Jazz (2001): It’s the Notes You Don’t Play…

When I first met the hostage, he was an enormous fan of baseball. In my hopes to ensnare him forever in my basement, I feigned an interest in baseball. My feigned interest soon became genuine interest, which became avid fandom, which turned into a ridiculous obsession. A key turning point in my baseball-lovin’ journey was watching Baseball (1994), a Ken Burns film in 9 innings: 18+ hours of baseball history, lore, legends, and shames – meticulously researched, beautifully arranged and edited, and filled with interviews of people who have played, watched, written on, studied, and loved the game. I came out of that experience with more than knowledge of the mechanics of the sport; I emerged understanding the history, the cultural need that baseball fills, and why it incites such passion in its fans.

What can I expect after traversing that same road with Jazz (2001)? After Episode One: Gumbo, I suspect a new fascination has been born.

Synopsis: Burn’s examines the roots and genesis of jazz music in New Orleans, spanning from the early 1800s to 1917.

I grew up listening to jazz music. My father is a passionate fan, and I’ve heard it all my life. But for the majority of my short life, I did not connect with jazz music. It seemed frenetic, wild, and incoherent. In the series, we learn that even when jazz began to gain rapidly in popularity, there was a resistance to putting it on record, as people were convinced it was an art form that had to be experienced live in order to get the full effect. This may not be true in general, but it was true for me. I did not begin to appreciate and understand the power of jazz until I saw my first live show.

While traveling through Europe, my friend and I decided that live music was a must, and we should try to see all kind of shows. In Munich, in a basement club called Unterfahrt (pause for adolescent giggles… or is it just me?), I had my first exposure to live jazz music. Since then, I have sought it out in San Francisco, Budapest, Prague, San Diego, Hanoi… basically every new city I visit (there are not a lot of options for live jazz where I live). And I no longer need jazz to be live to enjoy it. But my interest in Jazz has always been linked to the legends, the stories, and the people involved. Which is why Jazz is a perfect vehicle to stir my passion for the genre.

Ken Burns is a very smart man. There’s a reason he chose baseball as the sport of focus in his earlier documentary: baseball is a game with history, almost an oral storytelling quality. Jazz is similarly a musical genre with history, filled with tales of musicians and moments. People like Buddy Bolden, who “started the big noise in jazz,” blowing bolder, louder, and with more innovation than any other horn player at the time; and “Jellyroll” Norton, whose claims of inventing jazz may be erroneous, but who was  the first person to write jazz music down (and whose name may not mean what you think it means); and Freddie Keppard, who turned down a chance to make the first jazz recording because he was afraid other musicians would buy it just to steal his material. Using voiceovers, still photos, interviews, quotes, and old footage, Burns treats us to the emergence of a new art form.

Not surprisingly, this first episode focuses much of its time on racial tensions in the South and the contributions of such tensions to the creation of a musical genre, fusing Blues and Ragtime with a new beat and a new spirit. Jazz is said to be “freedom”, “musical anarchy”, a release from “the degradation of minstrelsy.” The Jim Crow laws enacted to continue the oppression of slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation barred classically trained Creole musicians from playing white symphony halls, forcing them into the same bars and clubs where the Blues were king. Racism always seemed to prevail back then, and even as white audiences began to appreciate and love jazz, they found ways to use it to oppress. White audiences expected jazz to be innate, believing black musicians were too stupid to learn how to read music; as such, jazz musicians memorized their material. And of course, would any oppression be complete without white musicians claiming they invented the art form, as black musicians could never have created a successful musical genre superior to white music?

But in the end, this is all background. Important background, true, but not the joyous part of the viewing experience. Jazz is at its best when relaying legends, such as how jazz music got its name: was it named after jasmine, a popular scent among prostitutes in Storyville, the red light district where jazz first reared its head? Was it an African word for “speed it up”? Another explanation entirely? As jazz spread throughout the country, we see it invade every subculture, with club names like Ching-a-ling’s Jazz Bazaar and the Funky Butt Dance Hall. But the real highlight is listening to jazz musicians talk about their art and how it came about and what it means to them. To hear them describe it, it is an ego-less genre, with everyone on stage having to work together and listen to each other to make the best possible musical experience.

Burns is a great documentarian, never shying away from the shameful or ugly parts of our past, but neither dwelling on them and permitting them to overshadow our accomplishments. Any fan of jazz needs to get this documentary set. Fortunately I’ve still got another 9 episodes to look forward to. And lo! Episode 2 has already arrived. I hope you spend tonight wrapped up warm with a passion, as I intend to do. Until the next,


~ by K. Harker on January 29, 2011.

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