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    Jazz - A Film By Ken Burns

    ABC/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 720 mins . E . PAL


    Following his exhaustive documentaries on The American Civil War and baseball, Jazz is the final instalment in Ken Burns’ American trilogy. Imagine a time when the music was the one absolute that could turn your frown upside down and keep a nation dancing until dawn without the use of chemical additives. It's a time where some would become so enchanted by a performance that they would leave everything they had ever known in pursuit of that same magic. A time when an entire nation stood united under one big beat and a time when people would go to concerts, not for a glimpse of celebrity, but simply to marvel at the virtuosity of the musicians.

    Jazz will take you there.

    Over twelve episodes and 720 minutes, Jazz tells of the birth of a distinctive American art form that would bend and evolve into a musical phenomenon that would incorporate the music around it almost as much as it would influence it. In that, it is as much a history of jazz music as it is the history of the very nation that gave it life. Set against a background of adversity and racial intolerance, Jazz delves into the trials of a great nation and profiles the genius that rose from its hardship. Ultimately it is that hardship that contributes most to the music’s heart (Billie Holiday for example, despite a modest register of little more than an octave, still managed to convey more soul than a bandstand full of Mariahs).

    As the series progresses, the pioneers and heavyweights of jazz are introduced through a number of fascinating artist profiles that help shed light on their influence as well as provide perspective and a unique sense of history. Many of the profiles (most notably those of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington) continue on into later episodes as the artists' stories grow along with their influence. Although a good number of the profiles are a little brief (some barely more than a mention) and are almost invariably steeped in tragedy, attention is given to the introduction of each of the main players just as their emergence will have the most impact and aid in continuity.

    "Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life. What’s more – it swings! - Art Blakey "

    The magnificent narrative for the series was written by Geoffrey C. Ward and is not only a testament to exhaustive research but is a fine example of storytelling at its finest. The narrative is interspersed with eyewitness accounts from musicians of the era, contains eloquent descriptions of the music from some of the century’s literary greats and is delivered with the utmost gravity by the honey-voiced Keith David. So potent is the combination of David and Ward that it would almost certainly hold you enthralled even without the addition of imagery and musical backing.

    Of all the critics, writers and musicians offering insight into the music’s history, one of the most dynamic is Wynton Marsalis (also technical advisor for the series). Seemingly in awe of all that has gone before him, Marsalis presents his take on jazz (complete with practical trumpet demonstrations) with an exuberance and eloquence that is ultimately infectious and essential to the big picture.

    Though the series contains some explosive dance hall footage from the swing era as well as an assortment of television appearances in later episodes, most of the imagery comes in the form of still photographs with accompanying narrative and music. This may sound as though it could become mundane were it not for the exceptional quality of the photographs in question. The images of city life at the turn of the century are indeed priceless but the true beauty lies in the portraits of the players themselves. Crystal clear and dripping with nostalgia, most are shot in half light, usually featuring the artist either in moody repose or in musical ecstasy. At any rate, they appear as giants of their art.

    Naturally, the true star of the series is the music itself. Jazz music is almost portrayed throughout as an ever-changing entity unto itself that ensnares musicians merely to aid its own growth. Each stage of re-invention from ragtime to swing to bebop to hard bop to modal to free to avant-garde is presented in a logical and progressive fashion to the point where the change seems inevitable. Even the indulgent freeform tapestries of the later incarnations (those which one friend refers to dismissively as ‘noodle jazz’) all begin to make sense after a while and provide a logical bridge to jazz as it exists today.

    True aficionados may be inclined to get their trumpets in a twist over the scant detail given to jazz in the latter part of the twentieth century and their concern is at least partly justified. The past forty years are hurriedly crammed into the final hour whereas the forty-year period that precedes it spans ten episodes. Regardless, the presentation detail of the early years should more than compensate for the series’ lack of balance.

    For fans of the jazz greats, fans of nostalgia or for those with even the most passing interest in music, Jazz is an epic triumph.

    Episode One: Gumbo, Beginnings to 1917
    So it begins. In this episode we witness the birth of a new American art form in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century. From a mixture of Ragtime, Blues, Creole and Spirituals, Jazz is born and America will never be the same.
    The cool tip (highlights):
    - The eight-minute introduction to the series that helps to put jazz in its historical and national perspective.
    - Hearing the range of influences twist, adapt and mutate into the first recognisable jazz riffs.

    Episode Two: The Gift, 1917 – 1924
    Two great cities and two great men help propel jazz into the national conscience. The speakeasies of New York and Chicago support their own burgeoning music scenes while Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington influence all that hear them play as America enters the Jazz Age.
    The cool tip:
    - The awe with which a range of commentators and interviewees testify to the talent of Louis Armstrong and his effect on American music.
    - Harlem’s rise as an artistic and cultural Mecca for the jazz heavyweights.

    Episode Three: Our Language, 1924 – 1929
    As the stock market soars, America enters a period of hedonistic abandon and jazz becomes a national treasure. Meanwhile, the great soloists begin to take centre stage and transform the music forever.
    The cool tip:
    - Pumping footage from the infamous Cotton Club in Harlem.
    - The terrible tragedy of Bix Beiderbecke.

    Episode Four: The True Welcome, 1929 - 1934
    As the Great Depression begins, Americans eagerly seek distraction from terrible hardship. Onstage, the bandleader is king and when Benny Goodman takes his big band beat to the people, America learns to swing.
    The cool tip:
    - The Savoy theatre becomes the nations first integrated building.
    - Despite a critical backlash, Ellington bucks the trend by releasing Reminiscing in Tempo, a beautiful and indulgent thirty-minute opus dedicated to his mother.

    Episode Five: Swing: Pure Pleasure, 1935 – 1937
    The depression drags on and irrespective of America’s misfortune, the Swing Era is in full…er…swing. As youth floods the dance halls, the jitterbug emerges as a popular favourite and big bands enjoy an unprecedented following.
    The cool tip:
    - The tale of the great Benny Goodman vs. Chick Webb battle-of-the-bands.
    - Ladies and Gentlemen…Billie Holiday.

    Episode Six: Swing: The Velocity of Celebration, 1937 – 1939
    As swing continues to delight its fans, a new style of jazz emerges from Kansas City. Count Basie not only encourages improvisation among his band, he also caresses swing into a more relaxed style.
    The cool tip:
    - The tenor sax moves from the back row to the foreground and its sultry, seductive sound becomes a jazz staple forever.
    - Ella Fitzgerald makes a name with her sweet, sweet voice.

    Episode Seven: Swing With Change, 1940 - 1942
    America goes to war and so too does jazz, becoming the embodiment of freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, on it’s home soil, jazz takes a chaotic left turn in the hands of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
    The cool tip:
    - Gillespie and Parker arrogantly take jazz by the scruff of the neck and kick the swing out of it.
    - Jazz does its bit for the war effort.

    Episode Eight: Dedicated to Chaos, 1943 – 1945
    Jazz remains a symbol of freedom in Europe while back home, black Americans are denied the most basic rights. A new style begins to rumble underground yet won’t see the light of day until war is over – it’s time for bebop!
    The cool tip:
    - Louis Jordan ‘makes blues jump’ with the invention of rhythm and blues.
    - Billie Holiday asks two bigoted white sailors to step outside... and then beats the crap out of them.

    Episode Nine: Risk, 1945 – 1949
    The swing and big band eras draw to a close as America enters the post-war years. The underlying threat of the Cold War still creates a certain tension that the music begins to reflect.
    The cool tip:
    - Dizzy and Bird change the face of jazz forever.
    - Heroin changes the face of jazz forever.

    Episode Ten: Irresistible, 1949 – 1955
    Bebop continues to divide audiences. Although it provides players with more musical freedom, it begins to alienate the listening public. Meanwhile a new, more accessible sound is brewing in California…
    The cool tip:
    - Dave Brubeck releases Time Out (If that means nothing to you, just wait until you hear the opening bars).
    - Tragedy strikes as the Bird falls from his perch.

    Episode Eleven: The Adventure, 1956 –1960
    Rising musicians push the music to a point where it is barely recognisable as jazz as Americans turn off the radio and turn on their televisions.
    The cool tip:
    - The Duke gets Newport swinging.
    - The uncanny vocal precision of Sarah Vaughan.

    Episode Twelve: A Masterpiece by Midnight, 1960 to the Present
    Despite rock and roll’s popular dominance, jazz continues to flourish underground in the hands of an exciting new generation of innovative musicians.
    The cool tip:
    - By the mid-seventies, jazz seems down for the count.
    - By the end of the century…jazz lives!


    All of the material on Jazz is presented in full frame format and is not 16x9 enhanced. Since the material is weaned from a century of footage it should hardly come as any surprise that picture quality is all over the shop. Irrespective of that, it can fairly be said that the picture quality is as good as it can be and there are times when you will marvel at its clarity.

    Most of the footage is presented in black and white, so the only real way of judging the film’s quality is when it cuts to modern day interviews. It is never found lacking in that respect either and helps prove that any abnormalities are inherent in the source material rather than in the transfer.

    Quite naturally, there are a good deal of film-to video artefacts apparent in the footage, but under the circumstances it is minimal and never impedes viewing pleasure.


    Now here’s something you don’t hear everyday – a Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack (it certainly is amazing what an extra speaker can do isn’t it?). For a mix that claims to be using only three speakers, this one doesn’t do too bad a job of using all five.

    The sound for many of the early recordings is found wanting at times and then, curiously, there will be a period of production clarity before parts of the archival soundtrack again develop a slight hiss.

    It would be pedantic of me to list all but the most obvious of problems here when the task of presenting a jazz history was bound to be fraught with inherent audio pitfalls. In that respect, all is forgiven and the sound quality, under the circumstances, is more than adequate.

    Note: Beware the blaring menu soundtrack that is twice as loud as that of the feature.


    You get plenty o’ nuthin’


    I am generally uninclined to compare regional versions of the discs I review but sometimes the difference cannot go unmentioned.

    As impressive as it is, the local version of Jazz suffers from one major flaw...and it's a doozy. The series that aired on the ABC last year, and the series presented here on disc has been cut by an extraordinairy five hours. For the completist (as most music fans and DVD fans generally are), this hurts like hell and makes the local release appears a little sickly next to it's American cousin. Although my job is to review only what is presented, I'm afraid it is still going to cost this release a perfect score. The mind boggles as to what this series would have been in its entirety

    Even taking it's diminished form into consideration, Jazz is as exhaustive an attempt that has ever been made to commit the history of jazz to film. Not only are the results breathtaking, they will likely never be surpassed.

    Unless you are a fan or are prepared to sit through a twelve and a half hour documentary on the subject, it is difficult to appreciate jazz’s astounding growth and its influence on other musical styles. With Jazz, Ken Burns has delivered a masterful tribute to an American way of life.

    Whatever music it is that you love, the reason you love it can be found right here.

    Now, if only someone would make a twelve-part series on the history of the polka...

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      And I quote...
    "Jazz will change the way you listen to music. "
    - Peter O'Connor
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-725
    • TV:
          Sony WEGA 80cm
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-DA50ES
    • Speakers:
          Accusound ASC160
    • Centre Speaker:
          Accusound ASC160
    • Surrounds:
          Accusound ASC160
    • Subwoofer:
          Accusound SW150
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