SONGS of ourselves

In 'Jazz,' filmmaker Ken Burns tells the story of the music that plays in the background of America.

January 07, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The only way to find a Ken Burns film wanting is to measure it against another one of his films.

"Jazz," the 19-hour Burns documentary premiering tomorrow night on PBS, isn't the acclaimed filmmaker's greatest work. "The Civil War" is more moving and lyrical, while "Baseball" has a greater resonance and more satisfying narrative conclusion.

And yet, "Jazz," the third and final leg of Burns' great American trilogy, reaches so high, "swings" so wide and is so wise in so many ways that you can't help but call it epic.

No documentary filmmaker has ever managed to simultaneously play to the eye, ear, mind and heart as well as Burns, which is to say that "Jazz" is a television experience you don't want to miss.

The film is firing on all those cylinders from the opening moments, as the screen fills with a black and white photograph of a city at night that looks to be New York circa 1940. It's all skyscrapers, searchlights and the downtown metropolis sounds of car horns honking and tires whooshing past.

As the camera slowly pans up from street level to the brightly lit urban night, the street sounds seamlessly blend into the opening chords of "Stardust," followed by the first melody notes played with an unmistakably thick and sensuous urgency on the trumpet. A moment later, a new black-and-white photograph on the screen confirms what the ear has heard, as we see a young Louis Armstrong on the bandstand -- one with the horn, eyes closed -- playing from a place most of us will never know.

A voice speaks over the music.

"Jazz music objectifies America," the voice says, pausing as Armstrong executes an exquisite run of notes played in double-time counterpoint.

Just as the dazzling trumpet run trails off, the voice resumes, "It's an art form that can give a us a painless way of understanding ourselves."

The image of Armstrong is replaced by the face of the speaker -- Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter and jazz director of New York's Lincoln Center.

"The real power and innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvise art and negotiate their agendas with each other," Marsalis says. "And that negotiation is the art. ... It allows us to speak together in the language of music."

Just as you begin to push the sweet memory of Armstrong's "Stardust" out of mind and mentally process what Marsalis has said, a piano sounds a downbeat, the screen fills with the image of an elevated train moving through the urban night, and the first strains of Duke Ellington's "Take The A-Train" are heard.

The visual pace quickens through a fabulous montage of neon marquees, jazz artists playing and singing, and swing dancers defying gravity, as Ellington and his musicians take "A-Train" from an edgy piano vamp to full-forced big band romp. And over the top of the music comes the voice of narrator Keith David laying out the central thesis of this monumental work.

"It's America's music," David says. He plays off the last word from Marsalis: "Born out of a million American negotiations between having and not having, happy and sad, country and city, between black and white, and men and women -- between the old Africa and the old Europe. That could have only happened in an entirely new world.

"It's an improvisational art, making itself up as it goes along just like the country that gave it birth. It rewards individual expression, but demands selfless collaboration. It is forever changing, but almost always is rooted in the blues. It has a rich tradition and its own rules, but it is brand new every night. ... It has enjoyed huge popularity and survived hard times. But it has always reflected Americans, all Americans at their best.

'It don't mean a thing ...'

"Jazz," the drummer Art Blakey liked to say, "washes away the dust of every day life. But above all, it swings."

If there is a more meticulously crafted, red-hot and righteous opening to a documentary, I have not seen it. All the seeds that will bear such rich fruit over the course of 19 hours are sown in the space of several minutes. But I only came to understand that on my second viewing of the tape.

The first time through I was too hopelessly intoxicated by the music of Armstrong and Ellington and the montage of stunning images of such performers as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Webb, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Bessie Smith to even start thinking rationally about what I was experiencing. It just plain stoned me, and it was one of the greatest television highs I have ever experienced.

Armstrong and Ellington are the two biographies that drive "Jazz," and they are front and center in this opening. Some music critics are sure to disagree, but Burns' film is very clear in its claim that Armstrong is America's greatest jazz musician, and Ellington our greatest jazz composer. If nothing else, "Jazz" explains the work of these two seminal artists in a way that can't help but enrich the listening experience for all but the most advanced consumers.

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