All that `Jazz' takes 18 hours

Television: If Ken Burns has his way, his latest PBS documentary will touch off a dialogue about race relations by Americans.

July 13, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES - It is 18 1/2 hours long with more than 500 pieces of music, 2,400 still photographs and more than 2,000 archival clips, but filmmaker Ken Burns says his latest documentary, "Jazz," is not "encyclopedic."

In fact, in some ways, it is not even mainly about jazz, he told television reporters and critics gathered here for the summer press tour yesterday, which included a preview of the film scheduled to air over 10 nights in January on PBS.

"I did not make a film to please the jazz cognescenti," Burns said. "I made a film for the mass audience, some of whom might have forgotten that jazz is our national soundtrack. ... So we had to leave some things out. To get encyclopedic would denude our narrative."

The film will focus on the years 1917 (when, Burns says, the first jazz recording was made) to 1959. The last 41 years, during which jazz has been in decline in terms of mass popularity, will be covered in the final hour.

The artists at the center of the Burns narrative are Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

"Each project brings surprises. The discovery that has meant the most to me has been the astonishing music of Louis Armstrong. He is to music in the 20th century what Einstein is to physics, and the Wright brothers are to travel."

Calling jazz music a "particularly accurate mirror of the 20th century," Burns said, beyond the music, his film is about two world wars and the Great Depression.

"It's also about sex, the way men and women talk to each other, and it's about drug abuse and its terrible cost," he added.

"But, I guess at its heart, we went into this project because it speaks so much to the American fault line of race. It's in every subject we touch. It's about lynching,it's Jim Crow, it's about positive movements in civil rights, it's about white people learning from black people," Burns said, linking the film to his two other longest and most widely viewed projects, "Civil War" and "Baseball," both of which dealt in depth with matters of race.

Co-producer Lynn Novick said she and Burns hoped the film "would allow Americans to have a dialogue on race."

But the person who spoke most eloquently about the links between race and jazz yesterday was pianist Dave Brubeck, who is featured in the film.

"The cry for freedom was heard worldwide when freedom was taken away from the black man [with American slavery]" Brubeck said.

"Whenever you do that in any society, you have an uprising. Sometimes the uprising can't be seen or heard, but it can be felt. And the root of the music of our country has been and will always be this cry for freedom that came from the black people."

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