Louis Armstrong
Photo: Herman Leonard

Jazz, a new documentary by Ken Burns, is a celebration of a unique American art form and of the people that made it. Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie—these are the illustrious names that fill the history of jazz. Burns begins at the beginning—in New Orleans—then traces jazz’ history from Dixieland to Avant-Garde, from the East Coast to the West Coast, from predictable ensembles to totally free improvising. Jazz wants to re-introduce the viewer to this grand, uniquely American art form; it wants to remind the viewer just how special a Charles Mingus is; and it wants to remind the viewer of the contributions and sacrifices that African Americans have made to bring this music to the culture.

The story of Jazz is told in ten parts, lasting a total of 19 hours. Each section covers a time period, providing biographies of important figures and covering social developments within that time. Episode 1 titled, "Gumbo," explores the origins of jazz in New Orleans. The most musical of American cities during the 19th century, the viewer learns of cultural and musical ingredients that went into the "gumbo" that would become jazz. Jazz provides biographies of notable artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, which are told over a number of episodes. This allows the viewer to see the full career of these giants—not just the parts where they were "in style." Jazz is also a social document, continually reminding the viewer of the segregation and prejudice that have been inflicted against African Americans within American society.

Charlie Parker

There are many highlights throughout the series. Episode 8, titled "Risk," covers the be-bop insurgency and the short, troubled career of saxophonist Charlie Parker. Injured as a teenager in an automobile accident, Parker seemed troubled for the remainder of his life. Clips of Parker’s performances show what appears to be a totally emotionless person, playing rapid, beautiful solos. Many musicians, fascinated by Parker’s style, would also adopt his drug habit (heroin) to emulate their hero. Parker’s sometime partner, Dizzy Gillespie, would spread the gospel of bop, kindly sharing technique and musical theory with young players. Many older players like Armstrong thought bop was nonsense, and the swing audience surely couldn’t dance to it. But by the time Parker had died in 1955, jazz had entered the modern era with a completely new sheen.

Jazz continually relates issues of race both heartening and harrowing. Episode 3, "Our Language," tells the story of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. While performing in a Southern local, one of her musicians informed her that several members of the Klan were descending upon the tent show. Smith, no pushover, stormed out to meet them—shaking her fist. "I’ll get the whole damned tent out here. You just pick up them sheets and run!" They left. Other stories prove more disturbing. While performing in a downtown club, Miles Davis decided to go outside during a break. A white police officer asked him to move along. When Davis refused, explaining that he was working at the club, the officer beat him bloody. In 1957, Louis Armstrong had been asked by the State Department to go on a goodwill tour of Russia. When Eisenhower did little to stop the violence surrounding desegregation at Little Rock Central High School, Armstrong refused to go on the tour.

Charles Mingus

Jazz will receive criticism on several accounts, but the criticism will come from jazz critics and aficionados, not the general audience Burns is aiming for. Some will view the series as musically conservative, failing to explore the more adventurous styles of Avant-Garde and Free Jazz. The ever-present Wynton Marsalis will reinforce this feeling. Others will criticize the scant coverage of jazz after 1961, with fusion only being mentioned in relation to Miles Davis’ later work, and Charles Mingus only receiving a very short biography. None of these points will probably bother the casual fan or jazz novice. Besides, Jazz has so many strong points, it would be a disservice to concentrate on these smaller items.

Jazz is an audacious undertaking that will successfully introduce jazz and jazz history to the uninitiated, as well as teach jazz lovers a thing or two. It is possible that every viewer will not want to invest the 19 hours required to watch the entire series, but that would be unfortunate. Though lengthy, Jazz offers a chance to view the panorama of the music, and to see how one movement fed into another. Jazz should also leave the viewer much more aware of the evils of segregation, and of the vast contribution of African-American artists like Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, and Coltrane. Many viewers—like this one—will undoubtedly want to go out and buy the music they’ve heard while watching the series. If they do, then the series has accomplished what it aimed for: inspiring Americans to listen passionately and appreciate one of their culture’s crowning achievements.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.



Ken Burns—Director/Producer/Cinematography
Lynn Novick--Producer
Geoffrey C. Ward—Screenwriter
Buddy Squires—Cinematography
Keith David—Narrator
Paul Barnes—Film Editor

Click here for an episode guide for the series.