Over the years, producers and other management types in the music industry have developed bad reputations. They don't care about the music and they're only interested in getting as much money as possible out of the acts they represent sums up what a lot of people think. Sure there have been unscrupulous assholes who have robbed people blind, but there have also been men and women who loved the music they helped produce.
One of the real greats among jazz and blues music producers was Norman Granz. He worked with almost every name in jazz from the 1930s until the time of his death. He was responsible for bringing together some of the greatest players of his time to perform and record together.
The Montreux Jazz Festivals of 1977 featured two concerts of his; Count Basie with Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Vic Dicinson, Al Grey, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown, and Jimmie Smith were one line up. On another night he brought together Oscar Peterson with Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Niels-Henning Oversted, and Bobby Durham. Each of these concerts were glorious opportunities for the men performing to improvise around the songs they had all been playing together for years.
That's what Granz did; he created situations where gifted musicians came together to feed off each other's talents and make magic. When Dizzy Gillespie listens to an Oscar Peterson piano run, his solos are going to reflect that influence, making them unique to that moment in time. Eagle Rock Entertainment has just released the two DVD set Norman Granz Presents Improvisation that gathers together a number of unique moments featuring some of the greatest players in the history of jazz.
In the 1940s Norman Granz and photographer Gjon Mili collaborated on a short film called Jammin' The Blues. The movie featured the era's best jazz musicians performing and improvising. What made this film unique for the time was it wasn't filmed live, but shot like any other movie would have been on a soundstage. People were so taken with it that it was nominated for best short feature at the 1944 Academy Awards.
Inspired by the success of this film Norman and Gjon hooked up again in 1950 to make another movie focusing more on the newer sounds of bebop where improvisation flourished in the playing of people like Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Buddy Rich. Unfortunately, they made the decision to film in Gjon Mili's photography studio in downtown New York City and pre-record all the music because it wasn't a sound proof environment.
With multiple takes and using more them one camera angel, the problem became synchronizing the sound and the visual in the final product. Warner Brothers weren't interested in putting out the kind of money that editing a project like that would have cost in the 1950s. It wasn't until a few years ago with the advances made in editing technology, the film finally had the audio and video synchronized. It's still not perfect, in places the sound and visual are slightly out of sync, but that does nothing to depreciate its value as a historical record.
Norman Granz Presents: Improvisation starts off the first disc with this 1950s film and opens with the only known footage of Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins playing together. There are five excerpts in total from that movie, and they are each small gems. As far as I'm concerned, the only problem with them is they leave you wanting to see and hear more.
Watching Charlie Parker break into a huge grin at the antics of Buddy Rich on drums makes these excerpts worth watching. Being able to hear and watch him and Coleman Hawkins, followed by Lester Young and Ella Fitzgerald playing together, when they were all young and in their prime, is a treat no matter how small of a taste is offered.
The balance of the first disc is taken up with more concerts that Norman Granz filmed and organized where the musicians have been gathered together with the express purpose of improvising. The first of these wasn't filmed until the 1960s, and is a static shot of Duke Ellington playing in a trio and improvising a tune on the piano based on the sculpture of Spanish artist Joan Miro.
"Blues For Joan Miro" starts with the sculptor leading the piano player around an exhibit of his work. Neither man speaks each other's language, so they are playacting for the camera with their animated discussions in front of each piece, but it doesn't matter, for when Ellington sits down at his keyboard, you can tell he was affected by the wildness and shapes of the sculpture he had just seen.
The balance of disc one is taken up with footage from the 1977 Montreux Jazz Fest mentioned earlier. Interspersed are clips of Joe Pass improvising on his guitar around "Ain't Misbehavin'", and "Prelude To A Kiss" filmed in 1979, and two cuts of Ella Fitzgerald from the same year. She proves that almost thirty years after Gjon Mili's 1950 film, she's still the queen when it comes to vocal improvisations.
Disc two is primarily photo galleries, interviews, and the like dealing with the making of the Mili film in 1950. As an added bonus they've included the 1944 film Jammin' The Blues giving you an idea of what they were trying to accomplish with the second movie. Comparing the two projects you can see why they wanted to move off the soundstage to Mili's studio; the footage from the second movie has a relaxed intimacy that is missing from the formal shooting patterns of Jammin' The Blues.
Even in spite of the sound being pre-recorded in the second movie, it somehow manages to capture more of the free spirit of improvisation and jazz than any of the other tracks on this recording. Although each of them has an impact and power of their of their own, these black and white images from the early 1950s are the ones that have stayed with me long after I've finished viewing it.
Norman Granz Presents Improvisation is great collection of live jazz concerts and filmed jazz featuring some of the most renowned players in history. Watching these great players and singers improvise and perform is a treat. No fan of jazz music will want to be without this documentation of some truly great moments in twentieth century jazz.