Ken Burns: Jazz Series

Lectures curated around Ken Burns: Jazz documentary on the history of Jazz in America. In a filmed interview for a documentary history of our national pastime we made several years ago, the writer and essayist Gerald Early told us that “when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” Jazz music has offered a precise prism through which so much of American history can be seen. It is the story of two world wars and a devastating Depression, the soundtrack that helped Americans get through the worst of times. Jazz is about sex, the way men and women talk to each other, and negotiate the complicated rituals of courtship; a sophisticated and elegant mating call that has all but disappeared from popular music in recent times. It is about drugs and the terrible cost of addiction and the high price of creativity. It is about the growth and explosion of radio and the soul of great American cities — New Orleans (where the music was born), Chicago, Kansas City and New York (where it grew up). It is about immigration and assimilation and feeling dispossessed — and the music that came to the rescue. It is about movement and dance and showing your behind. It’s about entertainment — the frequently dismissed but sacred communion between artist and audience. It’s about solitude and loneliness and the nearly unbearable burden of consciousness. It’s about suffering and celebration — it’s hugely about celebration — and tapping your feet. Ken Burns: Jazz is also a story about race and race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynchings and civil rights. It explores the uniquely American paradox that our greatest art form was created by those who have had the peculiar experience of being unfree in our supposedly free land. African-Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama and parade we call American history.

Lectures curated around Ken Burns: Jazz documentary on the history of Jazz in America. In a filmed interview for a documentary history of our national pastime we made several years ago, the writer and essayist Gerald Early told us that “when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” Jazz music has offered a precise prism through which so much of American history can be seen. It is the story of two world wars and a devastating Depression, the soundtrack that helped Americans get through the worst of times. Jazz is about sex, the way men and women talk to each other, and negotiate the complicated rituals of courtship; a sophisticated and elegant mating call that has all but disappeared from popular music in recent times. It is about drugs and the terrible cost of addiction and the high price of creativity. It is about the growth and explosion of radio and the soul of great American cities — New Orleans (where the music was born), Chicago, Kansas City and New York (where it grew up). It is about immigration and assimilation and feeling dispossessed — and the music that came to the rescue. It is about movement and dance and showing your behind. It’s about entertainment — the frequently dismissed but sacred communion between artist and audience. It’s about solitude and loneliness and the nearly unbearable burden of consciousness. It’s about suffering and celebration — it’s hugely about celebration — and tapping your feet. Ken Burns: Jazz is also a story about race and race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynchings and civil rights. It explores the uniquely American paradox that our greatest art form was created by those who have had the peculiar experience of being unfree in our supposedly free land. African-Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama and parade we call American history.