'Jazz' Completes a TV Trilogy on American Life ; the Maker of 'The Civil War' and 'Baseball' Megaseries, Ken Burns, Taps into the Beat of Jazz, the 'Soundtrack to America.'

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

'Jazz' Completes a TV Trilogy on American Life ; the Maker of 'The Civil War' and 'Baseball' Megaseries, Ken Burns, Taps into the Beat of Jazz, the 'Soundtrack to America.'


Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Historians and journalists have fallen all over themselves writing the story of the American 20th century, but few have tried to set it to music.

Yet, as documentarian Ken Burns suggests, music and jazz in particular may be the prism through which the entire story may best be told.

"This is the soundtrack to America," says Mr. Burns, whose 10- part, 19-hour series "Jazz" begins Monday night on PBS (see "What's on TV," page 13).

"It is in our blood; it's the way we've talked to each other," he says. "Jazz is a particularly accurate mirror of the 20th century. In addition to being about this extraordinary music, it is about two world wars, a Great Depression, the soundtrack that got them through. It's about sex, the way men and women talk to each other; it's about drug abuse and its terrible cost."

Most important, Burns says, the music goes to the heart of what he calls this country's most troubling issue. "We've gone into this because it speaks so much about the American fault line of race," he says. "It's in minstrelsy about lynching, about Jim Crow, about the Emancipation Proclamation; it's about positive movements and civil rights; it's about white people learning from black people."

Series producer Lynn Novick says that America has a hard time talking about the subject of race and that the series is one way of opening a dialogue: "It's something that we all shy away from and try to ignore and pretend isn't there.… What we've tried to do is engage the subject in new and much subtler, complex ways so that we're not just going through the same old arguments all over again."

Burns adds, "Jazz was invented by African-Americans, but it was generously shared with the rest of the world."

The series takes the "seminal figure" approach to history, rather than the encyclopedic. Jazz afficionados have been buzzing for months about who Burns chose to include and exclude, but he defends his choices with confidence. "You start wanting to go into the orchard and bring back every single apple. That's an impossible task. As one tries to shape a narrative of the history of jazz, one ends up going back to those seminal influential people."

He adds that many important figures ended up on the cutting-room floor, "because we wanted to focus on the pantheon of jazz. …

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