This boxed set assembles five DVDs about various aspects of jazz. Four of the discs concentrate on individual artists and the fifth is a general overview of the genre.
The first thing it makes you realise is the paucity of filmed material available about many famous jazz musicians. This underlines the importance of filming jazz artists while they are still alive, as such material is invaluable in tracing the history of jazz. Interviews with musicians who knew the subjects of these DVDs fill a lot of gaps, but we could still do with more evidence of the artists in action.
The first DVD - Lady Day, subtitled "The Many Faces of Billie Holiday" - uses a mixture of voice-over and Billie's words read by Ruby Dee to illustrate the sparse film footage of Billie performing. There is film of her performing such important songs as Strange Fruit but this is rare. Most of the pictorial material consists of still photographs. The documentary makes the point that Billie's version of jazz vocals was only preceded by the singing of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, so that Billie was treading a fairly new path. Singer Carmen McRae demolishes a myth by telling us that "Lady Day" was not Lester Young's nickname for Billie but for Billie's mother.
Celebrating Bird - subtitled "The Triumph of Charlie Parker" - reveals an even more drastic lack of film footage. It even employs film of Louis Armstrong which was used in the Billie Holiday DVD, and uses some of the same still photos several times, plus many filler shots of dancers jiving. At least we see the whole of the oft-abridged film of Bird playing Hot House with Dizzy Gillespie. Based on Gary Giddins' book of the same title, it tells Parker's story, although not always clearly. The narrator tends to gabble, and some of the interviews are obscured by Charlie's music in the background.
Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One makes the most of the more generous film available, tracing the development of a singer who started as a pianist and organist in church and became a vocalist with perfect pitch and the ability to improvise with remarkable invention. A high point is an extremely slow version of The Shadow of Your Smile: a triumph of extemporisation and breath control.
Thelonious Monk: American Composer also uses plenty of film to illustrate Monk's work. The subtitle emphasises his ability to write such jazz standards as 'Round Midnight, Blue Monk and Well You Needn't, and the commentary stresses the importance of stride piano in Thelonious' playing (James P. Johnson was one of his childhood heroes).
I have already reviewed the last DVD
in this box, which fills some
of the gaps left by the previous discs. This boxed set totalling five-and=a-half
hours has its drawbacks but it makes a helpful introduction to some
of the great jazz musicians.