Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 29, 1953. He attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975 and later, an L.H.D. from Bates College in 2002. His first film, Brooklyn Bridge was made in 1981 and a succession of films followed including Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God in 1984 followed by The Statue of Liberty in 1985. His work in the nineties included the miniseries Baseball in 1994, the film Thomas Jefferson and Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, both released in 1997.
In 2001, Jazz earned him 5 Emmy nominations and the award for "Outstanding Achievement in News and Information" by the Television Critics Association. The miniseries follows the development of American Jazz from its development in African American culture to the height of its popularity between the 1920's and the 1940's. It is a complete look at the history of Jazz and the musicians who made it a part of American culture. All the jazz legends are featured; Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.
Ken Burns has become something of a legend himself. His method of stopping on photographs, often the only evidence of our history, zooming in on interesting subjects during a narrative, has become known in the industry as the "Ken Burns Effect."
His most recent work includes the 2004 film Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a story about the first heavyweight African American boxer. The film won three Emmys and several other accolades. He also produced a documentary about Mark Twain in 2001 and 2003's Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip, about the motorist Horatio Nelson Jackson. Tom Hanks narrated the voice of Jackson.
His seven-part documentary about WWII, titled The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945 was released on PBS in September 2007. The critically-acclaimed series chronicled World War II through stories, photographs and maps. His most recent documentary, America's Best Idea: Our National Parks, aired on PBS in September and October, 2009. He is currently working on a film about Prohibition and another about the Dust Bowl, which came out in 2012 along with The Central Park Five. Several other films, including The Roosevelts, The Vietnam War and Jackie Robinson, will be released in coming years.
It seems there is no end to the subjects that Burns has worked on. From Baseball, America's Pastime, to the history of our country, to the journey of some of the greatest American's, there is no limit to what he can produce. He is, without question, today's most celebrated American documentary filmmaker.