Monday 16 May 2016

Jazz: The Genius of America is Improvisation

"Jazz is open and free.  And yet, jazz itself adheres to some pretty important rules.  In some ways, people are playing within that, which is much like democracy.  We're given freedom, but we know that freedom has to occur within certain boundaries and constraints..." (Ken Burns)

Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club in NYC circa 1943 courtesy

I am a baby of the late 1960's and yet I grew up listening to jazz.  I listened to it in the car.  I listened to it in the kitchen.  I heard its strains through my bedroom wall as I fell asleep.  As the daughter of a jazz musician, I knew a lot about jazz.  I knew that Buddy Rich was the jazz drummer.  I knew that Billie Holliday was the female jazz singer.  I knew that Glenn Miller was an orchestra leader whose plane disappeared in the fog during the Second World War.  I even knew what lockhand was.  But I was the exception in my rock generation.

Ken Burns has taught a whole new generation about jazz through a series which ranks with the best of them.  Burns believes that jazz is inherently American.  As writer Gerald Earley said at the beginning of the film:  "When they study our American civilization 2000 years from now, we'll only be known for three things:  the Constitution, baseball and jazz music."  As Burns explained:  "I think what he was saying is that the genius of America is improvisation" -- whether it be in jazz, politics or baseball.

Burns' Jazz series starts with jazz's roots in New Orleans and how it, bit by bit, meandered up the Mississippi River all the way to Chicago.  Just as The Civil War series has Shelby Foote, the Jazz series has Wynton Marsalis.  Here is a breakdown of the episodes:

One:  Dixieland Jazz, Jelly Roll Morton
Two:  Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington
Three:  Benny Goodman, Bix Biederbecke, Bessie Smith
Four:  Harlem Dancers
Five:  Big Band Swing, Billie Holiday
Six:  Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald
Seven:  Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker
Eight:  Miles Davis, Gil Evans
Nine:  Duke Ellington Re-Emerges
Ten:  Ellington & Armstrong Die; classic style re-emerges

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