Happy New Year! This week, our blogger Tegan is finishing up a project she started in 2013 – reviewing all ten episodes of the Ken Burns series JAZZ.
It’s hard to write about the tenth and final episode of JAZZ because it shares so many flaws with the ninth episode: it covers too long a period too quickly, and feels disjointed because it describes too many ideas, music styles, and lives without a palpable overarching theme. Episode 10 asks the question of whether jazz is dead or dying, but it seems to confuse popularity for importance or worth. Jazz was more popular and influential during the 1920s through 40s, and yes, it would be great if jazz saw a resurgence in popularity, popularity or became the popular music of the future, but even if it never does, that doesn’t make it dead. Jazz is alive as long as it moves people, as long as it touches people. Come see Yoko Miwa perform if you’re unconvinced. Ironically, the same episode gives us moments that show ways in which jazz is very much alive. Record producer Michael Cuscuna describes the unique challenge of performance, and especially improvisation: “Unlike other art forms, you don’t have private time to tinker with your creation. You are out there and you are creating of the moment. And there’s no net, there is no safety valve at all. You are out there for all to see, to fail or to succeed.”
Overall, JAZZ has a number of good episodes, but as a series it is flawed. The pacing is poor and the tone and amount of information are inconsistent. While the series tells some great stories, it passes off some controversial opinions as fact, such as emphasizing blues and swing over other styles of jazz, even for decades when other styles were more influential, and causing some controversies of its own. If you plan to watch, read, and listen to a wide variety of retrospectives of jazz, then this series might be a good place to start, but many viewers may find isn’t worth watching all ten episodes if you just want an introduction to jazz history. You may prefer to watch the best episodes, the ones that stand on their own, such as the first, sixth and seventh episodes.