It’s been 14 years since Ken Burns’ controversial documentary Jazz aired on PBS, introducing a general audience to the history of swing music and positioning Louis Armstrong and his peers as figures central to jazz. The first two episodes of the series focused primarily on the music’s development in New Orleans through 1924, shining a light on Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong, all of whose stories become points of departure for larger discussions about race and politics in America.
This month, Burns returns to those people and themes, and this time, he’s in New Orleans. From March 25 through March 29, Tauck Tours will host the third Ken Burns Jazz Event, which will usher up to 210 visitors through a survey of the places and people on which Burns’ story about the origins of jazz turns. At $4,590 per person, the tour isn’t cheap, but its goals are broad.
New Orleans jazz history is cast into three categories of exploration: the roots of jazz, jazz in the Quarter and jazz and the story of survival today, the latter of which touches on some of what viewers may have learned from watching HBO’s Treme.
“For me personally, developing the jazz event hasn’t been about making new discoveries so much as it’s been about returning home to a place and a subject matter I’ve truly missed,” Burns said in an email.
The itinerary features a mix of lectures and live performances by local artists including Ellis Marsalis, Donald Harrison and the Dukes of Dixieland, and site visits to places like Congo Square that figure prominently in the history of New Orleans music. A trip to the Backstreet Cultural Museum elucidates the history of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indians.
While some elements of the itinerary reflect common tourist pit stops like the cemeteries and Garden District, others offer more complex insights. Burns delivers a keynote address. Journalist Lolis Eric Elie speaks to tour-goers about the future of New Orleans jazz. Hogan Jazz Archive Curator Bruce Raeburn gives a talk in conjunction with a presentation by Louisiana State Museum Director of Collections Greg Lambousy.
“It’s intended as a basic orientation lecture on New Orleans jazz, so it focuses on early development,” says Raeburn. “Things like looking at the cultural geography of New Orleans, the various systems of cultural production that intersected here.”
In his talk, Raeburn shows how neighborhoods like the Treme, the Lower French Quarter, Algiers and Central City featured in the development of early jazz. “The crazy quilt multiculturalism was pretty much a constant in all these primary jazz neighborhoods,” he says. Tour goers have contacted him after leaving New Orleans to ask for help learning more about specific areas of jazz history such as shifting gender roles.
“It’s not a single message we’re looking to convey, but more of an enhanced perspective and appreciation, not just for the music itself, but also for the uniquely American issues and events that swirled around and through the birth of jazz and shaped its growth,” Burns explained. “Two world wars, the Depression, and the birth of radio come immediately to mind. But the history of jazz is also about the changing rituals and relations between the sexes, it’s about drugs and suffering and it’s about a diaspora that began in southern cities like New Orleans and spread northward to places like Kansas City, Chicago and New York.”
Burns’ critics have complained that despite being called “Jazz,” the PBS series skewed too heavily towards the swing era and underrepresented key segments of the music’s history. The Ken Burns Jazz Event doesn’t aim to cover every aspect of jazz in New Orleans, but rather to, as Tauck product manager Brenda McKellar put it, “bring the documentaries that [Burns] created to life.”
Using the PBS series as a point of departure for exploring New Orleans jazz history doesn’t necessarily limit visitors’ scope of music appreciation during their trip. The Marsalis concert takes place at NOCCA and features a performance by students from the performing arts school, which Raeburn suggests gives guests a peek at the next generation of New Orleans jazz players.
“The expectation is this is a first taste, and it won’t be the last,” Raeburn says. “They also build in enough free time where people can explore. If they make it down Canal Street to Bourbon Street they’re going to hear TBC Brass Band. They’re going to get exposure to street musicians, some of which are very good on Royal Street. These kids are recreating the original idiom in very interesting ways.”
Although the demographic of the tours is older, Raeburn says he regularly doles out advice on where to see great live music.
“I think anyone who’s viewed Jazz understands that I love the art form, but because I’m never featured onscreen in our films myself, the film didn’t give me the opportunity to say, personally and in my own words, what jazz means to me,” said Burns.
“[The tour] is an opportunity for me to relate the personal passion I have for jazz that led me to create the film.”