Episode five of Ken Burns’s JAZZ touches on many of the themes of the previous episode, with reminders that are particularly resonant right now: music brings people together and uplifts the spirit. Whether it was dancing to a swinging big band, or dreaming to a blues melody, Americans during the Great Depression found comfort in jazz. Also around that time, well-known jazz acts started playing on stages beyond just nightclubs and bars. Teenage fans who cherished their records flocked to these all-ages venues to see their idols live for the first time. (By the way, both Les Zygomates and Ryles Jazz Club are all ages, as well as many of the other venues the Yoko Miwa Trio plays).
This episode focuses on the 1930’s, the era of swing. One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Burns’s JAZZ series is that it focuses too much on the heydays of swing and bebop, skimming over more recent decades. This episode does spend a lot of time on a short span of years, It also provides good examples of one of my own concerns with the series. While the narration and readings of primary sources give a nuanced overview of the race politics associated with jazz, many of the interviews grossly oversimplify the same issues.
Despite these concerns, I recommend episode five, because it’s one of the best yet for visuals, having advanced into an era when there is plenty of film footage available from the time. The footage of the record production process near the beginning is especially worth a view. The episode is also great for interviews with musicians still alive at the time (who have since passed), including Artie Shaw, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Dave Brubeck.
Clarinetist and band leader Artie Shaw spoke to what he felt jazz means when he said of Glen Miller, “The biggest problem: his band never made a mistake. And that’s one of the things wrong, because if you don’t ever make a mistake, you’re not trying. You’re not playing at the edge of your ability. You’re playing safely, within limits, and you know what you can do, and it sounds after a while extremely boring.”
We sincerely hope that you are all doing well after last week’s troubling events. We also want to thank everyone who came to Regattabar last week for being an amazing audience. We love you, Boston.