Heralding a driver of the `A' train

`Jazz': It has written its own refrain in the story of forces that shaped America.

January 12, 2001

TO THOSE who have lived and loved jazz, it's as much faith as music: a belief that life's a lot more bearable if you slip your tribulations a few "blue notes."

Born from the spirituals and work songs of African-Americans, jazz was brought up in bordellos and mellowed at late-night loft sessions in places like Chicago and New York. It gave a young Louis Armstrong an escape from the inner city, Billie Holiday a voice for unspeakable pain, and it wrote the score for the Great Migration of blacks to Northern cities.

Along the way, something else happened: In highly segregated America, jazz slid into the imaginations of blacks and whites alike and drew them into a dance across the American racial divide.

And this is what lies at the heart of Ken Burns' television documentary, "Jazz."

As with his baseball and Civil War epics, Mr. Burns uses these historical threads to explore the deeper stories about America. Race marks the resulting social fabric unmistakably and indelibly. Yet we cannot help but see in "Jazz" the wonderful possibilities when colors blend.

Sure, "Jazz" just hits the high notes of this important American genre, and not even all of them. But it's unrealistic to expect to easily tell such a complex story, even in an expansive 17 1/2 hours. So it comes down to creative prerogative: The television miniseries races through 40 important years of jazz in a single hour, and omits the latest years of jazz altogether. Mr. Burns said he stopped in the 1970s because "the last 25 years are about stories that are ongoing. We don't have the historical perspective to be able to judge."

Fair enough. Some people will love "Jazz"; others will hate it. After all, we've noticed that everyone has an opinion. But everyone should be sitting in on at least a few sessions of the 10-night show (the next episode airs Monday night on PBS), to learn about a cultural force that is as much a part of the American experience as, well, baseball and the Civil War.

But where the latter is about division, jazz is all about stirring the melting pot and creating something new, and reveling in the results of a group urging its individual members to shine.

That's quintessentially American -- even if only in aspiration.

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