Jazz (miniseries)

Jazz is a 2001 television documentary miniseries, directed by Ken Burns. It was broadcast on PBS in 2001,[2] and was released on DVD and VHS on January 2, 2001 by the same company. Its chronological and thematic episodes provided a history of jazz, emphasizing innovative composers and musicians and American history. Swing musicians Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are the central figures.[3] Several episodes discussed the later contributions of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to bebop, and of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane to free and cool jazz. Nine episodes surveyed forty-five years (1917–1961), leaving the final episode to cover forty years (1961–2001). The series was produced by Florentine Films in cooperation with the BBC and in association with WETA-TV, Washington.

Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
Written byGeoffrey Ward
Directed byKen Burns
Narrated byKeith David
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
No. of episodes10
Producer(s)Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
CinematographyBuddy Squires, Ken Burns
Editor(s)Paul Barnes
Running time1140 minutes
BudgetUSD $13 million
Original networkPBS
Original releaseJanuary 8 
31, 2001[1]
External links


The documentary concerned the history of jazz music in the United States, from its origins at the turn of the 20th century to the present day. It was narrated by Keith David and featured interviews with present-day musicians and critics such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (also the artistic director and co-producer of Jazz) and critics Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch. Music critic and African-American historian Gerald Early was a consultant. Broadcaster and producer Phil Schaap was interviewed briefly.

Visually, Jazz was in the same style as Ken Burns' previous works: slowly panning and zooming shots of photographs are mixed with period movie sequences, accompanied by music of, and commentary on, the period being examined. Between these sequences, present-day jazz figures provided anecdotes and explained the defining features of the major musicians' styles. Duke Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" (1938) was a recurring motif at the opening and closing of individual episodes of the series.

The documentary focused on a number of major musicians: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are the central figures, "providing the narrative thread around which the stories of other major figures turn",[3] among them Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

A number of companion CDs were released simultaneously.


Each two-hour episode of the ten episodes of Jazz covered a different era.[1]

No.TitleTime periodThemesOriginal air date
1"Gumbo"To 1917Blues, Louisiana Creole music, minstrel shows, New Orleans jazz, Original Dixieland Jass Band, ragtimeJanuary 8, 2001 (2001-01-08)
Personalities: Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Jelly Roll Morton, James Reese Europe, Nick LaRocca
2"The Gift"1917–1924Chicago jazz, Harlem Renaissance, New Orleans jazz, World War IJanuary 9, 2001 (2001-01-09)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, James Reese Europe, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, King Oliver, Willie Smith, Paul Whiteman
3"Our Language"1924–1928Cotton Club, Harlem Renaissance, Savoy BallroomJanuary 10, 2001 (2001-01-10)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Artie Shaw, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters
4"The True Welcome"1929–1935Great Depression, Lindy hop, swing musicJanuary 15, 2001 (2001-01-15)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, John Hammond, Fletcher Henderson, Billy Rose, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Chick Webb
5"Swing: Pure Pleasure"1935–1937Discrimination in public accommodations, Great Depression, Savoy Ballroom, swing musicJanuary 17, 2001 (2001-01-17)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Chick Webb, Teddy Wilson
6"Swing: The Velocity of Celebration"1937–1939Great Depression, Kansas City jazz, swing musicJanuary 22, 2001 (2001-01-22)
Personalities: Count Basie, Harry Edison, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young
7"Dedicated to Chaos"1940–1945Bebop, racism, swing music, World War IIJanuary 23, 2001 (2001-01-23)
Personalities: Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt, Artie Shaw, Billy Strayhorn, Ben Webster
8"Risk"1945–1956Bebop, drug abuse, West Coast jazzJanuary 24, 2001 (2001-01-24)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Norman Granz, Billie Holiday, John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker
9"The Adventure"1956–1961Avant-garde jazz, free jazzJanuary 29, 2001 (2001-01-29)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan
10"A Masterpiece by Midnight"1961–2001Bossa nova, civil rights movement, jazz fusion, jazz revivalJanuary 31, 2001 (2001-01-31)
Personalities: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor

Response and criticism

Jazz was nominated for several awards, including multiple Emmy Awards.

Positive reviews

Among the critics with a positive response, Charles Paul Freund wrote that Jazz "is filled with rewards, many of them proffered unintentionally... Burns's documentary gifts are not visionary, analytical, nor even properly historical. Rather, he is a talented biographer, and his films are most effective when he is able to present an overarching narrative in terms of the biographical detail of that narrative's participants."[4] Jason Van Bergen said, "The nearly 19 hours of documentary coverage contained in the Jazz series unravels like a fine wine", and due to the series' attention to detail, "a complete discussion of every episode in Ken Burns's Jazz would be better suited for a Master's Thesis" than to his brief review. Van Bergen concluded, "Burns's encyclopedic rendering of the growth of jazz cannot be questioned. Followers of the music will need this set on their shelves; but perhaps slightly more surprisingly, serious students of American history may also require the set to supplement their versions of the past century."[5]

Negative reviews

The series also received criticisms from reviewers. Critic Jeffrey St. Clair wrote,

Ken Burns's interminable documentary, Jazz, starts with a wrong premise and degenerates from there... Burns is a classicist, who is offended by the rawer sounds of the blues, its political dimension and inescapable class dynamic. Instead, Burns fixates on a particular kind of jazz music that appeals to his PBS sensibility: the swing era. It's a genre of jazz that enables Burns to throw around phrases such as 'Ellington is our Mozart.' He sees jazz as an art form in the most culturally elitist sense, as being a museum piece, beautiful but dead, to be savored like a stroll through a gallery of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.[6]

Critic David Adler wrote,

"Burns has done a respectable job of introducing pre-1960 jazz history to a wide audience. In 'Episode Ten,' however, he gives viewers a disastrously skewed portrait of the creative lineage that has produced much of today's best jazz."[7]

Stu Vandermark's detailed review of Jazz contended that there were substantial factual errors in the documentary. He noted that the series repeats the idea that jazz music was created in New Orleans; on the contrary, writes Vandermark, "no one really knows where jazz was born... It is likely that the music evolved spontaneously in different cities around the U.S. wherever there were a few thousand black people making lives for themselves."[8]

Compilation albums

On November 7, 2000, 22 companion single-artist compilation albums, all titled Ken Burns Jazz, were released by the Verve and Columbia/Legacy labels.[2] A five CD box set, Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music, was also released, along with a single album sampler of that box set (The Best of Ken Burns Jazz).

The following albums were released by Verve:

The following albums were released by Columbia/Legacy:

In 2002, Columbia also released two low-priced box sets, each containing three of the previously released single-artist collections.

  • Ken Burns Jazz, Vol. 1 (Includes Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman compilations) - Allmusic link
  • Ken Burns Jazz, Vol. 2 (Includes Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck compilations) - Allmusic link


  1. "Episode Descriptions". Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns website. Arlington, Virginia: PBS. Retrieved 2013-10-30.
  2. "Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings and The Verve Music Group To Jointly Release Recordings From 'JAZZ,' a Film by Ken Burns". PRNewswire. Cision. August 9, 2000. Archived from the original on August 15, 2000. Retrieved June 11, 2019 via Yahoo.com.
  3. Mark Gilbert, Amazon.co.uk review
  4. Charles Paul Freund, "Epic Jazz", Reason magazine online, January 8, 2001
  5. Jason Van Bergen, "Ken Burns: Jazz" Archived 2005-05-07 at the Wayback Machine, December 11, 2002
  6. Jeffrey St. Clair, "Now, That's Not Jazz", February 28, 2001. Reprinted in Oct. 2014 in CounterPunch.
  7. Adler, David R. "Ken Burns's JAZZ: The Episode Ten Fiasco", no publication date noted
  8. Stu Vandermark, "A Ken Burns's Jazz Post-Mortem"
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