Take Five

Ken Burns's 'Jazz'

Jazz, the musician Matt Glaser opines at one point in Ken Burns’s reverent new documentary film Jazz, "is the ultimate temporal art form. It’s about the human experience of time." Time-a lot of it-is certainly at issue in the latest Burns-directed opus that PBS broadsides this month. The ten-part film (it started January 8) racks up a nearly nineteen-hour running time, all told-an eye-popping length if you’re not a jazz junkie; a reasonable one if you are and if you factor in the seventy-five interviews, five-hundred-odd musical selections, twenty-four-hundred photographic stills, and two thousand archival film clips that the filmmakers have crammed in.

Kicking off in nineteenth-century New Orleans, where African-American spirituals and a potpourri of other musical genres gave birth to jazz, the documentary strolls thoughtfully through the decades, paying leisurely tribute to the childhood, training, stylistic originality, career fluctuations, marriages, and personal idiosyncrasies of seminal performers and composers, from pianist Jelly Roll Morton (who claimed to have invented jazz) on. While tunes, riffs, and narration ebb and flow on the soundtrack, the camera pans across historical photographs, or yields to original film sequences, many of them fascinating to contemplate in their own right. We see adorably antiquated cars parked on sepia-tinged streets; railroad cars barreling across the...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.