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Masters of American Music Series: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday

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The Story of Jazz
Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker
Thelonious Monk: American Composer
The Many Faces of Billie Holiday
Naxos
2010

These four DVDs—separate broadcasts of the Masters of American Music TV series, originally released in eighties—seem by today's standards, like some paleo-technic relics from a bygone era. But, if, say, you wanted to know more about jazz and some of its leading lights, then these selections fit the bill, especially after Ken Burns Jazz. With over eighty interviews, archival concert footage, impeccable photographs, recordings, and informative interviews, the documentaries ranging from roughly an hour to ninety-eight minutes, offer exhaustive and entertaining insights in to the music and musicians of this great art form.

An art form that grew on American soil from the roots of old Europe and Africa; that's how The Story of Jazz begins. Co-written by Chris Albertson and Matthew Seig, this DVD traces the evolutionary arc of music: from its New Orleans genesis, Kansas City/Chicago gestation, and New York adulthood—from the second line, swing, bebop, hard bop, the avant-garde, fusion and free jazz—with a bevy of stars, including Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Taylor, Wynton Marsalis, and Charlie Parker. As overviews go, the DVD successfully manages to present nearly hundred years of jazz history, music and culture into a cohesive and compelling narrative that moves and grooves.

One of the music's greatest movers and groovers was the Kansas City-born alto saxophonist Charlie Parker: one of the co-creators of bebop, whose descent into a drug-addicted hell killed him, and forever mythologized him as a of the hip/junkie bopper. Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, written and co-directed by author and former Village Voice and JazzTimes writer Gary Giddins, restores balance to Bird's legacy, rightfully terming it a triumph in spite of his adversity. With interviews by Dizzy Gillespie, critic Leonard Feather, pianist Jay McShann, along with wives and siblings, Giddins reveals an artist of incredible complexity, as evidenced by the legendary records of "Koko" "A Night in Tunisia" and "Parker's Mood." The inclusion of Parker's historic TV clip with Dizzy Gillespie performing "Hot House" is the zenith of this important documentary.

Parker and Gillespie are two-thirds of the Holy Trinity of Bebop; the southern-born Thelonious Monk—one of the music's most idiosyncratic personalities, with his array of hats, dances, and of course, his unique and angular compositions—was another larger-than-life figure and the final third that completed that terrific triad. In Thelonious Monk: American Composer, written by poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe, Monk's debt to stride, his unique pianistic conception, and his advanced harmonies that made compositions like "Round Midnight," "Blue Monk," and "Ruby My Dear" classics are given their due. Subjects like Randy Weston, Charlie Rouse, Thelonious Monk III, and producer Orrin Keepnews, flesh out the hidden and neglected personal and musical aspects of this misunderstood genius. In light of Robin D.G. Kelley's amazing Monk biography, and the recent HBO documentary on Monk and the Baroness Pannonica Rothschild, this DVD is an excellent supplement to Monk's legacy.

Monk could make the piano sing. Billie Holiday sounded like a horn. Her life was viewed as a tragedy, immortalized by the seventies film Lady Sings the Blues. But Columbia University Professor Robert G. O'Meally's beautifully written Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (based on O'Meally's book of the same name), featuring writer Albert Murray, vocalist Carmen McRae, Holiday's pianist Mal Waldron and actress Ruby Dee reading Holiday's words, illuminates all of her many faces; happy, sad, gaunt, and full; simply put, her complexity and courage and courage as an African-American woman in a male-dominated art form. Watching her perform—gardenia-in-hair—selections like "Lover Man" "Strange Fruit," and her celebrated "Fine and Mellow," with her musical partner Lester Young, with Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Gerry Mulligan, along with the myriad images of Holiday in various visual modes—from gaunt to gorgeous, downtrodden to dominating—unveil a multifaceted and truer portrait of an enigmatic artist.

The great trumpet said that jazz is "instant swing," and these excellent documentaries will instantly acquaint you with the music's rich and rhythmic dimensions.


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