Collecting five-and-a-half hours of quality jazz documentary footage, the limited edition five-DVD Masters of American Music provides a great primer on America’s art form. The first four discs each focus on a different jazz legend, while the fifth disc presents an overall history of the genre. These documentaries all follow a similar formula, mixing performance and interview footage with still photos and well written narration.
The first disc contains the 1990 documentary Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. Directed by Matthew Seig, the hour-long program provides insight into the artistry of one of jazz’s most influential vocalists. Lady Day combines performances clips of Holiday along with interviews with colleagues and contemporaries. It’s a great way to become acquainted with one of the most unique voices in music history while also learning about her troubled life.
Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker is a 1987 documentary about the revolutionary saxophonist, detailing his accomplishments during a life that ended at age 34. The film is narrated by the late Ted Ross. It’s effective at placing Parker’s bebop innovations in context with the earlier styles of jazz, carefully pointing out which players influenced his groundbreaking approach. It also delves into the origins of his drug addiction that so tragically contributed to shortening his life.
Another classic vocalist is given a closer look in the 1993 documentary, Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One, which covers the artist's five-decade career. The program opens with clips from a various concerts, jumping around from the 1970s to the ‘80s, back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Vaughan doesn’t really have the same immediately recognizable brand-name awareness of Billie Holiday, which makes The Divine One all the more valuable. Anyone unfamiliar with her brilliant phrasing will likely be a fan after watching the generous amount of performance footage included. Her good-humored attitude is on display in a clip from The Dick Cavett Show, in which she boasts she can “out cuss Popeye the Sailorman.”