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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2001 / 13 Shevat, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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All that jazz -- FRED FRIENDLY, along with Edward R. Murrow, created at CBS-TV the most committed and resourceful group of reporters and documentary makers in the history of American television. Fred used to insist that a basic function of television is to educate.

When CBS began to fail in that regard, Friendly resigned as president of CBS News to teach at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. For years, he presented on public television a series of clashing panelists on "The Constitution: A Delicate Balance."

That venture taught many Americans about why they are Americans. And it was also entertaining, as Supreme Court justices, prosecutors, defense attorneys and journalists illuminated our liberties through vigorous debate. Why isn't it still on television regularly?

In the Fred Friendly tradition, Ken Burns has educated and entertained millions of people with his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, and, most recently, a 10-part series called "Jazz," all on public television.

This is the first time a comprehensive view of America's gift to the world has been presented on television. The series, in which Burns tells the story of jazz as it evolved throughout our country's history, is riveting.

"Jazz" will be repeated on television from time to time, and is likely to be distributed in Europe. This music has become a common language everywhere. One of the "hottest" jazz recordings I've heard was by a band in Siberia.

What is most important, however, is that the Ken Burns organization, with the support of General Motors, is providing a curriculum based on the series to schools throughout the country -- lesson plans, videos and CDs -- so that American youngsters will no longer be culturally disadvantaged. Most students, while versed in rap and current rock, know little or nothing of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and other seminal contributors to the life force that is jazz.

One mistake in the lesson plans distributed to schools is the suggestion to "make jazz the focus of Black History Month across the curriculum in your schools." The music and biographies of the creators of jazz, and the social and historical contexts of their lives, should be a basic part of American history. As should that other distinctive American contribution to the world, country music. Jazz and country music are inextricably interrelated. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Bob Wills' Western swing band, for example, also have deep roots in jazz.

The Ken Burns series has been sharply criticized by some of the more insular jazz critics and by a few musicians for what was left out. I, too, have a list of jazz players -- including the always overlooked women instrumentalists who have been a vital part of the music -- that I would have included. But to show an encyclopedic array would diminish the potential audience to the already converted.

When jazz musicians compliment one of their colleagues, they say that he or she knows how to "tell a story." So does Ken Burns. He is able to tell the story of jazz by focusing primarily -- though by no means exclusively -- on the key musicians who shaped the music. Among them were the larger-than-life figures of Armstrong, Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

I was interviewed for the series and am on camera briefly. From the knowledgeable questions of the interviewer, I quickly knew how much research went into this undertaking. My only complaint about the series is that Burns rushed through the last 30 years much too quickly.

The 10 episodes are available (DVD) and (VIDEO) , and there is a valuable illustrated book, "Jazz: A History of America's Music," by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. Ward also collaborated with Burns on "The Civil War" and "Baseball" television series. I also strongly recommend the five-CD set "Ken Burns' 'Jazz'" , which is a remarkably wide-ranging collection of vital performances by the musicians featured in the television series, and by other musicians.

Meanwhile, as I have reported in The Wall Street Journal, all the fifth-graders in the public schools of Sarasota, for the first time in the nation, are learning a version of American history that includes the history of jazz. Much of the credit for bringing this about belongs to 83-year-old Floridian Lucy White, who grew up listening to jazz in Harlem and helped bring it into the schools so that it will be handed down to the next generation.

"I didn't want it to be part only of black history," she told me. "It should not be separated from the rest of the American story."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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