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The Making of JAZZ | Episode Descriptions | Broadcast Dates & Times
Interview with Ken Burns | Interview with Lynn Novick | Video Clips

Episode Descriptions

This series originally premiered January 8, 2001, on your local PBS station. (Check local listings)

Episode 4 reairs December 2, 2002, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings) as part of Ken Burns American Stories.

Episode 1: "Gumbo"
Beginnings to 1917

January 8, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

JAZZ begins in New Orleans, nineteenth century America's most cosmopolitan city, where the sound of marching bands, Italian opera, Caribbean rhythms, and minstrel shows fills the streets with a richly diverse musical culture. Here, in the 1890s, African-American musicians create a new music out of these ingredients by mixing in ragtime syncopations and the soulful feeling of the blues. Soon after the start of the new century, people are calling it jazz.

Tonight, meet the pioneers of this revolutionary art form: the half-mad cornetist Buddy Bolden, who may have been the first man to play jazz; pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz but really was the first to write the new music down; Sidney Bechet, a clarinet prodigy whose fiery sound matched his explosive personality; and Freddie Keppard, a trumpet virtuoso who turned down a chance to win national fame for fear that others would steal the secrets of his art.

The early jazz players travel the country in the years before World War I, but few people have a chance to hear this new music until 1917, when a group of white musicians from New Orleans arrives in New York to make the first jazz recording. They call themselves the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and within weeks their record becomes an unexpected smash hit. Americans are suddenly jazz crazy, and the Jazz Age is about to begin.

Episode 2: "The Gift"
1917 - 1924

January 9, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

Speakeasies, flappers, and easy money - it's the Jazz Age, when the story of jazz becomes a tale of two great cities, Chicago and New York, and of two extraordinary artists whose lives and music will span almost three-quarters of a century - Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Armstrong, a fatherless waif who grew up on the mean streets of New Orleans, develops his great "gift" - his unparalleled musical genius - with the help of King Oliver, the city's top cornetist, and in 1922, follows him to Chicago, where Armstrong's transcendent sound and exhilarating rhythms inspire a new generation of musicians, white and black, to join the world of jazz.

Meanwhile, Ellington, raised in middle-class comfort by parents who told him he was "blessed," outgrows the society music he learned to play in Washington, D.C., and heads for Harlem. There he absorbs the stride piano rhythms of Willie "The Lion" Smith and forms a band to create a music all his own - hot, blues-drenched, and infused with the gutbucket growls of his new trumpet player, Bubber Miley.

As the Roaring Twenties accelerate, Paul Whiteman, a white bandleader, sells millions of records playing a sweet, symphonic jazz, while Fletcher Henderson, a black bandleader, packs the dance floor at the whites-only Roseland Ballroom with his innovative big band arrangements. Then, in 1924, the year Whiteman introduces George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Henderson brings Louis Armstrong to New York, adding his improvisational brilliance to the band's new sound - and soon Armstrong is showing the whole world how to swing.

Episode 3: "Our Language"
1924 - 1929

January 10, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

As the stock market continues to soar, jazz is everywhere in America, and now, for the first time soloists and singers take center stage, transforming the music with their distinctive voices and the unique stories they have to tell.

Tonight we meet Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, whose songs ease the pains of life for millions of black Americans and help black entrepreneurs create a new recording industry around the blues; Bix Beiderbecke, the first great white jazz star, who is inspired by Louis Armstrong to dedicate his life to the music and in turn inspires others with solos of unparalleled lyric grace, only to destroy himself with alcohol at age 28; and two brilliant sons of Jewish immigrants, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, for whom jazz offers an escape from the ghetto and a chance to achieve their dreams.

In New York, we follow Duke Ellington uptown to Harlem's most celebrated nightspot, the gangster-owned, whites-only Cotton Club, where he continues blending the individual voices of his band members to create harmonies no one has imagined before, then gets the break of a lifetime when radio carries his music into homes across the country, bringing him national fame.

And in Chicago, where he has returned to find himself billed as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player," we listen as Louis Armstrong combines the soloist's and vocalist's arts to create scat singing, then watch as he charts the future of jazz in a series of small group recordings that culminates in his masterpiece, West End Blues. Called "the most perfect three minutes of music" ever created, Armstrong's astonishing performance lifts jazz to the level of high art, where his genius stands alone.

Episode 4: "The True Welcome"
1929 - 1934

January 15, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

reairing December 2, 2002, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings) as part of Ken Burns American Stories

In 1929, America enters a decade of economic desperation, as the Stock Market collapses and the Great Depression begins. Factories fall silent, farms fall into decay, and a quarter of the nation's workforce is jobless. In these dark times, jazz is called upon to lift the spirits of a frightened country, and finds itself poised for a decade of explosive growth.

New York is now America's jazz capital. On Broadway, Louis Armstrong revolutionizes the art of American popular song and displays a flair for showmanship that makes him one of the nation's top entertainers. In Harlem, Chick Webb pioneers his own big-band sound at the Savoy Ballroom, where black and white dancers shake the floor with a new dance called the Lindy Hop. And in the city's clubs, pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum dazzle audiences with their stunning virtuosity.

But it is Duke Ellington who takes jazz "beyond category," composing hit tunes with a new sophistication that has critics comparing him to Stravinsky. Now the nation's best-known black bandleader, Ellington tours in his own private railcar, transcending stereotypes with an elegant personal style that disarms prejudice and inspires racial pride.

Meanwhile, Benny Goodman is making a name for himself, broadcasting big-band jazz nationwide, based on Fletcher Henderson's arrangements. In 1935, Goodman takes his band on tour, but in most towns people ask for the old, familiar tunes. Then, finally, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, the dancers go wild when they hear Goodman's big-band beat. By the end of the night, the Swing Era has begun.

Episode 5: "Swing: Pure Pleasure"
1935 - 1937

January 17, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

As the Great Depression drags on, jazz comes as close as it has ever come to being America's popular music, providing entertainment and escape for a people down on their luck. It has a new name now - Swing - and for millions of young fans, it will be the defining music of their generation.

Suddenly, jazz bandleaders are the new matinee idols, with Benny Goodman hailed as the "King of Swing," while teenagers jitterbug just as hard to the music of his rivals - Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, and the mercurial Artie Shaw.

But the spirit of Swing isn't limited to the dance floor. In New York, Billie Holiday emerges from a tragic childhood to begin her career as the greatest of all female jazz singers. And in Chicago, Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson prove that, despite segregation, there is room in jazz for great black and white musicians to swing side-by-side on stage.

At Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, however, there is room for only one King of Swing, and on May 11, 1937, Benny Goodman travels uptown for a showdown with Chick Webb. It's billed as "The Music Battle of the Century," and more than 4,000 dancers crowd the floor to urge both champions on. But when it's over, there's no doubt who wears the crown.

Episode 6: "Swing: The Velocity of Celebration"
1937 - 1939

January 22, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

As the 1930's come to a close, Swing-mania is still going strong, but some fans are saying success has made the music too predictable. Their ears are tuned to a new sound - pulsing, stomping, suffused with the blues. It's the Kansas City sound of Count Basie's band and it quickly reignites the spirit of Swing.

By 1938, Basie and his men are helping Benny Goodman bring jazz to Carnegie Hall. After the show, they travel uptown to battle Chick Webb to a draw at the Savoy Ballroom. And that summer, they turn 52nd Street into "Swing Street," performing nightly at the Famous Door.

Soon Basie's lead saxophonist, Lester Young, is challenging Coleman Hawkins for supremacy, matching the old sax-master's muscular sound with a laid-back style of his own. Young teams with Billie Holiday for a series of recordings that reveals them as musical soulmates, and tours with her in Basie's band until she leaves to join Artie Shaw. But America isn't ready for a black woman who swings with white musicians and Holiday is soon back in New York, pouring her outrage into the anti-lynching ballad, Strange Fruit.

By the decade's end, Chick Webb has taken a chance on a teenage singer named Ella Fitzgerald and achieved the fame he dreamed of. Duke Ellington has been hailed as a hero in Europe, amid anxious preparations for war. And weeks after that war begins, Coleman Hawkins startles the world with a glimpse of what jazz will become, improvising a new music on the old standard, Body and Soul.

Episode 7: "Dedicated to Chaos"
1940 - 1945

January 23, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

When America enters World War II, jazz is part of the arsenal. In Europe, where musicians like the Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt continue to play despite a Nazi ban, jazz is a beacon of hope. In America, it becomes the embodiment of democracy, as bandleaders like Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw enlist, taking their swing to the troops overseas.

For many black Americans, however, that sound has a hollow ring. Segregated at home and in uniform, they find themselves fighting for liberties their own country denies them, as authorities padlock the Savoy Ballroom to keep servicemen off its integrated dance floor, and military police patrol Swing Street, breaking up fistfights sparked by prejudice and pride.

Despite such injustices, jazz answers the call during the war years. Duke Ellington sells war bond, and premieres his most ambitious work ever, the tone portrait Black, Brown and Beige, as a benefit for war relief. His band at a peak, Ellington is helped now by the gifted young composer Billy Strayhorn and continues manipulating his players' talents, turning his orchestra into an instrument with which he creates music of astonishing perfection.

Yet underground and after-hours, jazz is changing. In a Harlem club called Minton's Playhouse, a small band of young musicians, led by the trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie and the brilliant saxophonist Charlie Parker, has discovered a new way of playing - fast, intricate, exhilarating, and sometimes chaotic. A wartime recording ban keeps their music off the airwaves, but soon after the atom bomb forces Japan's surrender, Parker and Gillespie enter the studio to create an explosion of their own. The tune is called Ko Ko, the sound will soon be called "bebop," and once Americans hear it, jazz will never be the same.

Episode 8: "Risk"
1945 - 1955

January 24, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

The postwar years bring America to a level of prosperity unimaginable a decade before, but the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation makes these anxious years as well. In jazz, this underlying tension will be reflected in the broken rhythms and dissonant melodies of bebop, and in the troubled life of bebop's biggest star, Charlie Parker.

Nicknamed "Bird," Parker is a soloist whose ideas and technique are as overwhelming for musicians of his generation as Louis Armstrong's had been a quarter-century before. He is idolized — his improvisations copied, his risk-all intensity on stage imitated, and his self-destructive lifestyle adopted as a prerequisite for inspiration. Parker's example helps bring a narcotics plague to the jazz community, and when he dies, wasted by heroin at age 34, drugs are as much a part of his legacy to jazz as the genius of his music.

But Parker is not the only bebop innovator. His longtime partner, Dizzy Gillespie, tries to popularize the new sound by adding showmanship and Latin rhythms, while pianist Thelonius Monk infuses it with his eccentric personality to create a music all his own. Except for jazz initiates, however, few people are listening. Teens now swoon for pop singers and dance to rhythm and blues.

Searching for a new audience, California musicians create a mellow sound called cool jazz, and Dave Brubeck mixes jazz with classical music to produce a million-seller LP. But one man remains determined to give jazz popular appeal on his own terms, the trumpet player Miles Davis. A one-time Parker sideman who has finally broken heroin's grip on his career, Davis is moving beyond the cool sound he inspired and stands poised to lead jazz in a new direction.

Episode 9: "The Adventure"
1956 - 1960

January 29, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

In the late 1950s, America's postwar prosperity continues, but beneath the surface run currents of change. Families are moving to the suburbs, watching television has become the national pastime, and baby boomers have begun coming of age. For jazz, it is also a period of transition when old stars like Billie Holiday and Lester Young will burn out while young talents arise to take the music in new directions.

Jazz still has its two guiding lights. In 1956, the first year Elvis tops the charts, Duke Ellington recaptures the nation's ear with a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival that becomes his best-selling record ever. The next year, Louis Armstrong makes headlines when he condemns the government's failure to stand up to racism in Little Rock, Arkansas, risking his career while musicians who dismissed him as an Uncle Tom remain silent.

Meanwhile, new virtuosos emerge to push the limits of bebop: saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins; jazz diva Sarah Vaughan; and the drummer Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers will become a proving ground for young musicians over the next forty years. But the leading light of the era is Miles Davis — a catalyst constantly forming new groups to showcase different facets of his stark, introspective sound; a popularizer whose lush recordings with arranger Gil Evans expand the jazz audience; and a cultural icon whose tough-guy charisma comes to define what's hip.

As the turbulent Sixties arrive, however, two saxophonists take jazz into uncharted terrain. John Coltrane explodes the pop tune My Favorite Things into a kaleidoscope of freewheeling sound, while Ornette Coleman challenges all conventions with a sound he calls "free jazz." Once again, the music seems headed for new adventures, but now, for the first time, even musicians are starting to ask, Is it still jazz?

Episode 10: "A Masterpiece by Midnight"
1960 to the Present

January 31, 2001, 9:00 P.M. (check local listings)

During the Sixties, jazz is in trouble. Critics divide the music into "schools" - Dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bop, modal, free, avant-garde. But most young people are listening to rock 'n' roll. Though Louis Armstrong briefly outsells the Beatles with Hello Dolly, most jazz musicians are desperate for work and many head for Europe, including bebop saxophone master, Dexter Gordon.

At home, jazz is searching for relevance. During the Civil Rights struggle, it becomes a voice of protest. Before his early death, the avant-garde explorer John Coltrane links jazz to the Sixties quest for a higher consciousness with his devotional suite, A Love Supreme. And Miles Davis, after conquering the avant-garde with a landmark quintet, combines jazz with rock 'n' roll by using electric instruments to launch a wildly popular sound called Fusion.

In the 1970s, jazz loses the exuberant genius of Louis Armstrong and the transcendent artistry of Duke Ellington, and for many their passing seems to mark the end of the music itself. But in 1976, when Dexter Gordon returns from Europe for a triumphant comeback, jazz has a homecoming, too. Over the next two decades, a new generation of musicians emerges, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis - schooled in the music's traditions, skilled in the arts of improvisation, and aflame with ideas only jazz can express. The musical journey that began in the dance halls and street parades of New Orleans at the start of the 20th century continues. As it enters its second century, jazz is still brand new every night, still vibrant, still evolving, and still swinging.

The Making of JAZZ | Episode Descriptions | Broadcast Dates & Times
Interview with Ken Burns | Interview with Lynn Novick | Video Clips