Recommended Viewing Situation:

At about 3am, surrounded by French novels, sheet music and wine bottles.

Running Time: 1140 minutes.

Format: 16mm film on Arriflex cameras, photographs and video.

Director: Ken Burns.

Writer: Geoffrey Ward.

Cinematographer: Buddy Squires and Ken Burns.

Awards: Christopher Award (2002), TCA Award and more.


As film lovers, and purveyors of this website, you have probably heard of Ken Burns, or at the very least the Ken Burns effect (think slow paced track-ins on old black and white photos). If not, Burns is renowned for his blend of photography, archival footage and extremely long (yet oddly engaging) documentaries. Burns has covered a host of topics in his career, from Prohibition (2011) to Mark Twain (2001), and even Baseball (1994). So, let me introduce this writer’s guilty pleasure, Jazz (2001), a 10 episode (consisting of roughly 19 hours worth of material) ‘docu-odyssey‘ exploring the origins and evolution of jazz music in relation to American history.

The documentary features a really wonderful array of characters and academics that, for the most part, talk earnestly and realistically about the musicality, history and realities of jazz music throughout the early 20th century. The documentary includes the sultry tones of Keith David and Samuel L Jackson, and special appearances from Allen Ginsberg, Cicely Tyson and Jackie Kay. Of particular note, the mellifluous critic, Gary Giddins, a man who simply knows exactly what he is talking about when it comes to jazz music and history. Now, Burns attempts to track the evolution of Jazz from about 1917 to 2001, with 9 episodes taking us through 1917-1961, and the final episode taking us from 1961-2001. So, get ready for in-depth and sombre explorations of jazz legends like Jelly-Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Ornette Coleman, to name a few key players. Starting with the oddly demure ‘Gumbo’, which examines the integration of African American slaves with European immigrants, and finishing with ‘Fusion’, the documentary takes many twists and turns, sometimes blurring the line between fact and opinion.

Despite what his work attempts to cover, Burns’ documentary series sadly misses out a few key innovators from the scene. Generous amounts of time are devoted to one of the art form’s biggest figureheads, Louis Armstrong, however giants such as Nat King-Cole and Wayne Shorter are oddly lacking from the series. Not enough pertinence is given to the depressing and bleak realities of practising music in a segregated America, nor the absolute triumph it was to be successful at that time as an African American musician. This is due in part, to most of Wynton Marsalis’s insights (a modern jazz trumpet player who pervades the entire documentary because he is featured during the final episode). His observations are romanticised and could have been replaced with more pertinent content; perhaps a deeper look at the origins of Jazz, missed artists or a definition of Jazz itself. This is something to note with the entire documentary: it is for the most part, accurate, thrilling and something you can just leave on in the background for the rest of your life, but it is not perfect.

-Matthew Iredale