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.”
Written by Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe, Thelonious Monk: American Composer offers an examination of one of the most idiosyncratic jazz pianists and composers. The best parts of this 1993 documentary are when director Matthew Seig (who, it should be noted, directed everything in this set except Celebrating Bird) allows us to see and hear clips of Monk playing. Like all the programs in this series, this isn’t the place for uninterrupted, complete performances. But we do hear parts of classic Monk originals, such as “Epistrophy,” “Round Midnight,” and “Trinkle Tinkle.” Interviews with Monk’s former students, as well as his children, offer further insight.
Rounding out the package is The Story of Jazz, which is actually the perfect disc to watch first. If you don’t have the time (or budget) for Ken Burns’ much lengthier documentary, this program offers a solid alternative. Keep in mind, this film was produced in 1993 and as such can’t cover anything that occurred during the last eighteen years. The other discs focus on artists whose careers had ended by the time these documentaries were produced. But The Story of Jazz focuses primarily on the bebop era, which makes it a perfect companion piece to the other discs in the set.
Euroarts has done a big favor for jazz fans by putting these discs together in one package at a very reasonable price. Given the age of each documentary, the audio/visual quality is nowhere near what we expect from modern high-definition productions. But they are consistently watchable in all cases, with clear archival footage and serviceable audio that convey the brilliance of the artist being profiled.