll instead (contrast Ornette Coleman, who went from r&b bands to the jazz avant-garde).
And yet the faults of "Jazz" don't cancel out its many fine points, though they do throw them into sharper relief. I can't imagine any jazz fan failing to enjoy the music, and only a few who fail to learn something new about it. The fallout from "Jazz" as an event--the numerous arguments over the program's merits as history (many of these arguments concerning, at bottom, the definition of jazz) and the recent spur of jazz record (CD, tape, whatever) sales--is icing on the cake. On my own personal rating system, "Jazz" ranks just shy of an A+ (a "perfect" film) because I can imagine it being done better. Nevertheless, I'm giving it an IMDB rating of "10" for its entertainment value, its educational value, its status as a ublic event, and on general principles.
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