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Jazz Documentaries: Putting America's Most Original Art Form on Film

By Craig McTurk

In the months ahead, jazz will receive unprecedented television exposure through the landmark, nineteen-hour series by Ken Burns, simply called Jazz. Burns’ new series is the final part of his trilogy on the American Experience that began with The Civil War and continued with Baseball. The Jazz series is scheduled to air nationally on PBS in January 2001.

Jazz, however, has long caught the interest of documentary filmmakers and audiences alike. This vital American art form has helped inspire dozens, even hundreds, of documentaries over the years. Perhaps it is the ever-recurring motif of jazz, a refrain followed by improvisational flights of fancy, that filmmakers try to mimic in their own work: a narrative thread punctuated by more freeform camera angles and stylized photography and editing. While making a film about jazz may be as incongruous as the old adage "dancing about architecture," a host of powerful documentaries have added new insight into the lives and music of both legendary and up-and-coming jazz artists

The list of jazz documentaries created over the past 50 years is substantial. Some of the more memorable films would certainly include Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960, Bert Stern), JazzDance (1954, Roger Tilton), Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988, Charlotte Zwerin), A Great Day in Harlem (1994, Jean Bach), and Let's Get Lost (1989, Bruce Weber). The Robert Drew documentary On the Road with Ellington (1967) was recently screened in Los Angeles in an IDA event that featured live music before the film. As a further reflection of America's continuing appreciation of jazz and film, film festivals dedicated solely to the subject of jazz have been launched here in America and abroad. Perhaps the best known such festival in America is the Denver Jazz on Film Festival, which will take place February 16-19, 2001. Numerous jazz films have also been programmed over the years opposite the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.

Jazz hit its popularity in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s; it now accounts for less than 3 percent of the music industry’s sales. The world’s current leading marketplace for jazz is Japan, followed by Europe. Despite these audience trends, the cultural significance of jazz in America has never been more apparent; John Hendricks, jazz vocalist and interviewee in Ken Burns' Jazz, maintains that "this work is to America itself what the Declaration of Independence was."

Burns faced a daunting task in tackling what is as much about the germination and evolution of an art form as it is about the story of twentieth century America. "Jazz, for me, is a Trojan horse that allows us to deal with much more important issues, actually, than jazz. And so, you then, as a filmmaker, have to step back and say, ‘How am I going to do it?’” Burns enlisted the help of jazz musicians and historians, including Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Gary Giddins and over 70 more commentators who help personalize the fascinating story of jazz in America. The Jazz series, six years in the making, is unveiled in the signature Ken Burns’ style, uncovering details and personalities layer by layer. Two thousand archival film clips, 2,400 still photos, 75 interviews, and hours of both rare and classic jazz recordings blend smoothly into a richly textured whole.

The biggest challenge for Burns lay in bringing the music to life and making it a character in the series. “Making JAZZ was like going from three dimensions involving narration, footage and interviews to four because of the primacy of the music,” the filmmaker explains. “The narrative style that we adopted for JAZZ is in many ways dictated by the music. It was incumbent upon us to have the sound up front, for the images and narration to accent the music rather than the other way around.”

At the heart and soul of Burns' new series is his homage to Louis Armstrong. "The great thing that the film says," Burns relates, "is that Armstrong is the most important person in music in the twentieth century—I didn't say in jazz, I said music. He is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright brothers are to travel. And I can prove it. So much of our story, the American story, is about the possibilities inherent in anyone. Armstrong is a symbol of what anyone might become if we just loosen up and swing."

Burns' new series premiered recently at the Telluride Film Festival, during which all 19 hours of programming were shown during a weekend. Among jazz fans, known for their passionate likes and dislikes, the series is drawing both praise and criticism: praise for the series' exhaustive research, rarely-seen archival clips, and colorful interviewees, and criticism for its reliance on the traditional, more conservative view of jazz history as embraced by commentators Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. Defending his choice of Marsalis as one of the primary interviewees in his series, Burns asserts, “We were never once interested in subscribing to any particular philosophy of jazz. We are interested in history. We’ve gone to everybody in the jazz community in every way, shape or form, and found that the people who spoke best about the music, who knew about that history, was somebody like Wynton. Not that we were subscribing to his particular view, but if he can make the Count Basie Band come alive, then I know, and hopefully you know, a little bit better about Count Basie. One hopes that, for Marsalis as an artist, his delving into the repertoire and playing it now improves his jazz and gives us as listeners the opportunity to hear extraordinary compositions from him. If he’s failed that, then as a jazz musician, he’s failed. As a pedagogue, I’ve never met a better one.”

Responding to the fact that the last forty years of jazz are condensed into a single episode, Burns maintains, "I'm an amateur historian. Episode Ten is terrific and honors all the different branches, the directions in which the music is going. But we don't yet know who the Armstrongs, the Ellingtons, the Miles Davises are. It's better, as a historian, at the end to just unhitch oneself from the narrative."

Burns’ new series wouldn’t have been as complete, though, without the many documentaries on jazz from which his archival clips were culled. Besides the aforementioned JazzDance, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Let’s get Lost and A Great Day in Harlem, Tom Goldsmith, founder and director of the Denver Jazz on Film Festival, cites the work of directors Don McGlynn, Toby Byron and Burrill Crohn, and the WNET television series Jazz Casuals, produced by Ralph Gleason in the 1960’s. Mark Cantor, curator of the Playboy Jazz Film Festival recommends Art Pepper: Notes on a Jazz Survivor, and two films by Brigitte Berman: Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet (about Bix Beiderbike), and Time Is All You’ve Got, a portrait of Artie Shaw.

A host of jazz documentaries can be purchased on home video at retail outlets like Tower Records and Virgin Megastore. Besides jazz video distributors such as Rhapsody Films, Unitel and View Video, a search on the internet by the title of the film you are seeking or the name of the musician can often yield favorable results. In addition, American Masters, the long-running series on PBS, has presented notable profiles of such jazz giants as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaugn, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman; most of those programs are available through PBS Home Video. The Museum of Radio and Television in New York and Los Angeles can offer some jazz gems, and an extensive list of jazz documentaries can also be found online at the Library of Congress website. For a more general overview, the Ken Burns’ historical survey on the subject can be viewed on PBS this January or purchased on home video in 2001. With a growing niche-market of jazz-oriented film festivals, specialty boutique distributors and cable outlets such as Bravo, jazz will no doubt continue to leave an indelible mark on the future of the documentary.


Craig McTurk is a documentary producer and cameraman. His latest project is Tokyo Blues: Jazz & Blues in Japan. He can be reached at


Jazz Docs: A Selection

Editor’s Note: This is by no means a definitive list, but simply a sample of films to get you started.

  • JazzDance (1954, Roger Tilton)
  • Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959, Bert Stern)
  • Dizzy Gillespie (1964, Les Blank)
  • On the Road with Duke Ellington (1967, Robert Drew)
  • Mingus (1968, Thomas Reichman)
  • The Last of the Blue Devils (1979, Bruce Ricker)
  • Art Pepper—Notes from a Jazz Survivor (1982, Don McGlynn)
  • Jazz is My Native Language: A Portrait of Toshiko Akiyoshi (1983, Renee Cho)
  • Artie Shaw: Time is All You Got (1986, Brigitte Berman)
  • Saxophone Colossus (1986, Robert Mugge)
  • The Long Night of Lady Day (1986, John Jeremy)
  • Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1987, Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons; Toby Byron, producer)
  • Sarah Vaughn—The Divine One (1987, Diane Dufault)
  • Let’s Get Lost (1988, Bruce Weber)
  • Thelonious Monk —Straight, No Chaser (1988, Charlotte Zwerin)
  • Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs (1989, Harrison Engle)
  • Satchmo—The Life of Louis Armstrong (1989, Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons; Toby Byron, producer)
  • Duke Ellington—Reminiscing in Tempo (1992, Robert S. Levi)
  • A Great Day in Harlem (1994, Jean Bach)
  • Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog (1998, Don McGlynn)
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (1999, Charlotte Zwerin)
  • Sarah Vaughn—The Divine One (Toby Byron and Richard Saylor, producers; Matthew Seig, director)

Jazz Documentary Distributors

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