Jazz Giants Fill The Small Screen

Various Artists - Jazz Icons DVD series [Reelin' In The Years]

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Jazz Giants Fill The Small Screen

On screen, Chet Baker looks like a washed-up matinee idol.

In moody black-and-white footage from 1964, his boyish face has hardened and—when the camera comes close for his lone vocal—it’s obvious one of his top front teeth is missing. But when he shuts his eyes, tilts his head back and sings “Time After Time” in that tender ache of a voice, it’s mesmerizing, a clear highlight of the new DVD featuring more than an hour of Baker’s seductively cool, lyrical trumpet playing.
It’s a great time to be a fan of classic jazz. In the past couple years, remarkable concert recordings by giants such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Ray Charles have been discovered and released. At the same time, big jazz labels like Blue Note and Impulse and specialty out?ts like Mosaic Records have produced a stream of remastered classics and previously forgotten historic material.

Now, a new series of DVDs called Jazz Icons makes available entire concerts ?lmed between 1957 and 1979—many never seen before—that were sitting in the vaults of European television stations for decades. In addition to Baker, the ?rst nine titles feature Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Thelonius Monk and Buddy Rich.
Almost certainly, the best of these is the 1958 concert by Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Appearing on stage in sharp dark suits, white shirts and skinny ties, the quintet with Benny Golson and Bobby Timmons is one of the most renowned editions of the drummer’s hard-bop supergroup. However, it’s 20-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan’s incandescent solos and cool charisma that dominate the 55-minute outing. There’s always been surprisingly little available footage of Morgan, who died at age 33, so it’s a revelation to see him here close up, burning through solos on then-new standards like “Moanin’” and “I Remember Clifford.”

Other standout moments from the series include Ella in 1957 nailing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” with an all-star combo, and also a stunning take from 1966—each shot framed and lit like a modernist painting—of Monk in a black pork-pie hat playing an angular, minimalist version of “Lulu’s Back In Town.”
Perhaps the only disappointment is the Louis Armstrong concert. The man who had almost single-handedly de?ned jazz in the 1920s and ’30s was still in great form as a player and singer in 1959. But compared to the other timeless performances in this series, the endless hijinks, mugging and razzle-dazzle high notes of Armstrong’s stage show seem hammy and dated.
Jazz Icons is meant to be a continuing series—dependent upon the success of these ?rst releases. Possible forthcoming features include Charles Mingus, John Coltran­e and Sarah Vaughn. With incredible performances, remastered sound and video, and in-depth liner notes by top jazz writers, these ?lms are already a signi?cant addition to the jazz canon.