Bright Lights Film Journal

The Good, the Bad, and the Disingenuous: Jazz on DVD

You get what you pay for, if you’re lucky

In the bad old days, it was hard enough to hear jazz. To see it, well, that was wishing on the moon. But bit by bit, DVDs are making it possible for us to scrape together a fairly decent visual history of jazz, dating from the late twenties to the present. Hidden in the nooks and crannies of the archives of Hollywood film studios and American and European television networks, a remarkable number of worthwhile performances by jazz greats and not so greats somehow made it onto film, kinescope, and videotape, which are now being made accessible on disc.

Because jazz was rarely box office — at least, not box office the way Hollywood defines box office — much of this material, if it was ever copyrighted at all, quickly passed into the public domain. And therein lies the rub: what strikes one company as the priceless record of genius may strike another as a quick ten grand. The quality of restoration available today ranges from superb to shameful.

Definitely on the side of the angels, if not outright angelic, is Storyville Films, a Scandinavian outfit that’s been in the restoration business for decades. Storyville does a particularly nice job with the “Snader Telescriptions,” a series of televised spots originated by producer Lou Snader in the early fifties. Lou was a man of taste and vision. Naturally, he died unheralded and unknown. But today we are his heirs.

Snader’s idea was simple. What is television but radio with pictures? And why do people listen to radio? To hear music! Yes, it was too simple, and it didn’t sell. But for a few golden years, Snader turned his camera on the best jazz of the swing era available — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jack Teagarden (right), Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, and more! If, like me, you’ve always dreamed of seeing Teagarden perform his patented trombone slide and water glass bit, or hearing Bob Haggart and Ray Bauduc perform “Big Noise from Winnetka” in hi-fi, you’re in luck.

Okay, I may have lost some of the younger crowd, but if you’re still with me, it gets even better. Snader filmed Ellington, Basie, etc. as the great musicians they were. No one had to wear funny hats or ham it up. And with Storyville’s restoration, both sound and picture are remarkably good. (The spots were done on film rather than kinescope, which helps a lot.)

Ten years later, the Goodyear Tire Company took it upon itself to film a similar series, in color and stereo. Goodyear, as you might expect, never really got a handle on bop, so we get many of the same musicians, a little older, a little grayer, but still swinging.

Duke Ellington is featured on separate Storyville DVDs offering material from the Snader and Goodyear sessions, as well as a third disc that features Duke in a number of clips from 1929 through 1943, including a priceless and very well preserved rendition of “Old Man Blues” from the 1930 film Check and Double Check. A number of the clips, including “Black and Tan Fantasy ” (1929, above) and “Symphony in Black” (1933, with a very young Billie Holiday) have appeared on VHS many times before, but a 1943 short, which includes performances of “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” is much rarer.

There’s more early forties Ellington on the non-Storyville Centennial Collection, a CD/DVD combo that can be found in CD bins. The reproduction isn’t great, but you can get “Cotton Tail” (masquerading as “Hot Chocolate”), Ivie Anderson singing her classic “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” Herb Jeffries providing the hilariously lush “Flamingo” (naturally, a big hit), “Bli-Blip,” and, best of all, “Jam Session,” better known as “The C Jam Blues.”

Still another early Ellington clip, from the mid-thirties and featuring Ivie Anderson singing “Stormy Weather,” is available on two cheaply produced DVDs, Duke Ellington: Swinging at His Best and Duke Ellington: Forever Gold. It should be noted that both the “Cotton Tail” and “Stormy Weather” clips include painfully racist, misogynistic “dancing.”1)

Storyville also has a number of discs devoted to the most popular of all jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong and Friends has some fascinating, off-the-wall, black-and-white kinescopes dating from the early days of TV. Despite all the “showmanship,” Armstrong was still a great jazz musician in the fifties, and he proves it over and over again, notably with Jack Teagarden (“Jeepers Creepers”) and in his sole recorded encounter with Dizzy Gillespie. Neither Armstrong nor Gillespie give an inch here, and it’s a pleasure to see the two heavyweights slugging it out.2

The Centennial Collection combo for Coleman Hawkins offers only a few selections, but it’s definitely worth having. The disc leads off with selections from Jazz Party, a “short-lived” (one broadcast?) fifties TV show originating in Newark, New Jersey, featuring Hawk with a pickup band including Charlie Shavers on trumpet and Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. The group warms up with “Indian Summer” and “Avalon,” but things really pick up with “Jumping with Symphony Sid,” when composer Lester Young appears to take a couple of choruses. The number concludes with a true bit of jazz history, Prez and Bean, the two titans of the pre-bop tenor, trading fours.3

If you really love Lester, you have to have Lester Young & Count Basie: Jammin’ the Blues, part of the “Stars of Jazz Collection” from EFORFilms. The restoration work is only passable, not up to Storyville standards, but the main clip here, “Jammin’the Blues,” filmed in 1944, is an absolute must-have, starting off with the hippest jazz shot ever, a full frontal of Lester’s famous “porkpie” hat.4 The clip, directed by Life photographer Gjon Mili, is a fascinating exercise in le noir de hip and le hip de noir, a visual symphony quarried out of shadow, smoke, and attitude. Mili’s heady brew spills over the top from time to time, but what’s life without a little excess? Lester is joined by Harry Edison and Barney Kessel, among others, for three tunes, including a nice vocal on “The Sunny Side of the Street” by the little-known Marie Bryant. The 1941 Basie Band, sans Lester, is featured on two low-quality soundies, followed by five 1950 Snader telescriptions of the septet Basie led briefly after the breakup of his original band. Lester wasn’t in this one either, but Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, and Wardell Gray were. The 1950 session is available, in much better condition, from Storyville.5

Another Stars of Jazz disc well worth having is Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie: The Founding Fathers of BeBop. The disc features the only known video of Parker (right), playing “Hot House” with Gillespie in an early TV spot. Seven numbers from 1947 featuring Gillespie’s legendary big band are next, including John Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, and Ray Brown on bass. The final clip, from 1961, is a TV spot with Gillespie and a small group playing “Lorraine.” The picture, in color, is quite snowy, but the sound is excellent and Gillespie is in terrific form. Why can’t we have more?

I’ve always found Miles Davis’s ego-to-talent balance a little off-putting, but I must confess that Miles Davis: The Cool Jazz Sound, another Stars of Jazz disc, is one of the very best jazz videos I’ve ever seen. It’s close to half an hour of pure Miles, from a 1959 black-and-white broadcast, featuring Miles with a small group and the Gil Evans big band. The small group performs “So What” from the famous Kind of Blue album, and Miles works with the big band on selections from the Miles Ahead and Milestones albums. Miles grabs almost all of the solo space, aside from three minutes of genius from John Coltrane on “So What,” but manages to justify his greed by performing brilliantly.6

EFORFilms is also responsible for the Jazzmemories series, documentaries on classic jazz vocalists along with “special features” — usually, additional and unedited performance clips. Discs on Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole are currently available. The documentaries are no more than pedestrian, but the special features can make the discs worth having. The Billie Holiday disc in particular has all of Billie’s performances from the famous/infamous New Orleans feature film and some very rare TV clips. Most of Billie’s later work tended to fit into the brooding, moody “Good Morning, Heartache” groove, but we also get to see her revive one of her earliest numbers, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” first recorded with Benny Goodman back in 1935.

The very bottom of the DVD barrel is the Swing Era series from Idem Home Video. There’s absolutely no restoration at all, and the packaging is misleading, to say the least. For example, the Benny Goodman DVD contains only three minutes of Goodman, even though there’s a fair amount of PD Benny available if you want to look for it.7

Swing to Bop

In the early 1960s, PBS began the Jazz Casual series, half-hour programs organized by jazz critic Ralph Gleason. Rhino Records has released a few of them, and more are available from the 20th Century Jazz Masters series from (unfortunately) Idem Home Video.

It’s tempting to call Jazz Casual “Jazz Too Casual.” The sound is surprisingly poor, on both the Rhino and Idem reissues, although it improves in the later shows, broadcast in the mid-sixties.8 Gleason didn’t seem to consider timing at all, so that the shows always end with the featured musicians in mid-solo. Furthermore, the program often, though not always, cuts away from the musicians so that Gleason can tell us who we’re watching. We know who we’re watching, Ralph! That’s why we’re watching!9

Tempting as it is to beat up on Ralph, who was, after all, only a writer, it’s thanks to him that we get to see musicians like John Coltrane (above), Sonny Rollins, and Gerry Mulligan in their prime. Idem’s packaging is much better here as well. We get three shows per disc, with complete personnel. Not bad for an unscrupulous fly-by-night!

Straight, No Chaser is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating documentary produced by Clint Eastwood on one of the most influential of all jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk, full of excellent clips and aimless home movies. We see remarkably good film of Monk at the Five Spot in the late fifties with John Coltrane, playing for a young, white Ivy League crowd who smoke like chimneys, and we see Monk on tour in Europe in 1967, trying to order room service in Denmark — “You got chicken livers and rice?” “Chicken? Chicken? Chicken? We have chicken salad.” “Chicken salad? Chicken salad? You got just liver?” “Liver? Yes, liver. We have liver. We have liver with French-fried potatoes. We have liver with mashed potatoes.” It’s the music, Clint. That’s why we’re watching. For the music.

If Straight, No Chaser lived up to its name, it would be great. Instead, we get seriously off-the-wall stuff like shots of Monk’s funeral, even of his corpse, which is something you don’t see in documentaries very often. The one interesting “documentary” section is some material on “the Baroness,” Pannonica de Koenigswater, a jazz groupie (a very good-looking one when she was young) who was Monk’s mistress.10 We have an interview with the baroness, who describes the good old days in New York, when, among other things, Charlie Parker died in her apartment.11 We see some footage shot in the baroness’s home in Weehawken, which has a view of the Manhattan skyline to kill for. Monk called the place “Catsville,” thanks to the two dozen cats who lived there, many of whom we see.

Once we get into the seventies and eighties, both sound and picture improve enormously. The Jazz Masters Series from Shanachie offers a performance by Art Blakey and His Jazz Messengers from 1982, featuring both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Like Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis is a trumpeter who tends to wear his ego on his sleeve, but once again ego can have its uses. Wynton was “music director” for the Messengers when he was with Blakey and he gives himself plenty of solo room, to very good effect, particularly during his reworking of the Kurt Weill tune “My Ship.” There’s also an interview with Blakey (above) — unfortunately short, because Blakey was one of the true (and rare) raconteurs of jazz.

While video recording techniques were improving, jazz itself was going through hard times, as the various funk, fusion, and “New Age” trends were creating enormous economic incentives for jazz musicians not to play jazz.12 A case in point is a 1990 concert available on disc featuring Herbie Hancock, Jack De Johnette, Dave Holland, and Pat Metheny from Geneon Entertainment. All four are terrific musicians, but too many of the selections slide firmly into the fusion camp for my taste. When did repetition become an end in itself and lack of nuance a virtue?

Thanks to the movement away from “real” jazz, DVDs with footage of first-rate jazz musicians who are still alive is not easy to find. Fortunately, a couple of all-star concerts, one from 1986 and the other from 1996, give us a look at more recent musicians actually playing jazz.

One Night with Bluenote presents some highlights of a marathon 1986 concert held to celebrate the rebirth of the label. For the most part, the featured players date from the sixties and seventies — musicians like Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Charles Lloyd, Bobby Hutcherson, and Jackie McLean — but a few youngsters, like Stanley Jordan and Cecil McBee, appear as well. Cecil Taylor (right) shows up to deliver some typically feverish virtuosity that, to these ears, at least, signifies far too little.13)

We do get a look at a substantial number of contemporary musicians (James Carter, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, and Christian McBride, among others) in Eastwood After Hours, a 1996 concert held at Carnegie Hall to honor Clint Eastwood’s long-standing support for jazz.14 The performances range from first-rate (Jay McShann’s rendition of “Hootie’s Blues”)15 to not-so-hot (a performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” that degenerates into a squeaking contest between Carter and Redman), but the finale, a jam session devoted to Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In” (based on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”), is FANTASTIC.16

An even more recent DVD, The Sound of New York Jazz Underground, shot in 2003, is a real disappointment. The disc is virtually a home movie made to accompany a two-CD set of the same name from Fresh Sound New Talent. The CDs offer intelligent, polished big band jazz that’s extremely well performed, but hardly aggressive or innovative (and not at all “underground”). The DVD, shot during recording sessions, offers poor sound and clumsy camerawork, along with stereotypical shots of New York.17

Ken Burns’ multi-DVD Jazz series has some wonderful archival material and some good interviews, but its neglect of contemporary jazz is beyond criminal. Yeah, the past is great, Ken, but how about the present?

How to Find Them

Not all jazz DVDs are readily available via the standard online outlets. The Tower Records site is probably your best bet. The retail page of Music Video Distributors has much of this material. You can visit Storyville here. EFORFilms and Idem are available at disconforme, a site that takes you to Jazz Messengers. Fresh Sounds has an extensive site here. Shanachie is available here. Several of these sites are based in Europe, and you may end up paying substantial shipping fees if you’re ordering from the States. Furthermore, everything is priced in Euros, which are appreciating rapidly against the dollar, thanks to the “deficits don’t matter because it’s not my money!” economic policies of you know whom.18) (In addition, make sure you get NTSC rather than PAL format, which only works on European DVD players, more or less.)

Netflix has a surprising number of jazz DVDs available. (“Jazz” is subcategory under “Music and Musicals.”) The selection is naturally weighted toward the Diana Krall end of the spectrum, but quite a few discs feature performers who are not beautiful young women.

The indispensable guide to jazz videos, as well as feature films that offer significant jazz performances, is Scott Yanow’s Jazz on Film. Though published in 2004, Yanow’s book doesn’t cover many of the various packagings and repackagings now available on DVD, but it does allow you to track down information on the original sessions for virtually everything filmed prior to 2003.19

Most of the musicians discussed here who were active prior to 1955 are the subjects of “Proper Boxes” — four-disc CD sets from Proper Records that offer excellent restoration, extensive documentation, and very low prices.

  1. . Thanks to hip-hop, black women are now exploited for the benefit of black men rather than white. You’ve come a long way, baby. But not far enough. (Yeah, but the dancers who actually appeared in “Hot Chocolate” — known as “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” (right) — probably wouldn’t have much patience with my prudery. Check here for the archives of Lindy Hop. []
  2. Louis Armstrong and Friends also has something that I always thought of as the ultimate oxymoron: a tasteful (tasteful and brilliant!) “drum battle,” featuring Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole! Cole, who worked for Cab Calloway for decades, had a truly unusual hit record in the early days of rock and roll, an extended version of the old Basie tune “Topsy.” The recording occupied both sides of a 45, and for some reason the second side, which began with Cozy intoning “Topsy, Part 2,” became very popular with 13-year-old, middle-class white kids. []
  3. Or is it twos? I never could count. []
  4. When Lester died, Charlie Mingus wrote a salute to him, “Good-bye Porkpie Hat,” available on the classic Mingus Ah-Um album. []
  5. Basie gives a little too much time of the 1950 session to Helen Humes, who sang with him back in the thirties. Perhaps she needed the work. Don’t we all! []
  6. . For electric Miles, check out the excellent review of Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue by Megan Ratner here. []
  7. See my review of Swing, Swing, Swing: The Gene Krupa Story for more Benny on disc. []
  8. One has to wonder if the sound couldn’t be better. Let’s go, Storyville! []
  9. Ralph also conducted interviews with the musicians, which rarely held much interest. Ralph was not much of an interviewer, and most jazz musicians are not very articulate. And, like many performers, they don’t like giving away their “secrets.” []
  10. The baroness’ brother, the Baron de Rothschild, described Monk as “catatonic.” []
  11. Parker died in 1954 while watching The Stage Show, which featured swing band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Jimmy, like Charlie, played the alto sax, and Parker admired Jimmy’s technical skill. In January 1956, Elvis Presley made his first national appearance via The Stage Show. []
  12. Of course a lot of musicians like funk and fusion. Besides, performers want to perform. Why starve for “art” when you can fill a concert hall with enthusiastic, paying fans? []
  13. . The Ornette Coleman (right)/Cecil Taylor jazz revolution of the late fifties and early sixties, which promised so much, never quite developed the coherence that one expected. Despite an enormous number of gifted musicians today, jazz remains disappointingly uncertain and hit and miss. (I hate to sum up four decades of an art form in a footnote, but facts are facts! Still, there’s always hope. Perhaps Canadian pianist John Stetch will straighten things out. []
  14. The story of Clint Eastwood’s remarkable metamorphosis, from a racist, homophobic, misogynistic gun worshipper with a castration complex as big as the Ritz into America’s beloved New Age California Grand Pappy, is unfortunately one for another place and another time. []
  15. Jay McShann is best-known in jazz as the man who gave Charlie Parker his start. McShann outlived his protégé by more than forty years. []
  16. Clint himself takes to the keyboard to favor us with a not-bad sample of Erskine Hawkins’ “After Hours.” Clint says he first got into jazz listening to his mom’s Fats Waller 78s. []
  17. The Big Apple has subways. Who knew? []
  18. For a definitive peek inside the court of George the Simple, check out Sam Apple’s brilliant parody “The Administration and the Fury.” (No, it doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve read Billy Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. So get educated, dude! Read the book! []
  19. Though I yield to no one in my admiration of the range and depth of Scott Yanow’s jazz erudition, I must protest, in the liveliest manner, his contention that Wilber Hall’s rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” in The King of Jazz on a bicycle pump is “amusing.” []