Relive the History of ‘Jazz’ with Ken Burns’ Acclaimed 10-Part Documentary [FULL FILM] @KenBurns


There are few things that the team here at soulhead loves more than a good, in-depth music documentary. Hence why we were glued to the tube when documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns’ monumental 10-part, 19-hour documentary on the history of jazz music in America originally aired on PBS in early 2001. We also dug the accompanying series of two dozen CD compilations released by Verve and Columbia/Legacy in conjunction with the film.

Predicated upon the notion that jazz music represents “America’s greatest cultural achievement,” the ambitiously conceived and expertly executed Jazz explores over 100 years of jazz music’s indelible legacy, framing the genre’s evolution within the broader context of American social, political, racial, and economic dynamics. The film overall constitutes must-watch material, for sure, though it does possess one glaring flaw. Nine of the ten episodes focus on jazz’s development prior to 1960, leaving just one episode to delve way too shallowly into four decades of the music’s more experimental stages, from post-bop to soul jazz to fusion to jazz funk and beyond.


While Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington understandably emerge as the central figures throughout the documentary, Burns explores the influence and music of dozens of the genre’s greatest icons, including Art Blakey, Sidney Bechet, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Herbie Hancock, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins, among many others.

If you’ve never watched the film, well, prepare to be educated, entertained and thoroughly captivated. For those who are already familiar, take advantage of this special opportunity to revisit this most stirring of aural and visual experiences all over again.

Enjoy the full documentary and episode guide below.

BUY Ken Burns’ Jazz on DVD and CD via Amazon


Episode 1 | “Gumbo” | Beginnings to 1917 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 2 | “The Gift” | 1917 – 1924 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 3 | “Our Language” | 1924 – 1929 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 4 | “The True Welcome” | 1929 – 1934 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 5 | “Swing” Pure Pleasure” | 1935 – 1937 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 6 | “Swing: The Velocity of Celebration” | 1937 – 1939 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 7 | “Dedicated to Chaos” | 1940 – 1945 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 8 | “Risk” | 1945 – 1955 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 9 | “The Adventure” | 1956 – 1960 | 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. [Read More]

Episode 10 | “A Masterpiece by Midnight” | 1960 – 2000 | 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. [Read More]

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