Matthew Seig’s The Story of Jazz, assembled in 1995, faces the impossible task of documenting the history of jazz in a paltry 98 minutes. After all, even Ken Burns’ 2001 sprawling opus on the subject wasn’t able to completely tell the story. Wisely, Seig chooses to delve in and focus on the be-bop era, where the most tumultuous and groundbreaking changes were being made within the genre. A massive lineup of jazz titans are interviewed to tell this story, and a surprising amount of detail is revealed in the exploration of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, including their interest in and use of classical, Eastern, and African music. While full performances of songs cannot fit into the time constraints of this film, the clips that are shown perfectly demonstrate the tremendous changes brought about by each seismic shift in the idiom. Unfortunately, like the work of Burns, fusion gets the short shrift, and in a moment that dates the now fifteen-year-old documentary, it is hypothesized that with the musicians of the 1980s looking backward for inspiration, jazz has not evolved since John Coltrane. Regardless, this film serves as a fine primer for America’s greatest art form.
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