Ken Burns Celebrates Jazz on PBS

Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WALPOLE, N.H. (AP) — Frail, walking on spindly legs, knowing he was dying, Louis Armstrong hobbled onto the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1971 for a final goodbye. Although considered too weak to perform, he wanted to sing one last song.

Watching film of the event, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and a roomful of his staff working on his latest epic ``Jazz'' saw an incredible transformation.

As Armstrong sang in his raspy, unforgettable style with no musical accompaniment, ``he kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,'' Burns said softly. ``It was unbelievably powerful. One of the assistants grabbed a box of tissues and was passing them around.''

Burns viewed the film hundreds of times during the editing of his PBS documentary, which begins Jan. 8 and runs 18 hours in 10 episodes through Jan. 31. ``And I still feel that lump or my eyes fill with tears.

``You get close to these people. They become like family members, and when they pass from the scene, it can be terrifically hard,'' he said in a recent interview.

From his acclaimed Civil War series, his epic on baseball and now ``Jazz,'' Burns has shown uncanny skill in helping Americans connect with their heritage. He'll begin work next year on a program on national parks, which is expected to take five years to complete.

He hopes ``Jazz'' will help revive a musical form that has fallen far from its zenith of popularity in the first half of the century.

``I hope people will trust me,'' said Burns, 47, who lives in New Hampshire. ``At first blush, people were not into military history.''

``Jazz'' takes viewers through two world wars, the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, the drug culture and the civil rights movement. He guides them through the blues, swing, rhythm and blues, bebop and hip-hop.

Featured jazz greats include Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis.

And Satchmo, of course.

``He is to music in the 20th century what Einstein is to physics,'' Burns said. ``Out of 75 interviews, maybe 50 talked about Armstrong.''

The people he talked with called Armstrong a genius, a ``gift from God,'' Burns said. ``He spread the gospel of jazz around the world.''

Burns said Armstrong turned jazz into a soloist's art and sang like no one else; he changed everything.

Another intense experience came when Burns interviewed Brubeck, and Brubeck began talking about playing in the only integrated military unit in World War II, a band attached to a combat unit. Brubeck reminisced about the first time he met a black man. As he talked, he broke down and began to cry.

But perhaps the most emotional moment for the filmmaker came after he sent his father Robert, who is a jazz fan, 90 minutes of excerpts from the series.

``He called me in tears. That's all you really want,'' Burns said of his father's approval.

When he began work on the series, Burns himself was not a jazz fan. ``I was a child of rock 'n' roll,'' he said. He plays no musical instrument and says he is tone-deaf.

Now, after narrowing down some 100,000 pieces of music to 498 for ``Jazz'' and cutting 1,000 hours of material on the musicians, he is a devotee.

Burns recalled a day of delays and aggravation while traveling with an editor. Both were in a foul mood when they arrived in Hartford, Conn. Everything changed when they put on a CD of Armstrong playing the blues, which Burns calls ``the underground aquifer that fed all jazz.''

``You just lift up,'' he said.