Masters Of American Music – The Story Of Jazz, 5 DVD Set (2011)

by | Dec 14, 2011 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Masters Of American Music – The Story Of Jazz, 5 DVD Set (2011)
DVD 1 – Lady Day – The Many Faces Of Billie Holiday
DVD 2 – Celebrating Bird – The Triumph Of Charlie Parker
DVD 3 – Sarah Vaughan – The Divine One
DVD 4 – Thelonious Monk – American Composer
DVD 5 – The Story Of Jazz
Director: Matthew Seig – DVDs 1,3,4,5; Gary Giddins & Kendrick Simmons – DVD 2
Studio: Lower 5th/EuroArts/Medici TV 2058938 [Distr. by Naxos] (10/1/11)
Video: 1.33:1 for 4:3, B&W & color
Audio: English PCM Mono 2.0
Subtitles: English, German, French
All regions
Length: 331 minutes
Rating: *****

Masters Of American Music – The Story Of Jazz may be the most concise informative documentary on jazz to date. Five discs consisting of six and a half hours of material is presented in concise, informative segments. Comparisons to Ken Burns’ Jazz are inevitable, but unnecessary. This documentary combines extremely rare footage of performances and interviews to analyze the evolution of jazz and highlight four of its icons. Originally a television “mini-series”, the release of this limited edition digitally re-mastered set is good news for the world of jazz.
Lady Day – The Many Faces Of Billie Holiday is an award winning (1994 Cable Ace Award) look at the architect of modern jazz vocals. Presented with film clips, videos, recordings and interviews, Holiday’s life is a testament to a pioneer who suffered the indignities of racism and substance abuse in becoming a true jazz pioneer. Her ascent from big band singer to the toast of café society is covered in detail. Her sad, lilting vocal style was unique. The later performance of “Strange Fruit” is poignant and creative. Her lifestyle, which included a nine-month incarceration only added to the mystique. A performance of “Billie’s Blues” with Lester Young on a 1957 television program (The Sound Of Jazz) is wearily brilliant. Fellow musicians (especially Carmen McRae) were in awe of her singing and natural ability to collaborate. There are pictures and clips of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Benny Goodman. Anyone who listens to Holiday’s inimitable version of “My Man” or “I’m A Fool To Want You” will be mesmerized by her fragile genius.
Celebrating Bird – The Triumph Of Charlie Parker examines the life and times of a virtuosic saxophonist who became a “hipster” legend. From the opening black and white film performance, the message of a lifelong commitment (starting in hard scrabble Kansas City), portrays the artistic resolve of this individual. After the emergence of trumpeter Louis Armstrong (who is shown swinging on a great solo), “Bird” follows in the footsteps of Lester Young, and Ben Webster on the Kansas City scene. Unlike his contemporaries, Parker chose the alto saxophone. In many ways, he helped to create bop, and became a hero to the new beat generation. Creative improvisation entered the modern jazz scene. With that notoriety, came a darker narrative that included a chronic addiction to heroin. He and Dizzy Gillespie made bebop a household word. There is a plethora of clips, none more iconic than an early fifties TV performance of “Hot House” (with Gillespie). An untimely death will always invoke the “what if”…question. But the poetic imagery of “Charlie Parker on the bandstand” is immortal.
Sarah Vaughan – The Divine One is a focused look at one of the most ferocious singers in jazz history. From meager beginnings, singing in church, she became a brilliant solo artist and collaborated with Charlie Parker, Earl Hines, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie. This documentary has some riveting concert footage. On “The Shadow Of Your Smile” her ability to slow down the tempo and improvise is uncanny. Her legendary three octave range is showcased throughout the film. “Send In The Clowns” is transformed by a lower register vibrato that rumbles. Blues is no problem as she takes on Errol Garner’s “Misty” and makes it her own. Vaughan was a gifted, physical singer who put an incredible amount of energy into her work. She was a diva before the word was invented. A hilarious interview with Dick Cavett showcases her personality, and jazz royalty considered her an equal.
Thelonious Monk – American Composer is originally a 1991 documentary, one of several on the quirky jazz pianist. Clint Eastwood’s film Straight No Chaser came out three years before that. This one focuses strongly on Monk as the composer, in line with the title, making him a sort of swinging Webern.  (Even though his only real non-improvised composition was his “Crepuscule with Nellie.”)  There are many clips of Monk performing live, mostly from TV shows of the ‘60s. His unusual (originally self-taught) style of attacking the keyboard, his collection of hats, and the strange little dances he occasionally did all get some screen time.  Instead of a narrator, information about Monk is conveyed by talking heads: primarly pianist Randy Weston and Monk’s longtime drummer Ben Riley.  His career—from an unknown struggling jazz pianist to making the cover of Time magazine—is well covered, including a bit about his support from his patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. (We don’t get Monk speaking much, for that check the extras on the new Mosaic-distributed Jazz Icons DVD on Monk.)  This remains a great addition to material on the pianist whose unique style had a tremendous impact on modern jazz.
The final DVD, The Story Of Jazz (winner of the 1995 Swing Journal: Best Program Of The Year) analyzes the cultural and social morays of jazz in a dizzying ninety-eight minute collage of historical perspective. The list of exultant performances is endless, including Louis Armstrong (the father of jazz trumpet and the instrumental solo), Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Dave Brubeck Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and many, many more. The wide range of music (New Orleans, bop, fusion, blues, cool, boogie woogie) is presented as a textured mosaic with timeline continuity. The social issues of the movement are represented in equal proportions to the technical music facts. Modern artists like Wynton Marsalis demonstrate a kinship and connection to pioneers like King Oliver. Colleagues affirm the influential effects of their counterparts. The artists explain the significance of jazz in accessible, direct sound bites. The pace is furious and never loses momentum.
Masters Of American Music – The Story Of Jazz is a treasure. The mono sound is surprisingly clear and subtle. For anyone who is a jazz fan, this will be a welcome addition to their collection. For those looking to discover jazz for the first time, there is no better way to start.
—Robbie Gerson

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