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Watch Ken Burns: Jazz


Ken Burns: Jazz is a ten part documentary that explores this most American of musical forms, from its roots in early African-American culture to its international appeal today. Jazz reached its first prominence in 1920's and dominated the music scene through World War II, but this wide reaching documentary begins with its earliest days in New Orleans before the turn of the century. The music inevitably reflected the political and social experiences of the African American community that created it, with jazz enclaves in Chicago's South Side, California and New York's Harlem each developing its own variety.

Narrated by actor Keith David, the film follows the development of the original sound to its later sub-genres like Swing, BeBob, Avant-Garde and Fusion. Major contributors like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton, Miles Davis and Charlie "Bird" Parker are profiled both personally and professionally. Their lives, politics and era were reflected in their music, which in turn influenced the development of the jazz style.

Directed by Ken Burns, the film also places the music in its cultural and historical context, using archival photographs, film clips, musical performances and interviews with music experts and historians. Each chapter covers a particular era, such as Gumbo: Beginnings to 1917 and Swing: The Velocity of Celebration 1937 - 1939. Originally broadcast on PBS, this wide-ranging survey of jazz in the 20th century features a soundtrack of classic recordings and rare finds. Ken Burns: Jazz documentary provides an overview of this unique musical expression through its artists, history and place in American culture.

PBS
1 Season, 10 Episodes
January 8, 2001
History
8.6/10
Cast: Keith David
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Ken Burns: Jazz Full Episode Guide

  • During the Sixties, jazz is in trouble. Though Louis Armstrong briefly outsells the Beatles with "Hello Dolly," most jazz musicians are desperate for work and many head for Europe. In the 1970s, jazz loses the exuberant genius of Louis Armstrong and the transcendent artistry of Duke Ellington, Their passing seems to mark the end of the music itself. But in 1976, when Dexter Gordon returns from Europe for a triumphant comeback, jazz has a homecoming, too. A new generation emerges, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis - schooled in the music's traditions, skilled in the art of improvisation, and aflame with ideas. The musical journey that began in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century continues. As it enters its second century, jazz is still brand new every night, still vibrant, still evolving, and still swinging.

  • For jazz, the late 1950s is a period of transition when old stars like Billie Holiday and Lester Young will burn out while young talents arise to take the music in new directions. New virtuosos push the limits of bebop: saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins; jazz diva Sarah Vaughan; and the drummer Art Blakey. But the leading light of the era is Miles Davis whose lush recordings expand the jazz audience; and a cultural icon whose tough-guy charisma comes to define what's hip. As the turbulent Sixties arrive, two saxophonists take jazz into uncharted terrain. John Coltrane explodes the pop tune My Favorite Things, while Ornette Coleman challenges all conventions with a sound he calls "free jazz."

  • The postwar years bring prosperity, but the Cold War threat makes these anxious years as well. In jazz, this underlying tension will be reflected in bebop, and in the troubled life of it's biggest star, Charlie Parker. Dizzy Gillespie, tries to popularize the new sound by adding showmanship and Latin rhythms, while pianist Thelonius Monk infuses it with his eccentric personality to create a music all his own. Dave Brubeck mixes jazz with classical music to produce a million-seller LP. But one man remains determined to give jazz popular appeal on his own terms, the trumpet player Miles Davis.

  • When America enters World War II, jazz is part of the arsenal. Bandleaders like Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw enlist, taking their swing to the troops overseas. Many black Americans, segregated at home and in uniform, find themselves fighting for liberties their own country denies them. In a Harlem club called Minton's Playhouse, a small band of young musicians, led by Dizzy Gillespie and the saxophonist Charlie Parker, has discovered a new way of playing - fast, intricate, exhilarating, and sometimes chaotic. The sound will soon be called "bebop" and once Americans hear it, jazz will never be the same.

  • As the 1930's come to a close, Swing-mania is still going strong, but some fans are saying success has made the music too predictable. Count Basie and the Kansas City sound reignite the spirit of swing. By the decade's end, Duke Ellington has been hailed as a hero in Europe, amid anxious preparations for war. And weeks after that war begins, Coleman Hawkins startles the world with a glimpse of what jazz will become, improvising a new music on the old standard, "Body and Soul."

  • As the Great Depression drags on, jazz comes as close as it has ever come to being America's popular music. It has a new name, Swing, and for millions of young fans, it will be the defining music of their generation. Benny Goodman is hailed as the "King of Swing" and Billie Holiday begins her career as the greatest of all female jazz singers.

  • In 1929 as the Great Depression begins, New York is now America's jazz capital. On Broadway, Louis Armstrong revolutionizes the art of American popular song. In Harlem, Chick Webb pioneers his own big-band sound and in the city's clubs, pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum dazzle audiences. But it is Duke Ellington who takes jazz "beyond category," composing hit tunes that has critics comparing him to Stravinsky.

  • In the 1920s, jazz is everywhere, and for the first time soloists and singers take center stage. We meet Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues; Bix Beiderbecke, the first great white jazz star; and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, for whom jazz offers a chance to escape the ghetto and achieve their dreams. Duke Ellington appears at the Cotton Club and Louis Armstrong performs his masterpiece, "West End Blues."

  • Speakeasies, flappers, and easy money - it's the Jazz Age, when the story of jazz becomes a tale of two great cities, Chicago and New York, and of two extraordinary artists whose lives and music will span almost three-quarters of a century - Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Armstrong grew up on the mean streets of New Orleans and moved to Chicago in 1922, inspiring a new generation of musicians. Meanwhile, Ellington outgrows the society music he learned to play in Washington D.C., and heads to Harlem.

  • Jazz begins in New Orleans, 19th century America's most cosmopolitan city, where the sound of marching bands, Italian opera, Caribbean rhythms, and minstrel shows fills the streets with a richly diverse musical culture. In the 1890s, African-American musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden and Sydney Bichet create a new music out of these ingredients. Soon after the start of the new century, people are calling it jazz.

Most Popular Ken Burns: Jazz Episodes

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