When filmmaker Ken Burns set out to make "Jazz," his 10-part series on this most American of art forms, it wasn't just an exercise in music history. Just as he addressed larger issues of American culture and history in his award-winning films "The Civil War" and "Baseball," he sees "Jazz" as a lens through which the larger American experience can be viewed.
" 'Jazz' is an opportunity to see how we are as a people," he says over the phone from his offices in New Hampshire. "In many ways, I've made the same film over and over again, just asking that question of different subjects. The Civil War defined us, as Shelby Foote said in that series. If you want to know what we became, I felt you could find as much from studying baseball as any form.
"Jazz is a sense of our future, of what we can be when we live out the true meaning of our creed, to paraphrase Dr. King."
At the same time, "Jazz" is not just about people -- it's very much focused on the art of music. "Music in my previous films has always been a kind of background force," he says. "Here it is not only background, it's middleground, it's foreground, and in the case of people parsing a particular tune, it's a kind of hyper-ground. In this film, the normal, biographical constituent parts, or American narrative constituent parts -- which are certainly here in abundance -- are nonetheless subservient to 498 separate pieces of music."
Maybe that's why Burns' "Jazz" is being rolled out music-first. Although the 10-part documentary won't air on PBS until January, the five-CD box set "Ken Burns Jazz" (Columbia / Legacy / Verve 61432) arrives in stores Tuesday, along with a single disc "The Best of Ken Burns Jazz" (Columbia / Legacy / Verve 61439) and 22 single-artist albums offering the best of such stars as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, among others.
Art over commerce
It's an ambitious set of releases, and not just because it purports to boil down 80-odd years of music history into a paltry 28 CDs. "Ken Burns Jazz" and its companion volumes mark a rare instance of art winning out over commerce. Instead of framing a musical history in terms of what recordings a particular label happens to own, it offers a wide-ranging and comprehensive view of each artist's career.
"The key for us was forging the partnership between Sony Legacy and the Verve Music Group," says Burns. Between them, the two companies control two of the largest and most acclaimed catalogs in jazz, and -- naturally -- each label has historically been fiercely protective of its assets. Recalls Burns, "Ron Goldstein, who's the president of the Verve Music Group, said, 'We were forced to check our egos at the door, and work with people who are mortal enemies.' "
Although Columbia and Verve were responsible for physically assembling the box and the individual discs, "Jazz" draws from the catalogs of every major jazz label, and many of the minor ones. Be it the Charlie Parker Quintet on Dial, Django Reinhardt & Le Quartet du Hot Club de France on Gramophone, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan on Pacific Jazz or Charles Mingus on Cadet, even if an essential recording was made for a tiny label, it found its way onto "Ken Burns Jazz."
No wonder, then, that the five-CD "Ken Burns Jazz" seems such a treasure trove. Disc 1, for instance, not only delivers essential early works from Armstrong (including "West End Blues" and the scat-vocal number "Heebie Jeebies") and Ellington ("The Mooche" and "Mood Indigo," among others), but also includes landmark recordings by New Orleans legend Jelly Roll Morton, stride pianist James P. Johnson, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (the group in which Armstrong made his name), blues singer Bessie Smith, and Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra, which featured legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
There are also a handful of extremely instructive rarities, most notably "Memphis Blues" by James Reese Europe's 396th U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band. Almost totally forgotten today, Europe was a pivotal figure in the development of jazz. His all-black ensemble applied the vocabulary of ragtime and blues to marching band music, and was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Although its rhythms seem stiff to modern ears, Europe's band was a direct antecedent to swing era big bands.
Educating the public
That sort of attention to historical detail makes "Ken Burns Jazz" a remarkably educating experience, but the set isn't simply about edification. Burns sees the set as being directed to "a general public that is confused by jazz, that thinks you have to have an advanced degree to understand it." As such, it takes a sort of greatest hits approach to the music.