It's hard to believe that jazz was once America's popular music since it comprises only 3 percent of today's CD sales. Historian Ken Burns would like to turn that around with his 19-hour documentary, "Jazz," accompanied by 28 discs marketed along with the program, which premieres January 8 on PBS.
"I made this film for everybody who says, 'I'm not quite into jazz,' " Burns said of the 10-part continuation of his American documentary trilogy that began with his award-winning programs on the Civil War and baseball. "I want to make converts to jazz. There is an evangelical dimension to this."
"I didn't do it to celebrate the music," he added. "I did it to ask this question about America, and I think that jazz is this incredible mirror that reflects where we've been and who we are. But just as battlefield attendance skyrocketed after the Civil War series, I'd like to see people coming back to jazz music. It's so much more elegant and satisfying than the sort of junk that passes for pop music today."
Rest assured, the series will also enlighten many a confirmed fan along the way, digging into the roots and growth of the music while focusing on key figures, particularly Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Incorporating 2,000 archival film clips, 2,400 still photos, 500 pieces of music and 75 interviews into a lively montage, "Jazz" has already grabbed the attention of critics. "No one has ever put jazz on film better than Ken Burns," declared The New York Times, though others have criticized its more glancing treatments, especially of players who have emerged in the past 25 years.
"I ask, 'Who today is as important as Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane?' and there's absolute silence," Burns contends in an interview from the New Hampshire offices of his company Florentine Films. "Jazz has splintered into so many diverse groups it's hard to know what's going to emerge as the defining trend. There's not even going to be one trend or one messiah."
"You need historical perspective," he contended. "I'm in the business of history. History is about stories that are over. The last 25 years is about stories that are still going on. That's the province of journalism and criticism."
More depth can also be found in the film's well-illustrated companion book, "Jazz: A History of America's Music," penned primarily by Geoffrey C. Ward, who also wrote the text for the film, as he had for Burns' other epic documentaries.
Unlike Burns, who tackled the five-year "Jazz" project as a novice when it came to the music, Ward was already a jazz fan for 50 years. "I didn't know anything about baseball for me, it was like writing about Egyptian hieroglyphics," said Ward. "Jazz had its own challenges, but the basics I knew at least."
"There were so many tributaries you can't put them all in one book, or a book that anybody would want to read," he said of the still-condensed view of post-70s jazz. Of the brief treatment given to earlier greats such as Charles Mingus in "Jazz," Ward added, "The reasons their music is important is very hard to explain. Their colorful, difficult lives are easier to tell. But it does an injustice to the music if you just keep relentlessly doing that. That's why we didn't do much with Bud Powell. It's another pathetic genius story, and after a while, I don't think people would have watched."
The series still explores the social ramifications of the music as it moves from Jelly Roll Morton to Billie Holiday to Ornette Coleman, from the blues and bebop to swing and the avant-garde, with commentary from the likes of Wynton Marsalis, critic Gary Giddins and the late bassist Milt Hinton.
However, if "Jazz"'s goal was to tell certain stories well, there was no better subject than New Orleans native Armstrong, who helped transform jazz into a soloist's art and influenced every instrumentalist and singer to follow him. Among the film's most enchanting moments are those of musician Matt Glaser explaining and miming Armstrong's vocals and trumpet solos as they play in the background.
"Those early people who created that extraordinary music in that world which was such a tough world are genuine American heroes," Ward said. "Louis Armstrong is a great hero, and I would like to convey that to people too, that he would be added to the standard list of Americans that everybody admires. He's as mysterious as Lincoln to me. How the hell did he happen?"