Ken Burns' "JAZZ"

The PBS Series, the DVD Set, the Book, and the CD Collection

by Stuart Kremsky

JAZZ: A HISTORY OF AMERICA'S MUSIC by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000. Hardbound, 490 pages, illustrated with over 500 photographs. $65.00.

The 19-hour multi-part Ken Burns' Jazz presentation in January of 2001 was by far the largest undertaking ever designed to bring this music to the masses, and I would guess that virtually all the members of the IAJRC watched the show and formed their own opinions about its content and structure. While every review I've seen of the project focused exclusively on its most visible aspect, the broadcast itself, there's a lot more to Ken Burns' Jazz than just the video phase.

The centerpiece, of course, is the show that was broadcast in 10 parts shown over 4 weeks. With so much print and discussion devoted to it, I'd like to express just a couple of thoughts. Whatever your feelings about the relative time devoted to this or that aspect of jazz, I think everyone could agree the show could definitely have benefitted from a video "crawl" along the bottom of the screen informing the audience of what was being played at that moment. This seems absurdly obvious, and it's a shame that no one connected with the production thought of doing it. (Actually, this is one of the features of the DVD version.) Additionally, lots of argument among modernists, who feel rightfully slighted by the show, could have been avoided by really stopping the presentation around 1960. The producers said they did, but in reality did not, instead relegating the many strains of post-1960 sound into an excruciatingly brief overview of styles and significant figures, with annoying dominance by the Wynton Marsalis/Stanley Crouch cabal of jazz absolutists. The generally wonderful 5-disc companion boxed set, for instance, makes an absolute mess of the fifth disc, a ridiculous look at the last thirty years of "jazz."

Even so, there is much here to enjoy, and the effect on the general public seems positive, making new jazz fans out of the formerly curious. If you enjoyed the broadcast, you can relive it again on videotape, or on the new DVD format. The DVD set includes three complete performances totaling about 11 minutes (Louis Armstrong, "I Cover The Waterfront" from 1933, Ellington's "C Jam Blues" from 1942, and Miles Davis performing "New Rhumba" with Gil Evans in 1959), some extra scenes not seen on PBS, a 20-minute documentary on the making of the series, and, most significantly from a record collector's point of view, information on the music that you hear in the show. There is also a link to their website, one piece of the experience not covered here. This information, plus the ability to study individual frames and replay sequences with ease, makes the DVD format an especially useful format for this show. The list price for the DVD version is $200, compared with $150 for a boxed set on VHS.

Then there's the companion book, a large-format coffee table volume loaded with photographs. The substantial text is by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, and the volume also includes contributions by the series consultants. interspersed with the chapters are an interview with Wynton Marsalis, brief essays by Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, and Gerald Early, and an enchanting reminiscence by Dan Morgenstern of his early jazz experiences. The photograph selection, naturally, is marvelous, including many unfamiliar images as well as famous portraits of the "stars" of the show like Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Armstrong and Ellington. Some of the text will be recognized by anyone who has watched the show, but the book adds more detail and background. The photo captions are quite informative, and the layout makes good useful of interspersed single- or double-paged spreads on significant jazz figures and events. In many ways the well-designed and inviting book is more coherent than the film, since it tends to take a more chronological path through jazz history, without the need to keep things moving. Some of the interviews in the film are incorporated into the text, one example of the interdependent nature of all the phases of this project, each with its own positive and negative aspects. The main problem with the book, of course, and one common to all jazz books, is that there's no music at all, not even the snippets used in the film before somebody starts talking again.

But that's easily rectified, even by a novice listener, by putting the 5-CD Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music set into your CD changer. Any seasoned jazz fan can take a quick look at the track listing below, and realize that this is a very special collection, drawing on the holdings of many different record labels, includes Prestige, Verve, RCA Victor, Columbia (and its various subsidiaries), Candid, Impulse, Decca, and Dial, among others. Over the past several years, record labels have changed their attitudes towards compilations and begun more willing to license their material with tracks drawn from other companies. This lengthy set, 94 tracks totaling just over 6 hours of music, is certainly the best value in the package, even with the rotten programming of disc 5. Armstrong's "Hello Dolly" is not great jazz, but as a sentimental favorite it's easy to accept it in this company, even given its peculiar placement after a deeply spiritual John Coltrane excerpt. The narrative of jazz history is simply abandoned on the remainder of the final disc, a hodge-podge of odds and ends, some good, some dull, and some quite unlistenable, culminating in the triumvirate of Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson (the only vocalist included after a Sarah Vaughan track on disc 3), and Wynton's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Disc 5 aside, the set is definitely recommended as a useful primer of jazz, and it includes full personnel and recording dates, plus a tiny portion of the Ward and Burns text edited for the format of the 40 page booklet.

The boxed set is a joint production of Sony/Columbia and the Verve Music Group, which is pretty unusual in itself. The companies have also collaborated on a series of 22 individual "greatest hits" packages drawn from the holdings of many different labels. Pardon the laundry list of names, but they are, in alphabetical order, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Herbie Hancock, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, and Lester Young. These budget-priced collections are probably the best single aspect of the entire extravaganza. Notice that here at least the producers did limit themselves to genuinely historical figures. The selections are intelligently designed to give the listener a real and generous overview of a career. The Mingus set, for example, is 69 minutes long, with 9 tracks originally on Atlantic, Columbia (from two different periods), Candid, and Impulse. The Miles Davis set starts with a Charlie Parker track for Savoy, then includes tunes from Capitol, Prestige, Fontana, and Columbia, before concluding its 77 minutes with a Warner Bros. track. (The Davis set, by the way, has the major significant mistake I've noticed throughout all the formats, assigning the tenor saxophone to George Coleman on the 1966 "Gingerbread Boy," where the player is really Wayne Shorter.) Liner notes are supplied by a range of jazz writers, not connected with the Burns enterprise. The Henderson (25 tracks) and Goodman (22 tracks) sets make for a fascinating study all by themselves. Equally enjoyable collections of any of these important figures could probably be assembled with completely different songs, but that's the kind of argument that hard-core fans love to have. As one-disc introductions, these are unbeatable and unlikely to be surpassed.

-- Stuart Kremsky


(CD Set)

Columbia/Legacy C5K 61432:

Disc 1 (72:29): STAR DUST: Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (1931)/ SOON ONE MORIN' (DEATH COMES A- CREEPIN' IN MY ROOM):Mississippi Fred McDowell, 1959/ MEMPHIS BLUES: James Reese Europe's 369TH U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band, 1919; LIVERY STABLE BLUES: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band; 1917/ CHARLESTON: James P. Johnson, piano, 1925/ CHIMES BLUES King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, 1923/ BACKWATER BLUES: Bessie Smith w/ James P. Johnson, 1926/ THE PEARLS: Jelly Roll Morton, piano, 1926/ DEAD MAN BLUES: Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, 1926/ WILD CAT BLUES: Clarence Williams' Blue Five; 1923/ CAKE WALKIN' BABIES (FROM HOME): Clarence Williams' Blue Five, 1925; SUGAR FOOT STOMP: Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra, 1925/ HEEBIE JEEBIES: Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, 1927; POTATO HEAD BLUES: Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven, 1927/ WEST END BLUES: Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five/ THE MOOCHE: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1927/ EAST ST. LOUIS TOODLE-OO: Duke Ellington & His Washingtonians, 1927/ BLACK BEAUTY: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1928/ MOOD INDIGO: The Jungle Band, 1930/ THERE AIN'T NO SWEET MAN (WORTH THE SALT OF MY TEARS):Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke, 1928/ SINGIN' THE BLUES/ RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE: Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke, 1927/ HOTTER THAN 'ELL: Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra, 1934/ I GOT RHYTHM: Ethel Waters, 1930.

Disc 2 (71:30): IT DON'T MEAN A THING (IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING): Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1932/ ECHOES OF HARLEM: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1936/ MOTEN SWING: Benny Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, 1932/ ST. LOUIS BLUES: Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra, 1929/ AIN'T MISBEHAVIN': Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra, 1929/ FOR DANCERS ONLY: Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra, 1937/ KING PORTER STOMP: Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, 1935/ ROSE ROOM: Benny Goodman Sextet, 1939/ SING, SING, SING (WITH A SWING): Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, 1938/ JUMPIN' AT THE WOODSIDE: Count Basie & His Orchestra, 1938/ SENT FOR YOU YESTERDAY (AND HERE YOU COME TODAY): Count Basie & His Orchestra, 1938/ LESTER LEAPS IN: Count Basie_s Kansas City Seven, 1939/ OH, LADY BE GOOD!: Jones-Smith Incorporated, 1936/ WITHOUT YOUR LOVE: Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra, 1937/ STRANGE FRUIT: Billie Holiday, 1939/ GOD BLESS THE CHILD: Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood & His Orchestra, 1941/ THREE LITTLE WORDS: Art Tatum, piano, 1944/ REBECCA: Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, 1941/ HARLEM CONGO: Chick Webb & His Orchestra, 1938/ A-TISKET, A-TASKET: Chick Webb & His Orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald, 1938/ SHINE: Django Reinhardt & Le Quartet du Hot Club de France, 1936/ DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND: Noble Sissle & His Orchestra featuring Sidney Bechet, 1937.

Disc 3 (77:17): BODY AND SOUL: Coleman Hawkins, 1939/ COTTON TAIL: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1940/ TAKE THE "A" TRAIN: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1941/ BEGIN THE BEGUINE: Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, 1938/ IN THE MOOD: Glenn Miller & His Orchestra, 1939/ WELL, GIT IT!: Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra, 1942/ SOLITUDE: Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood & His Orchestra, 1941/ DRUM BOOGIE: Gene Krupa & His Orchestra, 1941/ SALT PEANUTS: Dizzy Gillespie & His All-Star Quintet, 1945/ GROOVIN_ HIGH: Dizzy Gillespie Sextet featuring Charlie Parker, 1945/ KOKO: Charlie Parker_s Re-Boppers, 1945/ SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE: Charlie Parker Quintet/ EMBRACEABLE YOU: Charlie Parker Quintet, 1947/ GET HAPPY: Bud Powell Trio, 1949/ EPISTROPHY: Thelonious Monk, 1948/ STRAIGHT, NO CHASER: Thelonious Monk, 1951/ MANTECA: Dizzy Gillespie & His Orchestra, 1947/ MOON DREAMS: Miles Davis Nonet, 1950/ JUST FRIENDS: Charlie Parker, 1949/ ROCKIN_ CHAIR: Louis Armstrong, 1947/ THEY CAN_T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME: Sarah Vaughan & Her Trio, 1954/ WALKIN_ SHOES: Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, 1952/ FINE AND MELLOW: Billie Holiday, 1941.

Disc 4 (77:06): DOODLIN_: Horace Silver & the Jazz Messengers, 1954/ I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU: Clifford Brown & Max Roach, 1954/ ST. THOMAS: Sonny Rollins, 1956/ DJANGO: Modern Jazz Quartet, 1954/ TAKE FIVE: Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1959/ SO WHAT: Miles Davis Sextet, 1959/ GIANT STEPS : John Coltrane Quartet, 1959/ RICK KICK SHAW: Cecil Taylor Trio, 1955/ CHRONOLOGY: Ornette Coleman, 1959/ ORIGINAL FAUBUS FABLES: Charles Mingus, 1960/ ACKNOWLEDGMENT (FROM A LOVE SUPREME): John Coltrane Quartet, 1964.

Disc 5 (69:33): HELLO, DOLLY!: Louis Armstrong, 1963/ DESAFINADO: Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd, 1962/ IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD: Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, 1962/ TOURIST POINT OF VIEW: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, 1966/ E.S.P.: Miles Davis Quintet, 1965/ SPANISH KEY (SINGLE VERSION): Miles Davis, 1969/ BIRDLAND: Weather Report, 1977/ MISTER MAGIC: Grover Washington Jr., 1974/ ROCKIT: Herbie Hancock, 1983/ UN ANGE EN DANGER: MC Solaar & Ron Carter, 1994/ TANYA: Dexter Gordon, 1978/ SOON ALL WILL KNOW: Wynton Marsalis, 1986/ DEATH LETTER: Cassandra Wilson, 1995/ TAKE THE "A" TRAIN: Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, 1992.

[More of Stuart Kremsky's reviews appear in the Journal of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors. Go to for more information.]

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