“JAZZ” is a documentary by Ken Burns released 2001 that focuses on the creation and development of jazz, America’s “greatest cultural achievement. ” The first episodes entitled, “Gumbo, Beginnings to 1917” and “The Gift (1917-1924), explain the early growth of jazz as it originates in New Orleans and its expands to Chicago and New York during the Jazz Age. In assessing the first two episodes of Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary, “JAZZ,” this essay will explore the history of jazz, the music’s racial implications, and it’s impact on society.
In doing so, attention will also be given to the structure of the documentary, and the effectiveness of documentary film in retelling the past. In the first episode of “JAZZ,” Ken Burns demonstrates how the creation of jazz was made possible by the social and political circumstances in New Orleans during the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century. By combining the historical explanations of narrator Keith David and the emotional commentaries of African American artists, he retells history in an unconventional way that gives a more meaningful description than textbooks and encyclopedias.
As Keith David explains, New Orleans was the home to two different social circumstances: it was the most “cosmopolitan city in America” as well as the center of the slave trade. New Orleans was a place filled with “people from all nationalities living side by side” who brought upon a musical “gumbo” of Caribbean rhythms, classical music, minstrel music, the blues, ragtime and more. These diverse musical styles were taken advantage of by the African American people, in a period of time where they were deprived of the freedom that America promised to all of her inhabitants.
African Americans found the liberty they sought for in music and dancing. Ken Burns supports this idea by explaining how blacks were allowed to sing, dance and play the drums in the Congo Square as he demonstrates it in a series of photographs. Wynton Marsalis, an African American jazz musician from New Orleans explains that when African slaves arrived to America, they were faced with a new, unfamiliar world that required them to improvise in order to survive.
For this reason, their music incorporated a lot of dynamic improvisation and creativity, a characteristic that separates jazz from the other musical styles at the time of its birth. One of the two most important musical influences was Ragtime, a style of music of insistent syncopated “ragged” rhythm created by black piano players. Photos and video clips of people playing and dancing to ragtime are examples of Burns amazing use of art photography and photojournalism to make the story more vivid for the viewers.
Ragtime was a style of music the youth enjoyed to listen and dance to while the older generation of white men considered it a product of anarchism. A quote by a Massachusetts attorney and politician of the nineteenth century, Edward Baxter Perry explains that “ victims in [his] opinion can be treated successfully only like the dog with rabies, with a dose of led,” when talking about people who listened, and danced to ragtime.
As segregation took over New Orleans, formerly freed creoles, whites who were of black descendants began to play together with the African Americans, combining their musical styles and creating an entirely new one that incorporated which came to be known as jazz. Creoles were affluent in classical music and piano, which they incorporated into the making of jazz music. The second main musical influence was the blues, which Ken Burns shows to be a result of political circumstances at the time.
The efforts of racial integrations in the South were halted in 1877 when the northern republicans and southern democrats make an agreement that removes the federal troops from the south. While Ken Burns gives a very short background of the agreement, he does explain that a new system of segregation laws is established named under the minstrel hit “Jim Crow” that makes way for a time where “white rule was brutally re-imposed” and “lynchings became a routine. ” This brought upon a stream of African Americans that escaped to New Orleans from the segregation in the Mississippi Delta.
With them, they brought the blues, which according to Gerald Early, an African American essayist and American culture critic, was an “aesthetic that freed them from the burden of minstrelsy. ” The blues were a combination of spirituals, work songs, call and response, shouts only made possible because of the suffering of the blacks during their oppression as Alberta Hunter, an American blues singer and songwriter explains that “the blues are like spirituals, almost sacred. When we sing blues, we’re singing out our hearts we’re singing out our feelings.
Maybe we’re hurt, and just can’t answer back, then we sing or maybe even hum the blues. ” Jazz was a music that came from an aspiration for freedom combined with creativity. However racial conflicts are still prominent during the creation of jazz as it becomes a well-known popular style of music. While Jelly Roll Morton, an American ragtime and early jazz pianists claims to have invented jazz, the first jazz recordings are by white artists. Wynton Marsalis reads a quote by Nick Loraca saying, “ negros learned to play this music from the whites. Marsalis’s facial expressions and his long pause as he reacts to Loraca’s statement represents how horrifying this was for all of the blacks. The film transitions smoothly from the first episode to the second, “The Gift” when World War I transforms the American society. In Europe, as whites and blacks fought together in the war, racism started to diminish and blacks gained some respect by their fellow soldiers as well as their allies. “The Hell Fighters” led by James Reese Europe were an infantry Jazz band that exposed ragtime to the European countries.
Back in America, the center of jazz has a geographical shift from New Orleans to Chicago and New York when large influxes of immigrants populate these two cities. Studs Terkel, an American historian explains that people from the southern states moved up to Chicago and New York in what is called the “Great Migration” in search for better jobs, and freedom. These cities become major urban cities full of flappers, gangsters, unlicensed saloons, that create an atmosphere suitable for jazz, which is still considered an unorthodox style of music.
When prohibition, the national ban of the sale of alcohol is enacted, the American people become even more loosened up. According to Gerald Early, “the jazz age became an umbrella term for this whole loosening up this whole lubrication thanks to prohibition where everyone was drinking more than they should just to defy an absolutely unenforceable law” As these cities are booming, Burns tells the stories of two jazz prodigies that are born in this time period. Burns champions the use of first-person narratives in his film.
As he explains,” If you’re going to talk to a lot of people, you’ve got to talk in stories” Louis Armstrong is explained to have survived a fatherless childhood in the roughest part of New Orleans and grows up to become the first true jazz soloist and influence the course of jazz for decades to come. Armstrong joins his tutor King Oliver, a jazz cornet player and the two artists influence a new generation of white and black musicians. Armstrong is considered the most important improviser in jazz. Duke Ellington on the other hand, is considered to be America’s greatest composer.
He was an African American from for Harlem, who synthesizes America’s many musical styles into one consistent style. These two African American artisits among with others such as the arranger Fletcher Henderson, and the bandleader Paul Whiteman, have a profound impact on jazz music in the 20th century, which still continues in the 21st century. Ken Burns’s first two episodes of “JAZZ” accomplish much more than the retelling of the history of America’s musical creation. The documentary tells the story of a continuously evolving nation that struggles to fulfill its promises of opportunity and freedom to its variety of people.
It explains how African Americans fought their way out of racial discrimination by expressing themselves in music and incorporating the influence by the nation’s coexisting personalities, nationalities, races and religions. The documentary has a unique way of showing and telling the story of jazz vividly with never before seen footage of photographs and video clips, and the commentaries and narration of African American artists and American historians. Through the visual and audio components of the documentary Ken Burn’s “JAZZ” successfully introduces viewers to the birth of jazz in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Cite this Jazz by Ken Burns
Jazz by Ken Burns. (2016, Dec 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/jazz-by-ken-burns/