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Lady Day - The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (DVD)

Lady Day - The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (DVD)

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Mining a treasure trove of rare and historic material, this documentary sets the Billie Holiday record straight-beautifully. It does precisely what a jazz film is supposed to do: It gives you abundant footage of the artist herself, doing her thing. With Buck Clayton, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Carmen McRae, Annie Ross, Milt Gabler, Albert Murray, Mal Waldron, and Ruby Dee reading Billie Holiday's words.


While our most enduring musical gift to the world, jazz is often given short shrift by media in the United States. Not so the international conglomerate of companies behind the "Masters of American Music" documentary series (Medici Arts, B+), now out on DVD in digitally remastered form.

Start with the 90-minute overview, "The Story of Jazz," which traces the music's origins to African slaves beating on percussion instruments and playing banjos at New Orleans' Congo Square. Then move on to other episodes focusing on major figures - "Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker," "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday" and (my personal fave as a creative personality) "Thelonious Monk: American Composer."

Excellent period photos and performance clips (by both focus artists and contemporaries) reveal the environments in which jazz was fostered. Surviving luminaries and family members have memories to share, too (wow, was Parker's second wife, Chan, bitter). And the scripted narratives have been stitched together respectfully by the likes of Parker biographer Gary Giddins. -- Philadelphia Daily News, Jonathan Takiff, December 2009

"Billie Holiday has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. With her extensive catalogue of recordings for several labels, Holiday's music has been readily accessible though relatively little live footage with audio is available.

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday integrates film and video performances, recordings, words from her controversial autobiography (read by actress Ruby Dee) and interviews with artists who played with her (pianist Mal Waldron, trumpeter Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison), Milt Gabler (owner of Commodore and a producer at Decca), author Albert Murray and vocalists Carmen McRae and Annie Ross.

Recognized early on as a talent by impresario John Hammond, Holiday gained a foothold at the age of 17 in 1933, debuting on a Benny Goodman recording of the unpromising "Your Mother's Son- in-Law" for Columbia. In 1935, she was recording with bandleader Teddy Wilson and, by the following year, under her own name. Frequently the victim of racism, Holiday left Artie Shaw after a short time because she was omitted from some club dates due to the owners' attitudes, seething in the bus while a white female singer performed pieces associated with her. The one time she landed a movie role, it was as a lowly maid in New Orleans, with subservient demeaning lines.

There are plenty of anecdotes. McRae states that Lester Young addressed Holiday's mother as "Lady Day" and Billie appropriated the nickname. Gabler, who recorded Holiday singing the controversial ballad "Strange Fruit" (which scared Columbia executives), recalled her captivating audiences with it at Café Society Downtown. Waldron, her last accompanist, is shown playing with her late in her career, explaining how much he learned while working with her. The documentary wouldn't be complete without Billie Holiday singing "Billie's Blues" in 1957 on the television program The Sound of Jazz, marking her final reunion with Lester Young." -Ken Dryden -- http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=36139

...Like the rest of the DVDs in this series, Lady Day follows the Holiday chronology, constantly featuring that high fragile voice which could nonetheless gain power and authority, especially in songs like Swing It, Brother, Swing with the Basie Band, where she gained her sobriquet, one Lester "Prez" Young actually gave her mother, not her, as has been otherwise said. Carmen MacRae ribaldly asserts the contrary, saying Holiday appropriated it for herself, recognizing a good stage tag when she heard it. Unlike the Parker DVD, Lady Day is a good deal more upbeat. Holiday lived a very unusual wide-ranging life, from brothels to tour buses with the band, playing craps and rapping all night with the boys in the band. Joining up with Artie Shaw exposed her to white audiences, which proved to be the true launching point popularity-wise...though she nonetheless encountered no end of bigotry from authorities and businessmen, forcing her to abandon the ensemble. Still, she continued to sell, and singers studied her work extensively. Billy became one of the highest paid black performers in the country. Lady Day severely downplays the drug aspect of Holiday's life, the problems with relationships as well, centering on her role as one of the two founders of jazz singing, Louis Armstrong the other. Nonetheless, her problems with heroin and alcohol inevitably come up, as they must, and the marking point of her descent becomes evident, quickly passed over until the last quarter of the documentary. Regardless, this entry in the Masters of American Music is an excellent hour-long tour of the times, the star, and the story, the best yet produced (it won a 1994 ACE award), planting the seed of desire to see and hear more. -- Acoustic Music, Mark S. Tucker, November 2009

An irresistible title in the Masters of American Music series, this newly remastered bio/documentary opens by tracing the queen of jazzy torch from Harlem "speakeasies, gin mills and reefer pads" (to quote the narration) through her 78s with Teddy Wilson on Brunswick. Then, it's on to swingin' with Count Basie, headaches with Artie Shaw; peak years that included Lover Man; substance abuse; the twilight 1957 appearance with Lester Young on CBS' The Sound of Jazz ; and 1958's raw valedictory Lady in Satin album. Interviewed are singers Carmen McRae, Annie Ross and Holiday associates. The still photos are magnificent. -- USA Today, Mike Clark, November 26, 2009

Carmen McRae is the principal narrator for this in-depth documentary about Lady Day's rise to stardom and drug-addled fall. Ruby Dee reads Holiday's words. Plenty of rare performances of Lady Day and testimonial by contemporary jazz figures to her legacy. -- Nuvo, Chuck Workman, December 9, 2009

In the late 1980s through 1997 German producer Toby Byron made a landmark series of jazz documentaries - under the umbrella title, Masters of American Music - which were released on VHS by Sony in the U.S. Now, thanks to Naxos, four of these are available again, this time on DVD. The one to start with is The Story of Jazz (MediciArts), which in 90 minutes takes the viewer from New Orleans to free jazz and beyond with interviews and performance clips - necessarily brief - from all the greats. Other volumes now available are devoted to Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. (My favorite Byron film - Satchmo - is not out yet on DVD.) There are no bonus features on these discs but they are indexed into chapters. If you missed the original releases, you'll want these. Along with the Jazz Icons, these DVDs should be in every music library. -- In The Groove, December 2009

Jazz is complex in its bobs and weaves, but back in the 80s and 90s, there was an award winning documentary series on some of the heavyweights of the genre that provided the first basic and historical look at what is the one of the world's greatest art forms of the twentieth century.

Known as the "Masters of American Music," the set has been restored, remastered and released on DVD for the first time on four discs, three celebrating individual artists and one giving a broad overview of jazz.

Dispensing with the often snobbish critics and historians, the series focuses on the musicians, dozens of them telling the story of jazz in their own words. Music performances are allowed to play out, entertaining moments are illuminated, and the irrepressible nature of the music and its greatest innovators shines through.

...

Billie Holiday is all too often portrayed as a train wreck, a victim of hard times and her dependency on even harder drugs. It's not hard to see why, as autobiographical lyrics filled her musical repertoire, detailing the sadness of her life.

But "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday" let's the singer tell the story through her performances, and despite pouring her soul into each one, it's shocking to see how quickly her appearance morphs into a tragedy would culminate in her death 44. -- The Delaware County Daily Times, Michael Christopher, December 18, 2009

Masters of American Music was a ten-part series that ran on television in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The individual programs were released on VHS tapes, now out-of-print. The Medici Arts label, distributed by Naxos, is now making these programs available on DVD. The first four programs to be reissued are /The Story of Jazz/ (Medici Arts - 2057158), /Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday/ (Medici Arts - 2057098), /Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker/ (Medici Arts - 2057078), and /Thelonious Monk: American Composer/ (Medici Arts - 2057118)...

The basics of the story of Billie Holiday are familiar to most jazz enthusiasts. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday brings a fascinating focus on this legendary jazz singer, and dispels many of the myths that are associated with her, some of which were derived from the words of her autobiography /Lady Sings the Blues/ written with William Dufty. In this book, Holiday often altered the facts of her life to present a picture of herself in keeping with what she wanted the public to believe. This documentary scripted by William O'Meally, who simultaneously wrote a book titled as the film, and narrated by David Smyrl, traces both the chronology of Holiday's life, and the sizeable influence that she had upon jazz singing. Special attention is given to specific events and relationships in her life like her friendship with Lester Young, her short lived and unhappy experience as a black singer with the white big band of Artie Shaw, her recording of "Strange Fruit," the controversial song about the lynching of a black man, and the ongoing difficulties that she developed with drug addiction. Interviews with Carmen McRae, who was a friend of Holiday, Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison, who were on the Count Basie Orchestra with Holiday, Milt Gabler, who had the courage to record and release "Strange Fruit," and Mal Waldron, who was Holiday's final accompanist, fill out the picture of Holiday that is presented in this film. Footage from her rare film and television appearances, most memorably those from the magnificent television special /The Sound of Jazz/, add a special dimension to this memorable survey of the life of Billie Holiday...

Often, documentaries of this type are full of excerpts from interviews with various jazz critics and others on the fringes of the creative process upon which they are commenting. The commentary included in the /Masters of American Music/ series is mostly limited to those from musicians, relatives and industry figures involved in the music making. This approach provides portraits of the artists being considered that are from inside the scene, and results in engaging and informative viewing.

A second set of releases in this series will cover the careers of Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and John Coltrane, and is due out in early 2010. -- Jersey Jazz, Joe Lang, January 2010

Thelonious Monk is represented in another superb series, "Masters of American Music." It consists of three unusually sharp biographical documentaries that will enthrall hard-core jazz fans as well as newbies. The DVDs ($21.98 each) are devoted to the lives of Charlie "Bird" Parker and Billie Holiday as well as Monk. -- Boston Herald, Larry Katz, December 15, 2009

While our most enduring musical gift to the world, jazz is often given short shrift by media in the United States. Not so the international conglomerate of companies behind the "Masters of American Music" documentary series (Medici Arts, B+), now out on DVD in digitally remastered form.

Start with the 90-minute overview, "The Story of Jazz," which traces the music's origins to African slaves beating on percussion instruments and playing banjos at New Orleans' Congo Square. Then move on to other episodes focusing on major figures - "Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker," "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday" and (my personal fave as a creative personality) "Thelonious Monk: American Composer."

Excellent period photos and performance clips (by both focus artists and contemporaries) reveal the environments in which jazz was fostered. Surviving luminaries and family members have memories to share, too (wow, was Parker's second wife, Chan, bitter). And the scripted narratives have been stitched together respectfully by the likes of Parker biographer Gary Giddins. -- Philadelphia Daily News, Jonathan Takiff, December 22, 2009
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