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CD/LP/Track Review

Ken Burns: The Best Of Ken Burns Jazz

By Published: December 1, 2000
A subset of the five-CD package, Ken Burns’ single-CD volume wraps it all up in 75 minutes. This 20-song compilation serves to introduce jazz, from early vocal and trumpet work by Louis Armstrong to the Lincoln Center’s recent Ellington tributes. Every selection is a teaching point that serves to introduce significant milestones along the way. Sure, there are holes. It takes a lifetime to cover it all, and we’re happy to keep on trying on our own. Nevertheless, Ken Burns has done the public a great service through his latest project. Six years in the making, his documentary explores the early development of jazz.

The wordless vocals of Baby Cox with Duke Ellington on “The Mooche” represent a significant thread that runs through jazz. Sidney Bechet’s clarinet, Billie Holiday’s fragile voice, John Coltrane’s giant steps and Miles Davis’ unmistakably haunting trumpet serve as benchmarks. Missing is the second half of the Twentieth Century, with its diversity and worldwide growth. Established elements such as wah-wah trombone and growling trumpet lead to various phases of American jazz. The 1950s represents a culmination, and that’s that. With a beautiful arrangement of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra return jazz to its roots.

Burns’ single-CD volume comes with an informative, well-written 15-page essay by the author that includes black and white photos. Burns makes a significant point when he reminds us that jazz is “not an inaccessible music best left to intellectuals, critics and experts.” No, as Burns makes clear, jazz swings for everyman, and his ten-part film documentary is designed to appeal to anyone who cares to pay attention.

Track and Artist Listing:Star Dust - Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra; Dead Man Blues - Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers; Dear Old Southland - Noble Sissle and His Orchestra featuring Sidney Bechet; Singin’ the Blues - Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke; St. Louis Blues - Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra; The Mooche - Duke Ellington and His Orchestra; Hotter Than ‘ell - Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra; King Porter Stomp - Benny Goodman and His Orchestra; Begin the Beguine - Artie Shaw and His Orchestra; Cotton Tail - Duke Ellington and His Orchestra; Jumpin’ at the Woodside - Count Basie and His Orchestra; Solitude - Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood and His Orchestra; Groovin’ High - Dizzy Gillespie Sextet featuring Charlie Parker; Straight, No Chaser - Thelonious Monk; They Can’t Take That Away From Me - Sarah Vaughan and Her Trio; Take Five - The Dave Brubeck Quartet; Doodlin’ - Horace Silver and The Jazz Messengers; Giant Steps - John Coltrane Quartet; So What - Miles Davis Sextet; Take the ‘A’ Train - The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.


Track Listing: Star Dust; Dead Man Blues; Dear Old Southland; Singin

Personnel: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra; Jelly Roll Morton

Record Label: Verve Music Group

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream



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