Jazz by Ken Burns: A Must Watch

Brendan ArgentBlog, Lindy History Month

In the melting pot of the New Orleans docks in the early 1900s, people of different backgrounds lived and worked together. Their musical traditions mingled and wove together and a new sound emerged, informed by African rhythms, church chants, blues wails, marching bands, and Latin American and European music. Despite the intense racial oppression and segregation in the United States, this new sound became a reason for people to come together. Fast forward to 1940, this toe-tapping music had transformed into swinging big band jazz and was being played in every corner of the USA and much of the rest of the western world.

In a ten part documentary entitled Jazz, Ken Burns explores the intricate history of the art form from the perspective of the musicians who created it, with stories, pictures, anecdotes, music and interviews.

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are two of the lead characters around which the stories unfold. Along the way we also get introduced to a some of the other major contributors: meet Jelly Roll Morton, self-proclaimed inventor of jazz; Sidney Bechet, clarinet prodigy and hardman; Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, who found fame playing for dancers at the Savoy Ballroom; Fletcher Henderson; Count Basie; Bessie Smith; Jimmie Lunceford and a host of others.

The narrative follows a parallel story of a changing society, shaped by two World Wars and the Great Depression. And yet, remarkably, this was an era imbued with hope, optimism, and at its core, a spirit of creativity and innovation that is central to the genre.

The first six episodes are essential watching for swing dancers as they map the evolution of jazz music from its African roots to its heyday as the pop music of the 1940s, featuring interviews with lindy hopping legends Frankie Manning and Norma Miller.

Jazz brings swing music to life by filling in the back stories and circumstances in which it was made. Do yourself a favour and put this series on your must-see list!