Everybody Loves Ken Burns (and jazz)

For this blog post, I’ll be looking at the PBS website for Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. While browsing around for a site to cover initially, I discovered besthistorysites.net. It sounds like a hoax site that would have pop-up ads every 15 seconds, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of resources offered. Unfortunately, as occurs all too often, many of the links lead to dead ends- pages that no longer existed or fell into obscurity. The lack of preservation efforts in the digital realm makes me sad.

After experiencing multiple dead links, I found myself on the companion website that PBS created to go along with Burns’ Jazz. For those that don’t know, Jazz is a mini-series that Burns released in the early 2000s. It is a ten episode series that chronologically documents the history of jazz in the United States. Jazz is a usual suspect in the lineup of Burn’s previous works- slowly panning and zooming shots of photographs alongside period movie sequences and accompanied by music of, and commentary on, the period being examined.

The homepage for Jazz

The basic framework of the Jazz website is strong. It’s clear that at one point, someone put painstaking effort into creating this website. Though it is a PBS site, the launching pad is very focused on Jazz itself. Links to the PBS homepage are subtle and minimal, and on a pros and cons list, I’d list that fact as a pro.

A plethora of resources are listed on the left side of the layout. You can browse for information via multiple categories:

  • period (Slavery, Jim Crow era, Great Depression)
  • jazz style (New Orleans, swing, bebop)
  •  music theory (melody, harmony, improvisation)
  • artist discographies (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington)
  • instruments (trumpet, sax, trombone)
  • method of exchange (speakeasy, records, minstrelsy)

In addition, there’s a biography section with links to very detailed information about those featured on the website that contributed significantly to jazz (according to Burns and PBS, so perhaps not an exhaustive list, but I don’t know enough about the history of jazz to confidently critique it). The website provides extensive bios for each person, as well as links to audio samples of each individual’s work. The problem here is that all of the video and audio links require RealPlayer to view/listen to the media. They’re files that cannot  be played without RealPlayer, which is fairly outdated (RealTimes replaced RealPlayer in 2015). I’ve run into these formatting issues many times, so I have RealPlayer installed, but many people do not have it. The simple act of having to download the player in order to view the media is an extra step that might deter people from exploring a website to the full capacity.

A few examples of the many internal server and software errors found on the Jazz website. Tabs like “Jazz Near You” become obsolete if the information pathways are not kept up to date.

Not all of the links are outdated though- in the “Jazz Links” section, there’s a link to a pretty cool website covering a documentary Duke Ellington’s Washington. There’s a link to a delightful Smithsonian sponsored website called Mississippi River of Song– it covers contemporary music along the Mississippi River. There’s an awesome interactive timeline of important music sites on the Mississippi River- the design is very intuitive, and I know I’ll keep in mind when designing our final project. The website isn’t all bad. There’s solid information about the documentary series itself, the production, and jazz history. It just falls short in terms of continuing education and drawing more contemporary connections.

In reading Rosenzweig and Cohen’s introduction to History Web, I was struck by how many historians were turned off by the internet and publishing history on the web during the early 199os. I shouldn’t have been, but I was-such amusing doomsday rhetoric! This site is a poor representation of what effective digital humanities should look like, but unfortunately, shares many of the characteristics of many history websites: broken links and outdated formats. Websites like PBS’s Jazz underscore the importance of a contingency plan. Once your website is up and running, how will you maintain it? Are there funds appropriated for website maintenance? Perhaps your website does have an expiration date, and in that case it’s important to see to its effective retirement. PBS’s Jazz website seems to want to remain relevant on the World Wide Web, but to do that, they’ve got to make sure to stay on top of it.

Watch this, it’s a worthwhile distraction.

2 thoughts on “Everybody Loves Ken Burns (and jazz)

  1. Great blog post, Hannah! Your evaluation of “Jazz” really made me think about the relevancy or popularity of certain histories depending on the time period. You rightly identify the challenges of coupling a site in the history web with a medium like a documentary that is dependent upon the lasting relevancy or popularity of that product. As the documentary’s initial visibility from pushy marketing campaigns diminishes, what should the plan be for the accompanying website? Should it be removed altogether? As you mentioned, sustainability is a huge issue here.


  2. You raise some important questions about issues of web sustainability when you pointed out the broken links and outdated plugins like RealPlayer. I’m curious how old the site is and when maintenance may have started to lag. When was the film and the site created? As I reviewed Colonial Williamsburg’s site, which was just revamped this summer, even there I found a few broken links. But in this case, I found that some of the plugins they were using were perhaps TOO modern! I was excited to take a 3D tour of the town as it was in 1776, but when I downloaded the program needed to run it, I still couldn’t get it to operate :(. At what point do you think a site should be taken down if it’s no longer being updated or maintained? Does it have value that merits its presence on the web even if parts of it are broken?

    I also liked how you pointed out how centralized the site’s Jazz theme was, and that links to the main PBS pages were small and out of the way. When I was looking at the history material available on Colonial Williamsburg’s website, I was frequently annoyed when their efforts to advertise for tourism got in the way of exploration. It sounds like the site you reviewed was much more effectively organized, if lacking in other areas. Nice distraction!!


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