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Jazz: A History of America’s Music by PBS and Ken Burns


April 7, 2015 by acoleman34

The site I chose to review is called Jazz: A History of America’s Music. The site is in conjunction with a film series directed and produced by Ken Burns for the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) and involves the origins of the music, its important players (pun intended), as well as other significant moments in its history. As the site states, Jazz has been called the purest expression of American Democracy; music built on individualism and compromise, independence and cooperation. The history of jazz music is intertwined with the history of America and the site aims to reflect that.

The intention of the site is to exhibit and educate and therefore can be classified as a hybrid for our purposes. Jazz: A History of America’s Music exhibits old photographs, artifacts, oral histories and audio samples in a way that expresses the music’s connections to American history. It is also a supplement to a film series simply called JAZZ by Ken Burns. It is not meant to be an archive and, from what I can tell, does not collect or update any new material. From a little bit of searching it was realized that this site was created in the early 2000s and based on its look has not been updated or touched up from its inception.

As far as interpretive structure Jazz: A History of America’s Music is a very interactive site that includes maps, and even pages designed to listen to and play the music the site champions. In a link entitled “Spaces, Places and Changing Faces,” the site details the migration of jazz, the many clubs and speakeasies in which it was played, and the people responsible for its development, all through the use of an interactive map of the United States. The audience uses the cursor to discover different areas and people. In their own words, it lets you “Explore the places where jazz music came of age, enter the spaces where the early sound of jazz would take root and spread, and meet the changing faces who made jazz what it is today.” Another page entitled “Jazz in Time,” details the history of jazz against the backdrop of American history by weaving it into storylines such as slavery, the Great Depression, or even the 1960s. This is the portion of the site that really exhibits the impact that jazz had on social and cultural realms of the United States throughout its history. One of the cooler parts of the site are the recommended listening for each section of history discussed, many of which have audio samples provided.

Similarly, in many ways the site is dedicated to educating the audience about, not only the history of jazz music but also the music itself. In the “Jazz Lounge” users can study the basics in section called “MUSIC 101”, then learn how jazz breaks the rules in another called “JAZZ LAB,” sample seven unique jazz styles in the “LISTEN IN”, or find their own groove on the “VIRTUAL PIANO.” Other elements of education include sections dedicated to teachers and students that contain classroom lessons and associated activities. In all, it is a great site to learn the history of jazz, the intricacies of the music, and explore the subject further.

The funding model for the site is not easily detected. Jazz: A History of America’s Music is produced by PBS and sponsored by General Motors but these two sources of funding seem to be the only identifiable ones directly on the site’s homepage. Other methods of funding occur through the sales of CDs, videos, and books dedicated to jazz that are affiliated with PBS or Ken Burn’s documentary itself. The fact that the site still offers VHS copies of the documentary shows its age, but combined with the fact that it is still operating non-closed links shows its longevity and the willingness of PBS to maintain it. This also brought up the question of whether or not more of the public should be involved in the making of this history-something Harry Klinkhammer addresses in his article. After researching Ken Burns, I noticed he has done some fairly high profile documentaries and therefore can be considered an authority on creating them. My suggestion is to have a forum for site visitors to include their own experiences with jazz and jazz history. This would allow for a somewhat “shared authority” of the Michael Frisch variety. Then in turn, if we crowdsource different histories of jazz through the use of a forum, as suggested by the Shawn Graham article in Writing History in the Digital Age it is the site managers’ responsibility to police it and maintain a standard of authenticity. This creates trust between the site and the visitors.

As mentioned, the site is in conjunction with a film directed by Ken Burns for PBS but many of the biographical pieces are co-authored by and the Oxford University Press, making it collaboration between many people. Sometimes when sites combine this much collaboration, and there are too many cooks in the kitchen so to speak, the interpretation can become disjointed but this is not the case for Jazz: A History of America’s Music. The jazz site is focused and is clearly written and directed in a way that, although not linear in some respects, presents a cohesive story about the history of jazz within American history. Although a forum as suggested above would create great use of the public’s knowledge on the subject of jazz, the site employs oral histories and creates a distinct sense of public history by doing so. Similar to the use of Chicana dialogue in the Oscar Castaneda piece, Jazz: A History of America’s Music uses voices from the jazz community to present moments in its history. This idea of the co-creation of knowledge, as mentioned by Amanda Grace Sikarskie, is important to the foundation of public history and it seems that Ken Burns and PBS were trying to achieve some semblance of that.

As clear and direct as the narrative is for the site, Jazz: A History of America’s Music is also geared toward many audiences. The first and most obvious audience is music and jazz aficionados. The site is a virtual wonderland for anyone interested in the history of jazz or music in general. This is clearly expressed by having detailed information and numerous audio samples for visitors to peruse. The next audience this site works well for are teachers. As it combines American history education with the history of jazz, the site provides a great and new way to teach aspects of history using multimedia and varying subject matter. A third audience for this site would be history buffs. As mentioned, the site combines two elements of history that, often times, one would not think to connect. It is a new avenue for learning about multiple topics related to jazz and U.S. history. The site does not do a fantastic job at citing all of its information; therefore it may not be the best site for scholars to use for research purposes. In fact, notes and citations for the historical sections are very inconsistent.

The data and metadata for the site are somewhat inconsistent. For the most part the photographs and objects have great metadata and notes but the metadata and/or citations for the subsequent historical interpretation aspects of the pieces are scattered. This can most likely be attributed to the fact that the site was created during the advent of the Internet and if it were to be updated those issues would certainly be addressed. The audio samples are an example of good metadata with credits and permissions laid out for the site viewers. Each one lists the artist, record company, date recorded, and whether it was borrowed from another site. These are aspects music and jazz nuts will particularly love because it creates an opportunity for them to delve further and find more information on the artist, song, or associated record label.

Another issue I found with the site was its ease of use. Perhaps I am just used to the newer sites provided by the internet today and have a lack of patience when it comes to clicking the “back” button, but Jazz: A History of America’s Music was not the most user-friendly of sites. Although it has a sidebar with links to pages and the home page, the site is littered with links that require you to go back one step at a time unless you intend to go all the way back to the main page for each section. Breadcrumbs were non-existent and once again that may be due to its age but it made it frustrating when navigating the site.

Overall I think Jazz: A History of America’s Music is very successful. It communicates its narrative in an interactive way; it adds elements of education as well as exhibition; and it makes excellent use of primary sources such as audio recordings and artifacts. Honestly, for such an early site it stacks up pretty well. The only issues I had with it are its inconsistent citations and metadata, and its ease of use. Again, those flaws may partially be due to its age. It is an enjoyable site that any music, jazz, or history lover should visit and play around with.


  1. nsakas1 says:

    Like your site Austin, my site also employed the use of an interactive map that allows site visitors to link history and place together. I like this concept, because it engages the visitor and also helps in contextualizing the history the site is interpreting. Another aspect of your site I liked is that it allows the viewer to approach the subject from a variety of ways. As we have learned in previous courses, everyone experiences and learns in different ways. Having a a site that allows for a multitude of experiences creates a stronger connection for more site visitors. Unfortunately you mention that the site is not the most user friendly. Hopefully it is not so much of a deterrent that visitors will leave the site before they give the content a chance.

  2. kdaly3 says:

    I really like this site (and the film, actually) and I think its a good resource for people interested in in American music history, especially since the history of jazz is to unique to American history. I agree with Nick about the ways in which the content is approached, and I appreciate that they have audio samples that help contextualize the information being provided, even though not all of them seem to work. However, in terms of the ones that do, I think this is a necessary function of using digital resources versus text-based documents regarding music history, and I think digital resources can often tell a better story than their text-based counterparts. I am also disappointed to hear that it isn’t as user-friendly as one would like, but I also think the (relatively) simplistic design of the site doesn’t hinder people’s use of it.

  3. Susan Prillaman says:

    Many, if not most, of the online exhibits I’ve seen are associated with a traditional exhibit created by a museum. It’s therefore refreshing to see one that supports a documentary film. It stands to reason though: having viewed several of Ken Burns’ documentaries, the inclusion of an online exhibit serves to provide an alternate method to tell the story as well as a place that materials not used in the film may be showcased. I had some difficulty locating the site, a Google search on Jazz: A History of America’s Music returned many results for the documentary itself. Having located it, I agree it “feels” dated in color scheme and organization, but even with General Motors and Oxford University Press sponsorship, this is still a PBS property and times have been tough for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  4. Chris says:

    This sounds like an excellent companion website to the documentary Jazz. I really like that it does more than just provides a synopsis of the episodes. The spatial exploration of the migration is really cool, especially for the way in which is shows the changing shape of cities and neighborhoods over time. I also like the Jazz Lounge section and the way in which it engages users in thinking about the ways in which jazz compositions are constructed and allows users to experiment as well.

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