Sarah Vaughan: Swing Era: Sarah Vaughan [DVD]

John Bergstrom

Sarah Vaughan

Swing Era: Sarah Vaughan [DVD]

Label: Music Video Distributors
US Release Date: 2004-03-23
UK Release Date: Available as import

First things first: let's take care of some very misleading packaging and marketing on the part of this DVD and its producers, Idem Home Video. Stay with me for a moment. In 2003, ex-Chicago Bears head coach Dick Jauron made an infamous comment regarding his weekly radio program, The Dick Jauron Show. He said, "That's not my show. I'm on that show, but that's not my show." Well, Sarah Vaughan is on this video, but it's not a Sarah Vaughan video, despite the name that appears in big, capital letters on the package. Out of 21 performances, only -- count 'em -- five are Vaughn's. That's less than 20% of the disc's 80-minute running time. The disc is filled out by performances from several other female jazz singers including Lena Horne, Bessie Smith and "the legendary all-female orchestra from the Swing era", the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As far as context, forget it; though Vaughan's performances are from the '50s, the others date from the '20s and never stretch beyond the '40s.

If all this doesn't make you indignant enough to refuse buying this disc on principle, then at the very least it needs to be evaluated for what it really is. It's tough to know exactly where Vaughn's performances came from because the producers have provided next to no information. The cue cards at the beginning of each track state that they are "Snader Telescriptions". According to the Library of Congress Motion Picture & Television Reading Room, thousands of Snader Telescriptions were produced in the early 1950s. They were numbered studio "performances" that were sold to TV stations, making them some of the very first "music videos" (how hard would it have been for Idem to take five minutes to do a little Web surfing?!?). Given these circumstances, it makes perfect sense that all of Vaughn's performances are ballads and/or blues numbers that find her backed by slick strings and orchestras that were meant to increase commercial appeal. The tame music doesn't make Vaughan's bounding voice any less lovely, though. Just when you think her bop-influenced phrasing is about to go off the rails, she reins it back in with ease. The more-lively "Perdido", in particular, gives her a chance to stretch things out a bit.

Visually, Vaughan's presence is cherubic. She always has a game smile on her face. There's not much to the production, however. Only half the clips are in color (everything else on this video is black and white.) The studio backdrops are sterile, and the filming is mostly a one-camera affair with one or two cuts. Several times during trumpet solos, an extreme close-up of the bell of the instrument is inserted without any hint of a human attached to it. There's no doubt that Vaughan is one of the greats, but you don't need this video to prove it.

The clips from the other performers are cut from the same basic material as Vaughan's, with two notable exceptions. Lena Horne's "Boogie Woogie Dream" and Bessie Smith's "Saint Louis Blues" are actually short films with the songs as centerpieces. Horne and her sidemen, working as lowly kitchen attendants, dream of performing with a big band; in this case, Teddy Wilson's. A high-society couple catch Horne and Co. jamming after hours, and Horne's "Dream" is fulfilled when the couple recruit her and her act for another club. A good decision, too, as Horne and pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson kick up some real dust. Smith, though, is not so lucky; she's left with the "Blues" after being abused and discarded by her man -- twice. With a voice and presence like hers, though, she'll land on two feet. These "shorts" and others like them, then, are really the first long-form music videos. That's amazing, considering that "Blues" was shot in 1929!

The other true curiosity here is the cache of clips, nine in all, from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Formed in the '40s, they were groundbreaking not only for being an all-women's big band, but also for integrating white, black, and Asian women. Needless to say, they had a hard time gigging in the deep South. Even in the 21st Century, jazz is a male-dominated form. You don't see a whole lot of women blowing on horns or sitting behind drum kits, which makes the Sweethearts refreshing even 60 years on. The music, all jump blues, is fine; although leader/sometime vocalist Anna Mae Winburn and her crew give it their all, nothing here is distinguished in arrangement or performance.

Rounding out the disc are single performances from Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters with Count Basie, and a pair from Ida Cox. The entire video is marred by the sheer age of the recordings. There's little evidence of any effort having been made to restore the sound or picture, so it's a mixed bag all around. Cox's clips are basically unwatchable due to the horrible sound. Overall, it's hard to imagine anyone but jazz historians or archivists getting their money's worth out of this video. Fans of Vaughan would be far wiser to pick up one of the many fine collections of her work on CD, where "Sarah Vaughan" usually means just that.

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