- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

Ken Burns is giving us jazz, scrubbed up, dressed up and ready for a night on the town. This is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness in a five-disc collection of the music America claims as its own.

All the greats are here — Louis Armstrong, who is not so much a musician as a force of nature; the dainty, doomed Billie Holiday; the elegant Duke Ellington; and the big band of Benny Goodman, all sounding as if they are coming to us out of the speakers of the family's big Philco radio.

This is jazz as it appealed to a Depression-era generation looking for life and hope — and sometimes a voice for its despair. Like every generation, it was looking for a music, a voice, that was its own. The fact that this music was condemned from the pulpit of many a church only added to its appeal.

Mr. Burns and his producers have cleared away the scratches and other imperfections of an aged collection while resisting the urge to "enhance" the music to what it might sound like on today's recordings. The music retains the faint echoes of age, and rightly so.

This is the way we old-timers remember it as it came to us from the screen of a darkened movie house and over that big radio in the living room. If it lacks some of the subtlety it had when we occasionally were fortunate enough to hear it from a stage, well, it wasn't particularly subtle music even when it was live.

This is music to lift the soul and lift the body to its feet to dance. Discs 2 and 3 are a party all by themselves, containing as they do such wonders as Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing"; Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Take the A Train"; Louis Armstrong's "St. Louis Blues"; Chick Webb's "Harlem Congo"; Glenn Miller's "In the Mood"; Gene Krupa's "Drum Boogie"; Sarah Vaughan's "They Can't Take That Away from Me"; Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow" and "God Bless the Child"; and many, many others.

Discs 4 and 5 move on into the 1950s and 1960s, when the U.S. culture was undergoing the convulsions of change, with blacks and women seeking a greater role in a more open society. Jazz changed, too, because by its nature it always had been in the forefront of exploration.

While other musical pioneers were singing protest songs and reinventing folk music (and a rockabilly kid named Elvis was bringing all the melodic strings together in a musical macrame) such later stalwarts as the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Grover Washington Jr., Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis and others were picking up where the veterans left off.

If the collection has a fault, it is in what is left out. We do not hear the voices of the bluesmen and blueswomen who laid the foundation for this music, the ones who played and sang on street corners, in honky-tonks and in "fancy houses" throughout the South. We do not hear the musicians who in the 1980s and later took jazz, shook the dust off it and infused it with new life drawn from cultures around the world.

It would appear this is not what Mr. Burns had in mind when he assembled this fine collection of music, so probably it is wrong to carp about its absence. The Smithsonian Institution has an excellent discography for anyone who wants to go back to these roots, and bless it for the effort. Any good music store has the more recent magic.

The music is the background and the reason for the 10-part PBS series "Jazz," in which Mr. Burns does for the genre what he already has done for "The Civil War" and "Baseball." Oddly, an outline of the program, which airs its first episode Monday at 9 p.m., shows that it does go back to these roots, which were seeded by the music of Africa and watered by the tears of black slaves. When the music bloomed however, it bloomed red, white and blue.


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