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Roger Levesque
Edmonton Journal, December 2010

MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Bluesland – A Portrait in American Music (NTSC) 2057168
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: The Story of Jazz (NTSC) 2057158
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Lady Day – The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (NTSC) 2057098
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Sarah Vaughan – The Divine One (NTSC) 2057128
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Celebrating Bird – The Triumph of Charlie Parker (NTSC) 2057078
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Thelonious Monk – American Composer (NTSC) 2057118
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Count Basie – Swingin’ the Blues (NTSC) 2057148
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: The World According to John Coltrane (NTSC) 2057108

Thanks to the folks at EuroArts and Naxos Canada, eight fine jazz and blues documentaries made in the early 1990s have been remastered and issued in the DVD format, titled Masters Of American Music (all sold separately). The two introductory surveys Bluesland and The Story Of Jazz run about 90 minutes, bringing across the essence and evolution of the music using a mix of vintage clips and expert commentary. Six more titles take a specific hour-long focus on singers Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and innovators Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie and John Coltrane, alternating between concert footage and interviews with their collaborators and contemporaries. The Monk and Parker films were especially memorable. © 2010 Edmonton Journal

Ken Dryden
All About Jazz, May 2010

Billie Holiday has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. With her extensive catalogue of recordings for several labels, Holiday’s music has been readily accessible though relatively little live footage with audio is available.

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday integrates film and video performances, recordings, words from her controversial autobiography (read by actress Ruby Dee) and interviews with artists who played with her (pianist Mal Waldron, trumpeter Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison), Milt Gabler (owner of Commodore and a producer at Decca), author Albert Murray and vocalists Carmen McRae and Annie Ross.

Recognized early on as a talent by impresario John Hammond, Holiday gained a foothold at the age of 17 in 1933, debuting on a Benny Goodman recording of the unpromising “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” for Columbia. In 1935, she was recording with bandleader Teddy Wilson and, by the following year, under her own name. Frequently the victim of racism, Holiday left Artie Shaw after a short time because she was omitted from some club dates due to the owners’ attitudes, seething in the bus while a white female singer performed pieces associated with her. The one time she landed a movie role, it was as a lowly maid in New Orleans, with subservient demeaning lines.

There are plenty of anecdotes. McRae states that Lester Young addressed Holiday’s mother as “Lady Day” and Billie appropriated the nickname. Gabler, who recorded Holiday singing the controversial ballad “Strange Fruit” (which scared Columbia executives), recalled her captivating audiences with it at Café Society Downtown. Waldron, her last accompanist, is shown playing with her late in her career, explaining how much he learned while working with her. The documentary wouldn’t be complete without Billie Holiday singing “Billie’s Blues” in 1957 on the television program The Sound of Jazz, marking her final reunion with Lester Young.

Brian Ferdman, February 2010

Matthew Seig’s Lady Day – The Many Faces of Billie Holliday intersperses Ruby Dee’s reading of passages from Holliday’s autobiography with interviews of luminaries, such as Carmen McRae and Buck Clayton, to tell the tortured tale of the much abused but vocally triumphant singer. While one might think an autobiography would provide all the insight needed to examine an artist’s life, the interviewees are quick to point out the puzzling errors and exaggerations in Holiday’s version of her story. These individuals also shed light on the fact that Holiday could not read music and learned much of her musical styling by studying the vocal phrasing used by Louis Armstrong. Considering her lack of musical training and her hardscrabble childhood amongst the pimps and whores of Fells Point in Baltimore, much of the film is dedicated to Holiday achieving success against all odds. A plethora of fine television clips round out this richly detailed story, including a spine-chilling, full version of the infamous “Strange Fruit” and a nasty version of “Fine and Mellow” with Holiday and saxophonist Ben Webster making musical love to one another.

This originally aired as part of the PBS Masters of American Music series.

Mike Clark
USA Today, November 2009

An irresistible title in the Masters of American Music series, this newly remastered bio/documentary opens by tracing the queen of jazzy torch from Harlem “speakeasies, gin mills and reefer pads” (to quote the narration) through her 78s with Teddy Wilson on Brunswick. Then, it’s on to swingin’ with Count Basie, headaches with Artie Shaw; peak years that included Lover Man; substance abuse; the twilight 1957 appearance with Lester Young on CBS’ The Sound of Jazz ; and 1958’s raw valedictory Lady in Satin album. Interviewed are singers Carmen McRae, Annie Ross and Holiday associates. The still photos are magnificent.

Mark S. Tucker
Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange, November 2009

Billie Holiday was probably the only jazz personage of the time whose story was so close to Charlie Parker’s, a gent she succeeded in age by only a decade, dying at 44, but there’s a crucial difference in her story, one that Carmen MacRae makes evident: she was a complete natural and not so much a musician and artist but exactly what she was. Holiday constantly sang as a young child and discovered speakeasies at the tender age of 12, crooning there to make money.

At 18, Albert Hammond discovered her and thus started a legend, but slowly at first: almost no one paid attention to Holiday’s first record. Taking her cue from Louis Armstrong, though, it wasn’t long before Lady Day took hold and began to impress people. A big bonus on this DVD is the inclusion of snippets of Ruby Dee reading Billie’s alleged own words about herself and her art. Catching that first person slant has impact. Tucked in around are MacRae, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Mal Waldron, and others, reminiscing and analyzing.

Like the rest of the DVDs in this series, Lady Day follows the Holiday chronology, constantly featuring that high fragile voice which could nonetheless gain power and authority, especially in songs like Swing It, Brother, Swing with the Basie Band, where she gained her sobriquet, one Lester “Prez” Young actually gave her mother, not her, as has been otherwise said. Carmen MacRae ribaldly asserts the contrary, saying Holiday appropriated it for herself, recognizing a good stage tag when she heard it.

Unlike the Parker DVD, Lady Day is a good deal more upbeat. Holiday lived a very unusual wide-ranging life, from brothels to tour buses with the band, playing craps and rapping all night with the boys in the band. Joining up with Artie Shaw exposed her to white audiences, which proved to be the true launching point popularity-wise…though she nonetheless encountered no end of bigotry from authorities and businessmen, forcing her to abandon the ensemble. Still, she continued to sell, and singers studied her work extensively. Billy became one of the highest paid black performers in the country.

Lady Day severely downplays the drug aspect of Holiday’s life, the problems with relationships as well, centering on her role as one of the two founders of jazz singing, Louis Armstrong the other. Nonetheless, her problems with heroin and alcohol inevitably come up, as they must, and the marking point of her descent becomes evident, quickly passed over until the last quarter of the documentary. Regardless, this entry in the Masters of American Music is an excellent hour-long tour of the times, the star, and the story, the best yet produced (it won a 1994 ACE award), planting the seed of desire to see and hear more.

Oh, and the kicker of the entire affair seems to be the fact that Lady Sings the Blues is the culprit for whatever distortions have occurred, a biography by muckraker William Dufty—oddly enough also the author of the excellent Sugar Blues, a classic that slammed the sugar industry and was profoundly affective on diet change in America. Dufty quite evidently exaggerated generously in order to sensationalize matters and boost sales.

Need I emphasize the irony of yet another white guy profiting off black talent in a business world whose actions towards them has historically been nothing unless than criminal?

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9:36:29 PM, 4 September 2015
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