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