Jazz (2000)
Warner Home Video
Extras: Documentary, Music Information Cards, Special Performances

Until recently, everyone could have told you that an exhaustive treatise about Jazz music in film form is literally impossible. Until recently that was. Because since Ken Burns’ remarkable mini-series has surfaced, that has changed. For the very first time, I would agree that the subject of the history of Jazz has finally been put on celluloid in a complete fashion, covering time, space and styles in a way no documentary ever has before.

With a total running length of 1140 minutes – that’s 19 hours – Burns has indeed given himself ample time to explore the origins and history of Jazz music, starting in the 1890s in New Orleans. From there he moves on in 10 consecutive episodes that are presented on a separate DVD each, to tell the entire story of Jazz until the present time. For fans of the music, this documentary is a treasure trove of information, memories, cherished moments and rare glimpses at some of Jazz’s best and most influential performers.

The entire documentary is presented in a very interesting fashion. Featuring countless hours of interviews with jazz musicians as well as innumerable hours of vintage footage and photos, it is mostly the music recordings and the knowledgeable commentary that accompanies these elements that gives "Jazz" a note of completeness and authority. Many of the episodes are further accompanied by full performances and live recordings of memorable peices and artists, such as Louis Armstrong’s "I Cover The Waterfront", Duke Ellington’s "C-Jam Blues" and Mile Davis doing "New Rhumba."

No matter how well versed you are in the field, I am sure, Ken Burn’s "Jazz" will offer some new information or insight still. It could for example be the loving look at the origins of jazz in "Gumbo," the first episode, in which Burns takes a look at the African-American community in New Orleans in the late 1800s and exposes artists like Buddy Bolden, a cornetist who changed the sound and style of gospel music in a way that eventually turned into what it now known as jazz. But others were just as innovative, molding a new style with their inventive playing styles and sounds. But it could just as well be the episode "Risk" in which Burns takes a look at legendary musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and a young Miles Davis. Not only did they, too, create a new styles of jazz, such as the Bebop that was practically a direct result of Parker’s way of playing the sax, but the glory of their era is also overshadowed by a shroud of drug and alcohol abuse.

Presented as a respectable box set with 10 discs, "Jazz" makes a great impression from the get-go. A stylish packaging layout with a gold banner, as well as nice menu screens further add to the releases authority. The episodes themselves are presented in extremely clean <$PS,fullscreen> transfers. The image quality is quite remarkable, considering that this documentary makes heavy use of rare photographs, recordings and film footage. There can be no doubt that a lot of work has gone into the clean-up of these elements to make sure they come across in all their glory. The image also features great black levels, making sure the documentary looks rock-solid at all times, never giving way to faded shots that may really date the material.

Without compression artifacts of any sort, "Jazz" is beautiful to behold, but also dazzling to listen to, because especially the music on the release is simply spectacular. Without the hiss, noise or frequency limitations that you would initially expect from such old recordings, all tunes and tracks are beautifully balanced and natural-sounding. The narration is well integrated with the rest of the audio, creating a coherent feel throughout the 19 hours of presentation. The narrator also manages to maintain an exciting flow of information that is easy to follow and engaging to witness. Not only in its content, but also in technical terms, "Jazz" is miraculous and clearly the eminent authority in the field.

Each one of the ten discs in this box set also contains some exciting bonus features. One of the most interesting features found on every single one of the discs are the "Music Information Cards." For every piece of music in each episode you find such a card with valuable information about who wrote the piece, who performed it, when it s recorded and so forth. Apart from it, the Information Card allows you to directly jump to the section within the documentary where the piece is played. I found this an extremely valuable feature as it helps immensely to expand your knowledge of the various tracks used throughout the film. Apart from these cards and the occasional performance videos that I mentioned above, the first disc also comes with a featurette, called "The Making Of Jazz," offering some interesting and valuable insight into the production of this profoundly remarkable documentary.

I found myself entirely mesmerized and engorged by this compelling release. 19 hours may seem like a long time, but once you start watching the first episode of "Jazz" you won’t be able to stop watching. Episode for episode, the wealth of information and insight, coupled with the music is a feast for the senses and a lesson in music history that is more accessible than anything I have seen before. Presented in a perfect and flawless package, Warner Home Video and PBS have done a fantastic job to bring jazz to the forefront of everyone’s attention. Legends like Billie Holiday, Bird, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Django Reinhardt Benny Goodman and countless others finally have the chance to shine and play up all their spectacular skills and talents. Don’t miss this chance and see how music history comes to life!