- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

One of my mentors as a journalist was Fred Friendly, who worked with Edward R. Murrow at CBS-TV in the conviction that a primary function of television is to educate. And in the process of education, it could also entertain. In his later years, Friendly did just that on public television through a series "The Constitution: A Delicate Balance," on which Supreme Court justices, journalists, defense lawyers and prosecutors argued vigorously about the meaning and applications of the Constitution. Why doesn't PBS continue that series regularly?

In the Fred Friendly tradition, Ken Burns has educated and entertained millions of people with his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, and, most recently a 10-part series called "Jazz," all on public television. This is the first time a comprehensive view of America's gift to the world has been presented on television.

The series, in which Mr. Burns tells the story of jazz as it evolved throughout our country's history, is riveting. "Jazz" will be repeated on television from time to time, and is likely to be distributed in Europe. This music has become a common language everywhere. One of the hottest jazz recordings I've heard was by a band in Siberia. What is most important, however, is that the Ken Burns organization, with the support of General Motors, is providing a curriculum based on the series to schools throughout the country lesson plans, videos and CDs so that American youngsters will no longer be culturally disadvantaged. Most students, while versed in rap and current rock, know little or nothing of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and other seminal contributors to the life force that is jazz.

One mistake in the lesson plans distributed to schools is the suggestion to make jazz the focus of Black History Month across the curriculum in the schools. The music and biographies of the creators of jazz, and the social and historical contexts of their lives, should be a basic part of American history. As should that other distinctive American contribution to the world, country music. Jazz and country music are inextricably interrelated. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Bob Wills' Western swing band, for example, also have deep roots in jazz.

The Ken Burns series has been sharply criticized by some of the more insular jazz critics and by a few musicians for what was left out. I, too, have a list of jazz players including the always overlooked women instrumentalists who have been a vital part of the music that I would have included. But to show an encyclopedic array would diminish the potential audience to the already converted.

When jazz musicians compliment one of their colleagues, they say that he or she knows how to tell a story. So does Ken Burns. He is able to tell the story of jazz by focusing primarily though by no means exclusively on the key musicians who shaped the music. Among them were the larger-than-life figures of Armstrong, Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

I was interviewed for the series and am on camera briefly. From the knowledgeable questions of the interviewer, I quickly knew how much research went into this undertaking. My only complaint about the series is that Mr. Burns rushed through the last 30 years much too quickly.

The 10 episodes are available on PBS Home Video, and there is a valuable illustrated book, "Jazz: A History of America's Music," by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward (Knopf, 2000). Mr. Ward also collaborated with Mr. Burns on the Civil War and Baseball television series. I also strongly recommend the five-CD set, "Ken Burns' `Jazz' " (Columbia/Legacy), which is a remarkably wide-ranging collection of vital performances by the musicians featured in the television series, and by other musicians.

Meanwhile, as I have reported in the Wall Street Journal, all the fifth-graders in the public schools of Sarasota, for the first time in the nation, are learning a version of American history that includes the history of jazz. Much of the credit for bringing this about belongs to 83-year-old Floridian Lucy White, who grew up listening to jazz in Harlem and helped bring it into the schools so that it will be handed down to the next generation.

"I didn't want it to be part only of black history," she told me. "It should not be separated from the rest of the American story."

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