Filmmaker Documents Joyous Tradition of Jazz

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The spirit of jazz was alive and well in Berkeley yesterday, thanks to an attentive audience of Berkeley High School students and a speech by prominent filmmaker Ken Burns.

Inside the Berkeley Community Theatre, Burns spoke to students about his latest project - a 17-and-a-half-hour long, 10-part documentary called "Jazz."

The documentary, airing Jan. 8 on PBS, will be Burns' third film series in his "American Life" trilogy, which began with "The Civil War" and followed with "Baseball," garnering 85 million viewers.

In an effort to promote the upcoming release of the film, Burns and his production team have gone on a tour of high schools around the nation.

"The project began back in 1984," Burns said. "I think that if archaeologists dig up America 2000 years from now, there will be three things that will stand out as the greatest American creations - the constitution, baseball, and jazz music."

One of the reasons for the visit to Berkeley High was that of one of its graduates, Joshua Redman, is one of the greatest saxophone players in the nation, he said.

"Jazz is about playing how you feel," he said. "The film 'Jazz' isn't just a story about the history of jazz, but a story of American life."

After giving a short speech, Burns played snippets from the beginning and end of his film. The short clips displayed the early days of jazz, its growth into a national powerhouse and then the many forms into which it has grown.

The menagerie concluded with a Louisiana street parade, which, according to the movie, is one of the earliest forms of jazz.

"It is ironic, and at the same time poetic justice, that the very people who weren't free in a free country created one of the most beautiful things this country has ever seen," Burns said, referring to black people in the South.

He also talked to the audience about how jazz music broke down the racial and sexual barriers of the United States by creating an open form of expression.

"We offer 'Jazz' as not only a celebration of the past, but also as a celebration of the present and the future," he said.

According to Burns, trumpet player Louis Armstrong is seen by the jazz community as the greatest jazz musician in history.

"Louis Armstrong can be seen as the man who brought jazz from an ensemble piece to a solo piece," he said. "When I brought up his name as the best jazz musician, there were no contradictory responses."

Burns said he expected the film to be so long because it took nearly six years to make. He said the music itself led him to embark on the endeavor.

"I kept using jazz on the soundtracks of my films, and figured a logical next step would be to make a movie," he said. "Because of the fact that we have to make up jazz on the spot means it is an incredible gift."

The little things Burns said he learned over the course of making his film gave him a great deal of information not limited to the jazz world.

"Every single day I was learning new things," he said. "I was learning tiny things from photos and stories. I was learning how women dressed, what cars looked like - all sorts of things come through a picture."

Burns recalled speaking to a man, who after having viewed the series, openly admitted to his lack of cultural knowledge.

"I had a man come up to me after seeing (the film) and say that he thought all black people only wore overalls," Burns said. "But he said that after he had seen the movie he realized how wrong he was."

As a boy, Burns said he had a strict curfew and was only allowed to stay up late to watch movies. He focused on documentaries in film school because his professors were more interested in still photographs, the basis of many film documentaries.

Michelle Janssen, the Berkeley High School official who helped organize the event, was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of the students.

"The students in here were the quietest I have ever seen them," she said.


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