The story of Jazz is told in ten parts, lasting a total of 19 hours. Each section covers a time period, providing biographies of important figures and covering social developments within that time. Episode 1 titled, "Gumbo," explores the origins of jazz in New Orleans. The most musical of American cities during the 19th century, the viewer learns of cultural and musical ingredients that went into the "gumbo" that would become jazz. Jazz provides biographies of notable artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, which are told over a number of episodes. This allows the viewer to see the full career of these giants—not just the parts where they were "in style." Jazz is also a social document, continually reminding the viewer of the segregation and prejudice that have been inflicted against African Americans within American society.
Episode One – Gumbo, Beginnings to 1917:
Jazz begins in New Orleans, a city with a richly diverse musical culture. Here in the 1890s, African-American musicians create a new music by mixing ragtime syncopations and the soulful feeling of the blues. Soon after the start of the new century, people are calling it jazz. Meet the pioneers of this revolutionary art form: Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet and Freddie Keppard.
Early jazz players travel the country in the years before World War 1 but few people have a chance to hear this new music until 1917, when a group of white musicians – the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – make their first recording. Americans are suddenly jazz crazy.
Episode Two – The Gift, 1917 – 1924:
Speakeasies, flappers and easy money: it’s the Jazz Age, the 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. Other musicians to inspire the world of jazz include trumpet player Bubber Miley and bandleaders, Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson.
Episode Three – Our Language, 1924 – 1929:
As the stock market continues to soar, jazz is everywhere in America. Now for the first time, soloists and singers take centre stage, transforming the music with their distinctive voices and the unique stories they have to tell. Meet the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith; Bix Beiderbecke, the first great white jazz star; and a bandleader Benny Goodman for whom jazz offers an escape from the ghetto.
Episode Four – The True Welcome, 1929 – 1934:
In 1929 the stock market collapses and the Great Depression begins. New York is now America’s jazz capital. On Broadway, Louis Armstrong revolutionises the popular song and his flair for showmanship makes him one of the top entertainers. Meet bandleader Chick Webb, a new dance called the Lindy Hop, and a revived Duke Ellington. Visit LA’s Palomar Ballroom where the dancers go wild over Goodman’s Big Band beat. By the end of the night, the Swing Era has begun.
Episode Five – Swing: Pure Pleasure, 1935 – 1937:
As the Great Depression drags on, jazz provides 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. Benny Goodman is hailed as the ‘King Of Swing’ while teenagers jitterbug just as hard to the music of his rivals – Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford and Glen Miller. Billie Holiday begins her career as the greatest of all female jazz singers.
Episode Six – Swing: The Velocity of Celebration, 1937 – 1939:
As the 30s come to a close, Swing-mania is still going strong but some ears are tuned to a new sound. Pulsing, suffused with the blues, it’s the Kansas City sound of Count Basie’s band. Teenage singer Ella Fitzgerald emerges as the first lady of jazz, and old sax-master, Coleman Hawkins startles the world with his “Body and Soul”.
Episode Seven – Swinging with Change, 1940 – 1942:
As the 40s begin, jazz is changing. A small band of young musicians, led by the trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie and the brilliant saxophonist, Charlie Parker, have discovered a new way of playing – fast, intricate, exhilarating and sometimes chaotic. When America enters World War II, jazz is part of the arsenal with big band music boosting morale both at home and abroad. Duke Ellington teamed up with his musical soul-mate Billie Strayhorn and together they created some of Ellington’s most memorable recordings.
Episode Eight – Dedicated to Chaos, 1943 – 1945:
Jazz is banned in nazi-occupied Europe but great musicians like the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt continue to play, turning the music into a symbol of freedom. For many black Americans however, that sound has a hollow ring. Segregated at home and in uniform, they find themselves fighting for liberties their own country denies them. Louis Jordan popularises a music that will come to be called “rhythm and blues”, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie create an explosion of their own – bebop!
Episode Nine – Risk, 1945 – 1949:
The post-war years bring America to a level of prosperity unimaginable a decade before but the Cold War threat makes these anxious years as well. In jazz, this underlying tension is reflected in the broken rhythms and dissonant melodies of bebop, and in the troubled life of its biggest star, Charlie Parker. While Louis Armstrong forms the “All Stars” and plays the old standards he loves, promoter Norman Granz breaks down racial barriers by insisting on equal treatment for all his musicians.
Episode Ten – Irresistible, 1949 – 1955
A generation of musicians, faced with the overwhelming genius of Charlie Parker, embrace the challenge of moving beyond his innovations. Visionary pianist, Thelonius Monk, infuses bebop with his eccentric personality to create a music all his own, while John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet refine bebop’s balance between improvisation and composition. Except for musicians and true jazz initiates, few people are listening to Parker and bebop. Searching for a new audience, California musicians create a mellow sound called cool jazz.
Episode Eleven – The Adventure, 1956 – 1960
In the late 50s, America’s post war prosperity continues but beneath the surface run currents of change. Families move to the suburbs, watching TV is the new national pastime, and baby boomers begin coming of age. For jazz, it is also a period of transition. Old stars burn out, while young talents arise to take the music in new directions: saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins, jazz diva Sarah Vaughan, and the mesmerising Miles Davis. John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman push the boundaries further still, prompting the question “Is it still jazz?”.
Episode Twelve – A Masterpiece by Midnight, 1960 to the Present
In the 60s, critics divide jazz into ‘schools’ – Dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bop, modal, free and avant-garde. Most young people are listening to rock and roll and, desperate for work, many jazz musicians head for Europe. At home, jazz searches for relevance – it’s a voice of protest for Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp; a quest for higher consciousness for John Coltrane; and, when Miles Davis combines it with rock and roll, a wildly popular sound called Fusion.
Over the next two decades a new generation of musicians emerges, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis – schooled in the music’s traditions, skilled in the art of improvisation and aflame with ideas only jazz can express. Entering its second century, jazz is still brand new every night, still vibrant, still evolving and still swinging.
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