All That Jazz
One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.
His story's heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. And its soul is the Jazz Age and the Swing Era.
In episode five, "Swing: Pure Pleasure (1935-1937)," writer Albert Murray declares, "Jazz is primarily dance music." Though that hasn't been true for nearly half the music's history, it's clear he's speaking for Burns: Three episodes, nearly six hours, discuss the big-band era, when jazz underpinned popular music, lifted Depression-era spirits, saved the record industry and dominated that new omnipresent technology, radio. Nevertheless, as the often-intrusive talking heads tell us, from Ellington on down the musicians knew the difference between the business and the music; stage shtick and chart slots were as important then as now. This is a bittersweet Golden Age of speakeasies, hoods, the Great Depression, squealing bobby-soxers, lynchings, jitterbugging, novelty tunes and early moves toward racial integration. It is described as a time of "adult sensibility" and is the series' gravitational center.
The great-man schematic creates escalating difficulty for the plotting starting with episode seven, which begins with Charlie Parker and spends nearly as much time on Satchmo as it does on bebop. By the mid-1940s, the musicians had multiplied and moved on--out of Harlem and swing time. And so jazz dissolves into hundreds of musicians searching for different sounds, styles, approaches, languages, multimedia formats. The last forty years of Jazz are a choppy and unreliable ride; a lot disappears, and what's left can be telegraphic or confusing and look exactly like JALC speaking.
Burns says post-1960s jazz is too controversial even in the jazz world to be history. Maybe he should have ended, then, with John Coltrane; Baseball, after all, stopped at 1970. For in less than two hours, faces from Charles Mingus's to Sonny Rollins's flash across the screen between inevitable reprises of Duke and Satchmo. Miles Davis's push into fusion shrinks to his alleged desperation for teen fans. Ornette Coleman is dismissed. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea don't appear. The 1970s and 1980s are a quick-blur artistic wilderness until the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the film's senior creative consultant and prime talking head. And there, after a brief survey of new stars (Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman) and a recapitulation of key figures and themes, it ends.
The signal irony: If Burns had cut the final episode and billed this as Jazz: The First 50 Years, more of the discussion might be where it belongs--on the movie.
Until pretty recently nobody thought enough of jazz to point a movie camera in its general direction for very long. There are snatches of footage of Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and the like from the early days. By the mid-1930s the popular swing bands cropped up in films and then in "soundies." But the video record of what fans like to call America's greatest art form is sporadic and discouraging.
This problem plays to Burns's strengths: He loves having his staff dig up old photos (for this, they turned up millions), and he loves working stills to make them kinetic. He pans across and slowly zooms in and out of a single shot to give it a movielike temporal depth. In one vignette about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where drummer Chick Webb held court and introduced Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Burns intercuts shots of separate white and black dancers to hammer home the voiceover's point about its integrated patrons--a first in America. He assembles a deft mix of photos and film to re-create the stage-fright-to-triumph of Benny Goodman's 1938 "Sing Sing Sing" concert at Carnegie Hall.