Great Performances Jammin’: Jelly Roll Morton on Broadway

Narrator: Denzel Washington.

Narrator: Denzel Washington.

Jammin’: Jelly Roll Morton on Broadway” succinctly answers the first of Goethe’s three questions of artistic criticism: What was the artist trying to do? Producers Tom Bywaters and Nell Cox have provided director/author George C. Wolfe with the ideal vehicle from which he, along with various cast members, Luther Henderson (musical adaptations) and Susan Birkenhead (lyrics), clarifies just what the Tony Award-winning hit was about.

The PBS show blends “Jelly’s Last Jam” interviews with photos from Morton’s past, tied together by Denzel Washington’s narration and excerpts of recorded reflections by Morton himself.

These segments, coupled with Wolfe’s impassioned interjections, reveal Morton as a Creole racist who, because of boyhood indoctrinations by his family, was never able to see himself as black.

Ultimately, this closemindedness hampered the development of “his jazz.” The dramatic tension builds until, unable to continue drowning in denial, Morton faced all the parts of his black past–most of which he used for musical purposes.

Based on interviews here, the communication mode of the engrossing Wolfe seems to be high energy. The hour spec’s seamless shifts from Broadway to the past are fluid, making the bridges between the two clearly defined. The primary criticism is that a little more background information and a little less Wolfe would have supplied more meat for the concept.

The documentary definitely bears notice as it provides sharp insights into the torn soul of one of America’s great musicians while at the same time serving as road map into Wolfe’s creative genius from concept to production.

Great Performances Jammin': Jelly Roll Morton on Broadway

(Mon. (2), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

Production: A Luckyhitz production in association with Thirteen/WNET in New York and TV Asahi. Executive producer, Margo Lion; producers, Tom Bywaters, Nell Cox; coordinating producer, Marc Bauman.

Crew: Editor, Jeffrey Friedman; Writer, Bywaters; principal photography, Albert Maysles, Greg Andracke.

Cast: With: Gregory Hines, George C. Wolfe, Susan Birkenhead, Luther Henderson, Keith David, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Tonya Pinkins.

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