‘Masters of American Music’: Come, Be Dazzled By Jazz

Masters of American Music is a superb DVD boxset put together by Euroarts in order to celebrate what might be “America’s most significant and perhaps only truly original contribution to the arts”. For the first time, their award winning series of specials and documentaries, has been united to create one of the most fascinating releases of the year. The set consists of five documentaries shot during the ’90s. All of them cover a different aspect of the jazz culture but are unofficially divided into: jazz singers, jazz composers and jazz history.

The Story of Jazz directed by Matthew Seig (who directed three other movies in the set) is a fascinating look at the origins of this genre. Going all the way back to the 19th century, and the last years of the slave trade, Seig creates a haunting time machine that takes us to the old New Orleans, where slaves got together one day a week in order to reminisce about what they’d left behind in their Caribbean homes. It was from here that people like Scott Joplin and others before him got inspired to create rag tag and then eventually jazz. As with any historical piece where you don’t have actual footage or “scientific” proof, the film relies a bit on speculation in order to determine if there was an exact moment when jazz first came into existence.

Drawing elements from archival footage, as well as featuring interviews with jazz experts and musical journalists, the one undeniable thing about The Story of Jazz — and the one conclusion the entire boxset gets to — is how infectious its beats and melodies are. You can see how the people who talk about it are enjoying it, you feel the passion coming from the instruments and voices of its performers; and this feeling of joy seeps into the other four documentaries, as well.

Jazz turns “calculated chaos into social commentary” says the narrator and you can feel how with a single note, jazz musicians could evoke entire passages of American and black history. The arc the genre took, turning from protest music to Top 40 phenomenon, makes for an exciting sociological study that observes how the American society changed so much in the years leading to WWII.

One of the biggest figures in this shift was Thelonius Monk, subject of Thelonius Monk: American Composer. Highly regarded as one of the most influential figures in 20th century music, Monk was an unorthodox musician who, most agree, was never entirely in control of his genius. Orrin Keepnews who served as one of his producers tells how Monk always thought his music was simple, he never understood what made it so complicated. Watching Monk in archival footage is a dazzling experience because, thanks to the commentary of researchers and historians, you notice things that only make his music feel more pleasurable.

Part of the documentary concentrates on his TV performances and how when he played he used his whole body. You see him perform a ballet of sorts, throwing himself into the seductiveness of his compositions. There’s a performance of “Round Midnight” that gives you goosebumps and as one of his colleagues observes “he doesn’t just play the piano, he puts his whole body into the piano”.

Celebrating instrumental jazz musicians, Celebrating Bird, The Triumph of Charlie Parker is a sensitive look at one of the most tragic figures in music history. The virtuoso saxophonist who made jazz respectable and “invented” its popularity, is dissected through the eyes of his fellow musicians and his, unofficial, widow Chan Parker. Watching her smoke and talk to the camera is spellbinding. She reveals that Parker’s “greatest triumph” was his European tour, where he got the same respect and recognition, people back in America reserved exclusively for classical musicians. Parker’s music is played throughout and it’s impossible not to say that it adds an even stronger melancholy to his life story.

A pervading feeling that is carried all the way to Lady Day, The Many Faces of Billie Holiday a moving study of the first lady of jazz and how she might’ve created what it was to be a “jazz singer”. “She never riffed but never followed the music, either” says Carmen McRae as the film dedicates a large part of its running time to wonder what made Billie a “jazz singer”. The concept itself is played with to the point that it reaches an existential conundrum, making us wonder if there is an ultimate, all-encompassing definition of what jazz truly means. For all the people who say Billie was a torch singer, others claim she was a blues performer. Perhaps the most interesting notion is one that establishes that her voice was an instrument she could adapt to any genre.

Out of all the documentaries in this boxset, the one dedicated to Lady Day, might be the one that best does its job of pushing audiences to see beyond the biographical facts and enjoy the performances. It makes you question the essence of what you’re watching.

Things return to a path more traveled in the delightful Sarah Vaughan, The Divine One, an ode to the powerhouse singer that deals less with aspects of her life and creates an impressionistic portrait of what made her such an enigma. Watching her perform, first as she began her career and then when she was a living legend, gives us access to a hypnotizing transformation. The film opens with one of her performances in which she sweats (or perspires like Judy Garland would joke) as if she was running a marathon. Watching her whole body become wet with perspiration is something modern performers would be terrified of, but in the case of Vaughan, it gives an extra something to her music: it makes it seem as if her whole body was crying.

Masters of American Music might lack the extremely detailed structure of a Ken Burns piece, but its combination of performances, pure musical enjoyment and beautiful packaging, make it an essential addition to any music lovers’ collection.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.