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Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz

Ken Dryden By

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Various Artists
Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz
Naxos Jazz

Various documentaries have been made about jazz over the years with mixed results. While the 1993 DVD Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz is only 98 minutes long, it ends up being far more wide-ranging, less repetitious and better written than the much longer and somewhat controversial Ken Burns' Jazz released the following decade. The Story of Jazz covers the early cross-cultural roots of jazz then every major style by blending focused writing, plus careful choice of photos, music, film, video and interview subjects.

Director Matthew Seig and veteran jazz journalist/producer Chris Albertson cowrote the project. The interviews include dozens of players, which help to flesh out the contributions of individual artists or the influence of an earlier style on a new approach, woven into a fast-paced collage of often rarely-seen photos, film and video clips, covering ragtime, classic jazz and New Orleans jazz, blues, swing, boogie-woogie, bop, cool, free jazz and fusion. Among those examined in depth are Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, though the pace never bogs down on any one artist.

One of the strengths here is a focus upon the musicians who played during an era mentioned, often having worked with or been influenced by the players they discuss, instead of artists who weren't even born during the style's heyday or on long-winded writers. Of course, a number of respected jazz journalists, among them Gary Giddins, Howard Mandel, Albert Murray, Dan Morgenstern and others (though none of them are heard or seen on camera) were involved in interviewing these jazz greats, many of whom have passed away since the initial release of this DVD. Fortunately errors are at a minimum (though it is funny to hear Barry Harris call Monk a prolific composer by comparing him to Ellington). The Story of Jazz is the rare documentary that holds one's attention while encompassing a remarkable scope of subject matter.

Production Notes: 98 minutes

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