Burns Strikes A <i>Jazz</i> Chord

"American Idol" finalist Sanjaya Malakar wasn't the best singer on the show, but he was definitely creative with his hairstyles (note the faux-hawk he's sporting in this photo from the show). Frank Micelotta/FOX

On a cross-country tour, Ken Burns is riding high with a best-selling book and his next epic television documentary Jazz.

For 10 episodes, Burns homes in on jazz history from its bawdy roots to what became an American art form.

In New Orleans, Burns spent weeks researching and filming. And while jazz might seem an unlikely topic for a hit TV series, Burns has never looked to the obvious for inspiration, as CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports.
Beginning with The Civil War, the Emmy-winning series that gave public television its highest ratings ever, Burns began a 16-year personal odyssey exploring some of America's deepest beliefs.

Four years later Burns followed up with Baseball.

"I'm a filmmaker. I've chosen to work in history the way a painter might choose still-lifes rather than landscapes," Burns said.

Jazz is almost 18 hours in length, a broad sketch that Burns came to by accident.

"I see this film as a completion of a trilogy that began with The Civil War, continued with Baseball and now comes to fruition with Jazz," Burns said.

"I wish I could tell you I planned this in advance," he admitted, noting that Washington University professor of Afro-American Studies Gerald Early provided an interesting comment in an interview for Baseball.

"I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now. When they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball," Early said, suggesting they're the three most beautiful things Americans have designed.

"And I realized I grappled with the Constitution and the Civil War in many other films. I was in the midst of Baseball, and I didn't know anything about Jazz," Burns said. "I had to know about it. I had to know about it."

Jazz is a swing through the history of America's race relations, through the Depression, through two world wars, and through ragtime, bebop and swing. Burns tells his tale with historians and musicians like Matt Glaser who brings the genius of Louis Armstrong to life.

"You can learn as much from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker as you can learn from the men on Mt. Rushmore," Burns said.

The historian Steven Ambrose has said that more people get their history from Burns than from any other source.

"I feel honored that people place an amount of trust in me," he said. "My responsibility, though, ultimately is to myself, because that question that I ask, 'Who are we?' is really a thinly disguised, 'Who am I?'"

It is a question many have asked about a boy who was given an 8 millimeter movie camera by his father and who by age 29 produced a Brooklyn Bridge.

The 1982 film was Burns' major breakthrough, written and edited by Amy Stechler, his wife then and mother of their two daughters. It wa a humbling start.

"I looked about 12 years old when I was trying to make a film on the Brooklyn Bridge," Burns said, "and people would laugh at me.

"I was raising money. 'This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge.' Well I finally scraped together a little bit of money and I shot the film,"
he said.

This Oscar-nominated film would put in place all the techniques that came to be the Burns style: the old films, the sound effects, the still photographs, the music.

These days in documentary films, Ken Burns has become almost a brand name.

He once said when you become a documentary filmmaker, you take a vow of poverty and anonymity, but he's famous.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "I moved to New Hampshire. I thought this is it, I've sealed my fate, you know."

"I've made money from making these films," he said. "And I'm the first person who wakes up in the morning and pinches himself and says 'How did this happen?' I think it struck a chord."

Remote Walpole, N.H., is the heart of this documentary empire, where distractions are fewer, costs are lower and where Burns and his corps of true believers work years on each film.

"In the very beginning no one cared, so I had total control. No one was interested in history films," he said.

"And now they're all over the cable channels and things like that. So I sort of worked and developed this sense of needing complete creative control, and I got it by default because no one was paying attention," he said.

But not anymore. Now the debut of another Burns miniseries is a television event accompanied by a merchandising blitz of coffee table books, soundtrack CD sets and more to come.

When someone takes on a project like baseball, the Civil War, jazz, it's a big subject, and almost invites criticism.

"I welcome the criticism," he said. "I sort of wear the criticism as a badge of honor."

Even before Jazz was scheduled to air some music critics ripped it for leaving out numerous jazz figures. A Los Angeles Daily News review called the miniseries the Time-Life version of jazz, safe, predictable and respectable.

In the end, the American public will decide if Jazz is a television hit, whether audiences embrace it by the millions as they did The Civil War and Baseball.

"Louis Armstrong said there ain't but two kinds of music in this world: good music and bad music. And good music you tap your toe to. And I did not let a single episode out of my editing room until the visitors to that editing room were not just paying rapt attention but were tapping their toes," he said.

For Burns himself the time has come to take time off. His plans are to travel the country for a year searching for the ghosts of American history that still wait to come alive.

"Too much of history is the excavation of dry dates and facts and events and that we dont look for the glue that really makes the past stick with us," he said.

"When you hear the notes of the Louis Armstrong solo, it raises the hair on the back of my head the way nothing else does," he said. "It's...something that really you get from church, you get from the 'Aha, eureka' of scientific discovery. And you get it when you stand in front of a piece of art and go 'this is great.' I think you can find that from history, too."

"I made it because jazz is a window to see the soul of the country. Jazz is a mirror that reflects back at us where we've been in the 20th century,...good and bad," he concluded.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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