Bright Lights Film Journal

The Sound of Jazz, the Sound of Gene: New DVDs offer rare TV appearances by jazz greats Billie Holiday, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman

New DVDs offer rare TV appearances by jazz greats Billie Holiday, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman. But where’s Thelonious?

Even America gets it right sometimes. In fact, sometimes, even American TV gets it right. And in the early days of the tube, one could occasionally discern the faint, flickering images of great jazz musicians battling for air time against the likes of Liberace and Howdy Doody. Two new DVDs, The Sound of Jazz and Swing, Swing, Swing: The Gene Krupa Story, give us some priceless glimpses of these past performances.1

The Sound of Jazz, a one-hour, one-shot program, broadcast on December 8, 1957 and available on VHS for many years, is an absolute must for any jazz fan, because it allows us to see “Fine and Mellow,” the best of the very few video performances available from the incomparable Billie Holiday. Holiday had been a heroin addict nearly all of her adult life, but somehow, with less than two years to live, she still looks great.2 Sitting comfortably on a stool, she almost seems to be talking rather than singing, but she delivers an emotional impact that leaves all her would-be competitors in the dust. It’s Billie first, and the rest nowhere. It’s not just that she’s the best, it’s that no one else even comes close.3

The rest of the telecast features mostly swing-era musicians, including an all-star version of the Count Basie Band that features three of the greatest tenors of the Swing Era, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young. Hawkins comes close to stealing the spotlight from Billie, turning in one powerful solo after another in a variety of groups. Lester Young, the Watteau of jazz, was in poor health and poor spirits, coming to life only while accompanying Billie. His solo, sometimes delicate, sometimes faint, will probably find favor only with his admirers.

The strangest feature of this DVD is what’s missing: a performance by Thelonious Monk. The earlier VHS version, still available, has Monk and his trio playing “Blue Monk.” But it’s been cut out of the DVD with no explanation.4

Gene Krupa rose to fame in the mid-thirties as the drummer for Benny Goodman’s band and for many years was the most famous drummer in America. The Swing, Swing, Swing DVD features Krupa largely though not exclusively with Goodman. The earliest clip shows the Benny Goodman Quartet, Goodman and Krupa with Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, from a film appearance made back in the thirties, when the band was at its height of popularity.5

Krupa became so popular that he formed his own band, which we see in a “soundie”5 from 1941, “Thanks for the Boogie Ride,” featuring a gawky, high-spirited, twenty-one-year-old Anita O’Day and trumpet star Roy Eldridge.

The rest of the Krupa disc features him in television appearances. The highlight of the disc is a performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” by the Goodman band, appearing on the Sid Caesar show in the early fifties. The picture is quite snowy, but the sound is excellent, amazingly good, considering the source. Trumpeter Charlie Shavers turns in a stratospheric solo that is topped only by Goodman’s, which descends deep into the lower register before rising to the summit.

Unlike The Sound of Jazz, the Swing, Swing, Swing disc has several satisfying extras. Sal Mineo fans (I know you’re out there) will be glad to see their boy in a 1958 appearance on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret, plugging his film The Gene Krupa Story (eventually, Gene shows up too). As a special bonus, Executive Producer Joy Adams performs a deliciously chanteusey “Memories of You” over the closing credits.

The Krupa DVD was issued by Hudson Music, a rather unusual outfit that has an extensive line of DVDs devoted to modern percussion.

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, is a nice, 60-minute bio made in 1990, now available on DVD from Kultur, that has the “Fine and Mellow” clip from The Sound of Jazz, plus several other late TV appearances by Holiday that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Watching some of the clips is a little painful, because Billie was clearly declining. The film has commentary from musicians who worked with Billie, including Harry “Sweets” Edison and Buck Clayton (both trumpeters with the original Count Basie Band) and pianist Mal Waldron, as well as jazz singers Carmen McRae and Annie Ross. See the review of New Orleans in this issue for more of Holiday on film.

The Gene Krupa Story is available on VHS, with Krupa naturally dubbing Sal on the drums. Anita O’Day appears as herself, doing a nice job with “Memories of You,” but the film selfishly keeps her in a long shot the entire time and doesn’t give her one line of dialogue. Legendary drummer Shelly Manne appears as legendary drummer Dave Tough, and he and Gene/Sal have a “drum battle” at the close of the film. Otherwise, as you might guess, the film is thoroughly lame (and thoroughly inaccurate), in large part because the producers couldn’t decide whether to make the film for Gene’s fans or Sal’s.6 Still, there are several funny bits. At one point, a “bad girl” steals young Gene’s St. Christopher’s medal and drops it down her cleavage. Gene grabs her, turns her upside down, and shakes it out. Take that, bitch! Later, another bad girl tempts poor Gene into taking a hit off a reefer (Krupa was busted for possession back in the forties).

All of the musicians who appeared on The Sound of Jazz recorded the same tunes they played on the program at a studio session several days earlier.7 (There was, naturally, no home video in that technologically primitive era, so an LP was only way to make the performances available.) The “Sound of Jazz” LP has been released as a CD, and it’s worth having, because it includes a complete version of the closing number for the program, an excellent blues that united clarinetist Pee Wee Russell with the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. On the actual broadcast, voice-overs and promos pretty much ruined the piece.

Gene Krupa recorded two superb “reunion” albums in the LP era that are now available on CD. “Together Again” is a reunion of the Benny Goodman Quartet (1963, RCA Victor), available under Goodman’s name. Both the sound and the performances on this CD are extraordinary. “Drummer Man” (1956, Verve) features Krupa leading a big band, reunited with both Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge. All three are in excellent form, but it is Eldridge who takes top honors. Eldridge had a remarkable technique that all too often led to tasteless showboating. But he’s on his best behavior here, turning out one brilliant solo after another, and his performance on “After You’ve Gone” is near-unbelievable tour de force.

Proper Records in the United Kingdom has “Proper Box” 4-CD sets for many of the musicians discussed here, with excellent documentation and very low prices. (All of the material was recorded prior to 1951, and thus, under UK law, is no longer subject to copyright.) You can access their website here, although you’ll have to order from somewhere in the U.S. unless you can pay in pounds. The “JazzScript” website has an enormous amount of information on jazz.

The bulk of Billie Holiday’s greatest recordings were done in the thirties with what was then Columbia, now Sony. These recordings are available now from a variety of companies. However, Sony has recently released them on CD for a second time, with 24-bit remastering, both as single discs and in a 10-CD “ultimate” box set. I can’t compare the sound on these reissues with CDs from any other company, but I can say that what Sony has done is excellent.8 So, will I be buying them again in ten years with 48-bit remastering? Ask me then.

  1. The Sound of Jazz also gives us a priceless look at fifties kitsch in the form of an ad for a GE Theater presentation of Eyes of a Stranger, starring Tallulah Bankhead: “Playing a woman who has had a deep need to surround herself with a train of admirers over whom she can tyrannize, Miss Bankhead has a role tailored to her dynamic talents. Then an eye operation brings about a strange character change when this social despot discovers she’s been given the eyes of a priest.” Where is this video! []
  2. Apparently, if you want to live miserably, die young, and have a good-looking corpse, heroin is the way to go. []
  3. To be fair, contemporary jazz singers face an impossible task. Most of their repertoire consists of songs that are, on average, sixty years old. How can an art form grow when it’s chained to the past and has no connection with the present? []
  4. This DVD, issued by Music Videos Distributors, is the sloppiest DVD I’ve ever seen. The back panel has a picture of Charlie Parker, who did not appear on the show, in part because he’d been dead for three years. There are two “audio-only” cuts on the disc, one of which, though listed as “East of the Sun” by Sarah Vaughan, is not “East of the Sun” and is not by Sarah Vaughan. []
  5. “Soundies” were cheaply filmed, three-minute shorts that were not shown in theaters but rather on movieolas — refrigerator-sized video jukeboxes that sat in hotel lobbies and bars in the forties. Production values ranged from lame to awful, but there’s a lot of great material on soundies that ought to be made available. Duke Ellington made several dozen soundies in the early forties, with one of his greatest orchestras, the “Blanton-Webster band,” so named for the presence of Jimmy Blanton, who invented modern jazz bass playing, and tenorman Ben Webster. []
  6. The Gene Krupa Story was the third and least of a series of swing bios made in the fifties. The Glenn Miller Story (1953), starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, was a huge hit. The Benny Goodman Story (1955), starring Steve Allen and Donna Reed, was not. Krupa appeared as himself in both films. []
  7. All except Thelonious. For some reason, he didn’t show at the recording session. []
  8. If you buy the single CDs, look for them in a discount outlet. Sony has churlishly limited them to about 50 minutes of music, even though a CD will hold 70. []