Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz Documentary


“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.” -Ken Dryden — all about jazz: June 12, 2010 –

A decade before Ken Burns aired his 20-hour 2001 PBS series “Jazz,” producer Toby Byron and friends had already labored halfway through their own ambitious video retrospective on what is not inappropriately called America’s classical music. Some parts of Byron’s “Masters of American Music” got onto TV, some saw only VHS release — the first four segments of the current Naxos-Medici DVD reissue project make you appreciate the role that connections, timing and reputation play in establishing which documentaries get considered definitive and which are nearly forgotten. It’s now clear that Byron’s work in no way fell short.

In fact, the proportions of the 1993 “Masters” overview, “The Story of Jazz,” suggest that it could have served Burns as a template. Both “Story” and Burns’ “Jazz” lean heavily on the first 20 years of jazz’s recorded history; “Story” runs through more than an hour of its 98 minutes before it even arrives at the bebop revolution of the mid-1940s. Both devote generous swaths to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington while cutting a thin slice of the pie for the avantists of the 1960s; “Story” doesn’t mention Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp or even Sonny Rollins.

In the case of both series, the imbalance is a fault. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with either’s coverage of the Dixieland, swing and bop eras. The “Masters” docs can boast one special strength: Before it was too late, they logged fresh interviews with musicians who knew the history firsthand. Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine, for instance, died in 1993, Carmen McRae in 1994, Joe Williams in 1999.

The second great strength of “Masters” lies in the archival performances. Even the overview (directed by Matthew Seig) lingers long enough on footage of Eckstine, Artie Shaw, Earl Hines and many more to leave vivid impressions of how they looked and played; many of the clips date to periods when few jazz musicians got their faces on film.

The stage shots stretch out even longer in the first three hourlong documentaries on individual artists — Billie Holiday from 1990, Thelonious Monk from 1991 (both directed by Seig) and Charlie Parker from 1987 (by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons). Each claims its own particular virtues. We see Holiday wither from a chubby child to a frail but devastating interpreter, her story given human warmth by the insightful memories of McRae and Annie Ross. Monk’s hats, clothes and face change while his fingers explore the consistently brilliant corners of his original mind; we understand his family life and historical context through the words of Thelonious Monk III and the great pianist Randy Weston (watch Weston’s spread-eagle hands as he demonstrates). Anytime you witness Parker’s otherworldly speed, inflection and imagination, it’ll blow you away, but Giddins’ documentary scores extra points for its thorough setup of the saxist’s early life in Kansas City, including a rare interview with his first wife, Rebecca, whom he married when he was 15.

In recent years, Naxos has ushered in a golden age of archival jazz with its mind-boggling “Jazz Icons” series of concert DVDs featuring Coltrane, Rollins, Mingus and more; the label remains far in front of a limited pack with “Masters of American Music,” which will add reissues on Trane, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and the blues next year. As the late trumpeter Lester Bowie observes in “The Story of Jazz,” this music remains a young art form. Injections like these guard it from premature senility. —, December 3, 2009

A must have for any student, fan, lover of jazz. From New Orleans to free form, all styles are illustrated with rare film and video performances in black and white and color. Featuring a video clip from one of the legendary Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration sessions (Coltrane taking a blazing excursion on “Blues for Pablo”). — Nuvo, Chuck Workman, December 9, 2009

In the late 1980s through 1997 German producer Toby Byron made a landmark series of jazz documentaries – under the umbrella title, Masters of American Music – which were released on VHS by Sony in the U.S. Now, thanks to Naxos, four of these are available again, this time on DVD. The one to start with is The Story of Jazz (MediciArts), which in 90 minutes takes the viewer from New Orleans to free jazz and beyond with interviews and performance clips – necessarily brief – from all the greats. Other volumes now available are devoted to Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. (My favorite Byron film – Satchmo – is not out yet on DVD.) There are no bonus features on these discs but they are indexed into chapters. If you missed the original releases, you’ll want these. Along with the Jazz Icons, these DVDs should be in every music library. — In The Groove, December 2009

Jazz is complex in its bobs and weaves, but back in the 80s and 90s, there was an award winning documentary series on some of the heavyweights of the genre that provided the first basic and historical look at what is the one of the world’s greatest art forms of the twentieth century.

Known as the “Masters of American Music,” the set has been restored, remastered and released on DVD for the first time on four discs, three celebrating individual artists and one giving a broad overview of jazz.

Dispensing with the often snobbish critics and historians, the series focuses on the musicians, dozens of them telling the story of jazz in their own words. Music performances are allowed to play out, entertaining moments are illuminated, and the irrepressible nature of the music and its greatest innovators shines through.

“The Story of Jazz” tells the colorful tale of cross-cultural influences that produced the constantly evolving, enduring music in a 100 minute mix of sounds, rare film clips, stills, and interviews that places the history of jazz into proper perspective.

It’s a captivating trek through the stylistic changes that have kept jazz so fresh for all these years with New Orleans traditions to the blues to cool, free-form encapsulated by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. — The Delaware County Daily Times, Michael Christopher, December 18, 2009

Naxos is rather well known for its superior taste and presentations, and this introductory DVD is a rounded warm-up to a series of individualized releases which go far to humanize the personalities behind the jazz myths, exaggerations, lies, and cult of personality distortions both positive and negative. Underneath it all, we find consummate creatives, human beings who worked their rear ends off to uplevel the culture alongside the entire concept of music, especially Western art music. The Masters of American Music aired on TV and sold as VHS commodities during the 80s and 90s, quite well received; now there’s new media format, DVD, so they’re finally undergoing a richly deserved reissuance.

The Story of Jazz gives us just that, a panorama of the mode since its New Orleans inception right up to 50s and 60s free jazz and modern manifestations, compressing all into a fast-moving and engrossing 98 minutes zeroing in on historic authenticity. Along the way and all through the series, 80 prominent figures were interviewed–Dizzy, Brubeck, Lester Bowie, Tony Bennett, and a universe of others–giving intimate windows onto the daily nuts and bolts beneath historic chronologies. Then there are performance clips from Miles, the Duke, the Count, Mingus, and many giants of the genre.

Of striking importance is panoply of footage from the times: club gigs, street scenes, and such that are rarely available otherwise. These glimpses into the everyday afford a great deal of empathy for the degree of achievement connoted and denoted in the rise of jazz among a people too often treated as tenth-class citizens in their own country. Lester Bowie and Wynton Marsalis, ever the scholars, serve here alongside the greats of the time (Carmen MacRae, Jay McShann, Randy Weston, and, well, just an overwhelmingly stellar array), commenting and guiding the listener through subtleties and overviews.

The tone of the entire parade of swingin’, boppin’, bluesin’, jazzin’ interludes is warm and intimate. You feel a part of it, as though there, watching Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine on stage. The pace is headily breathtaking, the stock footage dazzling, and the editing brisk and vivacious, making for a viewing experience pulling the audience right into the dance and concert halls. Ken Burns may have devoted 382-1/2 hours to his more comprehensive series, but this is the *ne plus ultra* of the short take, a gourmet compression of greatness in one sitting. Don’t be surprised, though, if it only sharpens up your appetite for more — in which case, repair to the reviews of the simultaneously reissued documentaries on Thelonius Monk, Billy Holiday, and Charlie Parker. Bon appetit!

Oh, and if you were wise enough to grab any of Naxos’ other killer jazz box set vids over the last decade or so, don’t worry for a moment: these don’t duplicate any of them and are supernaturally complementary to the entire flow of things–nonpariel for beginner and veteran jazzfreak alike. — Acoustic Music, Mark S. Tucker, November 2009

Rating: 5 stars This superb compilation does the best job of shoe-horning the history of jazz into an hour and a half that I have ever seen. In some ways it’s more balanced and accurate than Ken Burns required a whole series to accomplish. It was originally part of a TV mini-series in the early 90s, together with separate similar documentaries on Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker from the same source, and they were all once available on VHS. Now EuroArts and Medici TV has remastered them with high quality and Naxos is distributing them to viewers who missed the series the first time around. This one won an award from Swing Journal as the Best Music Program of the Year in 1995.

The director, writers and producers had access to a wide variety of footage for the documentary. Some come from the same sources used in their three other jazz films, some come from kinescopes of early and rare TV appearances by jazz performers, and yet others from the “soundies” and other movie shorts filmed for theaters by such bands as Billy Eckstine, Dizzy and Count Basie. The unique “The Sound of Jazz” CBS-TV special is the source for the clips of Billie Holiday performing – when well past her prime but still fascinating to see and hear. In fact, one of the pleasures of the documentary is seeing all these great jazz figures on the screen – some of whom we’ve never even seen photos of (somehow I had thought Buck Clayton was white) and others we didn’t know what they looked like in the late 80s or early 90s – only photos taken in their youthful careers. Some age wonderfully – such as cuddly Dizzy – while others look terrible.

The filmed comments of all these top jazz stars may not be equaled in any other video presentation. They bring together the story of jazz in a very direct and exciting manner that should communicate to extremely wide audiences. The film covers more years than most “history of jazz” presentations too. It begins with the dances and songs of the slaves in New Orleans’ Congo Square, and continues its story all the way into the avant garde and late Coltrane. While it doesn’t include Django Reinhardt either, and has to leave out some big names in the history, they aren’t blaring omissions as were a few in the Ken Burns series. Perhaps it will even interest music fans who have been strictly into pop or classical to sample some of the cornucopia of terrific recorded jazz that is easily available to them. — Audiophile Audition, John Henry, January 6, 2010

The Masters of American Jazz series is the next best thing to a smoke-filled room on 52nd St. in the 1940s.

Aside from “Bird” Parker, this lastest batch of performances and interviews feature pianist Thelonious Monk, thrush Billie Holiday and “The Story of Jazz,” a scholarly but vivid look back at America’s most thrilling musical dialect…

Finally, for the novitiate and cognoscenti alike, “The Story of Jazz” presents the century-long evolution of the art form from its blues roots to New Orleans, from swing to bebop and beyond — right up to the still-pulsing present. Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis contribute incisive reflections, and rare film clips pepper the informative history. — All Good Things, David Weiss, December 20, 2009

Thelonious Monk is represented in another superb series, “Masters of American Music.” It consists of three unusually sharp biographical documentaries that will enthrall hard-core jazz fans as well as newbies. The DVDs ($21.98 each) are devoted to the lives of Charlie “Bird” Parker and Billie Holiday as well as Monk. — Boston Herald, Larry Katz, December 15, 2009

While our most enduring musical gift to the world, jazz is often given short shrift by media in the United States. Not so the international conglomerate of companies behind the “Masters of American Music” documentary series (Medici Arts, B+), now out on DVD in digitally remastered form.

Start with the 90-minute overview, “The Story of Jazz,” which traces the music’s origins to African slaves beating on percussion instruments and playing banjos at New Orleans’ Congo Square. Then move on to other episodes focusing on major figures – “Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker,” “Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday” and (my personal fave as a creative personality) “Thelonious Monk: American Composer.”

Excellent period photos and performance clips (by both focus artists and contemporaries) reveal the environments in which jazz was fostered. Surviving luminaries and family members have memories to share, too (wow, was Parker’s second wife, Chan, bitter). And the scripted narratives have been stitched together respectfully by the likes of Parker biographer Gary Giddins. — Philadelphia Daily News, Jonathan Takiff, December 2009

Product Description

A rich ninety-minute weave of sounds, rare film clips, stills, and interviews that places the history of jazz into proper perspective. A captivating trek through the stylistic changes that have kept jazz so fresh for all these years. New Orleans traditions, stride, swing, boogie-woogie, big band, jump band, the singers, the dancers, the blues, bebop, Afro-Cuban, cool, free-form. It’s all here.  – Amazon


February 8th, 2014

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prove your human: *

Author: Paul Thomson