JazzTown opens by asking the question “What is jazz?” It’s the sort of inquiry that leads to an infinite number of unique answers, and Ben Makinen’s documentary tries to showcase as many of those answers as possible through interviews with the local Denver jazz scene. Some answers are intellectual; as longtime Colorado political figure John Hickenlooper suggests, “Jazz is the polyrhythmic application of soul to life.” Others give answers that are deeper and more personal, such as “Jazz is freedom.” There’s no one answer, just like there’s no one proper way to perform within America’s most unique musical form.

The open-ended exploration of just what jazz means informs JazzTown‘s structure. It’s a freewheeling journey through notable local artists in Denver, chronicling their relationship to the music while also discussing their careers. Those with an interest in jazz will find a lot to like here, while viewers without a lot invested in the culture surrounding the music may find themselves checking their watches. PBS aired a shorter version of the documentary, and truth be told, the 90-minute version feels like an extended cut made specifically for jazz fans.

And there’s a lot here for them if they’re looking for performances and thoughtful conversations about the subject. Beyond that, the film doesn’t quite come together until the last 30 minutes or so, when Makinen shifts the question of what jazz means to his interview subjects to what it means to be a jazz musician — and whether making it as a musician is even feasible in this day and age. The truth of that question is more dramatic, and frankly more dispiriting, than the limitless release of performance.

To make a living practicing music has never been more difficult. There is more competition, more talent, more expectations, more boxes to check as an artist if you want to get paid. And there’s somehow less money than ever to go around. It’s a grounded and thoughtful place to end what is otherwise a somewhat broad and nebulous look at the Denver jazz community, and it brings home the way the scene has changed over the decades.

Although it doesn’t provide a lot to offer for general viewers, JazzTown serves as a compendium of what jazz can be seen through the eyes of a specific community. Makinen worked on the film for over a decade and included interviews with musicians of all stripes and talents, combining interviews with footage of live performances. The making of the film coincided with the COVID pandemic, which informs elements of its production. It’s a comprehensive glimpse of a moment in time.