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Thelonious Monk - American Composer (DVD)

Thelonious Monk - American Composer (DVD)

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The pianistic ringleader of the bebop revolution, Thelonious Monk is jazz's first major composer after Duke Ellington. This film illuminates Monk as never before. With Thelonious Monk III; Monk's sister, Marion White; Ben Riley; Barris Harris; Billy Taylor; Orrin Keepnews; and Randy Weston.

A decade before Ken Burns aired his 20-hour 2001 PBS series "Jazz," producer Toby Byron and friends had already labored halfway through their own ambitious video retrospective on what is not inappropriately called America's classical music. Some parts of Byron's "Masters of American Music" got onto TV, some saw only VHS release -- the first four segments of the current Naxos-Medici DVD reissue project make you appreciate the role that connections, timing and reputation play in establishing which documentaries get considered definitive and which are nearly forgotten. It's now clear that Byron's work in no way fell short.

In fact, the proportions of the 1993 "Masters" overview, "The Story of Jazz," suggest that it could have served Burns as a template. Both "Story" and Burns' "Jazz" lean heavily on the first 20 years of jazz's recorded history; "Story" runs through more than an hour of its 98 minutes before it even arrives at the bebop revolution of the mid-1940s. Both devote generous swaths to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington while cutting a thin slice of the pie for the avantists of the 1960s; "Story" doesn't mention Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp or even Sonny Rollins.

In the case of both series, the imbalance is a fault. But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with either's coverage of the Dixieland, swing and bop eras. The "Masters" docs can boast one special strength: Before it was too late, they logged fresh interviews with musicians who knew the history firsthand. Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine, for instance, died in 1993, Carmen McRae in 1994, Joe Williams in 1999.

The second great strength of "Masters" lies in the archival performances. Even the overview (directed by Matthew Seig) lingers long enough on footage of Eckstine, Artie Shaw, Earl Hines and many more to leave vivid impressions of how they looked and played; many of the clips date to periods when few jazz musicians got their faces on film.

The stage shots stretch out even longer in the first three hourlong documentaries on individual artists -- Billie Holiday from 1990, Thelonious Monk from 1991 (both directed by Seig) and Charlie Parker from 1987 (by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons). Each claims its own particular virtues. We see Holiday wither from a chubby child to a frail but devastating interpreter, her story given human warmth by the insightful memories of McRae and Annie Ross. Monk's hats, clothes and face change while his fingers explore the consistently brilliant corners of his original mind; we understand his family life and historical context through the words of Thelonious Monk III and the great pianist Randy Weston (watch Weston's spread-eagle hands as he demonstrates). Anytime you witness Parker's otherworldly speed, inflection and imagination, it'll blow you away, but Giddins' documentary scores extra points for its thorough setup of the saxist's early life in Kansas City, including a rare interview with his first wife, Rebecca, whom he married when he was 15.

In recent years, Naxos has ushered in a golden age of archival jazz with its mind-boggling "Jazz Icons" series of concert DVDs featuring Coltrane, Rollins, Mingus and more; the label remains far in front of a limited pack with "Masters of American Music," which will add reissues on Trane, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and the blues next year. As the late trumpeter Lester Bowie observes in "The Story of Jazz," this music remains a young art form. Injections like these guard it from premature senility. --, December 3, 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.


The ringleader of the piano bebop revolution, Thelonious Monk is jazz's first major composer after Duke Ellington. Through a more personal and conversational style of documentary, "American Composer" provides the first fully rounded portrait of Monk, a misunderstood man and musician often portrayed as not simply eccentric but flat out nuts.

Fellow pianist Barry Harris calls Monk "a great satirist," insinuating that the witty composer could be a master of put-on, frequently exercising this talent at the expense of those around him. Unfortunately, this has led many over the years to focus too much on the crazy and not enough on the music, which stands solidly on its own. -- The Delaware County Daily Times, Michael Christopher, December 18, 2009

The Masters of American Jazz series is the next best thing to a smoke-filled room on 52nd St. in the 1940s.

Aside from "Bird" Parker, this lastest batch of performances and interviews feature pianist Thelonious Monk, thrush Billie Holiday and "The Story of Jazz," a scholarly but vivid look back at America's most thrilling musical dialect. Respected jazz critic Gary Giddins directed the Parker DVD, and even interviewed Bird's first wife, Rebecca, her first and only testimony about the tortured genius she called her mate. Charlie left his mortal coil behind at thirty-five, but his blazing path is well-charted in this sumptuously produced and researched film.

As for Monk and Billie, they too are among the most august figures in the jazz pantheon -- like most great musicians, you could always identify their sound in the first measure of a song, such was the authority and individuality of their respective "voices." "The Many Faces of Billie Holiday" features a wealth of her live performances caught on film, plus interviews with the likes of Carmen McRae and Annie Ross, both of whom emulated her supple phrasing and skin-tingling emotion. Monk is also lovingly recalled by family and colleagues and rounding out a portrait of the enigmatic, and sometimes hatter-mad, keyboard and composing genius. There will never be another one like him. -- All Good Things, David Weiss, December 20, 2009

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

These four no-frills documentaries are straight-ahead profiles of the named artists, and in the case of the fourth, a chronicle of the rise of jazz from its 19th-century roots in New Orleans. Each features interviews from a plethora of fellow musicians and a bevy of rousing performances. Highlights include Parker's only surviving TV appearance and a portrait of Holiday that suggests she wasn't just a sad victim. -- Deseret News, Chris Hicks, November 21, 2009

This doc wipes away the misconception that Monk was eccentric and far out. Only a select number of jazz musicians were tuned into Monk's satirical style during his lifetime, although the doc depicts how his work was finally accepted and integrated in the jazz canon. Interviews with Randy Weston and Barry Harris set the record straight about Monk. Plenty of performance riches here, especially live at the Five Spot when Coltrane sets in. -- Nuvo, Chuck Workman, December 9, 2009

This intriguing DVD, part of the excellent Masters of American Music series, recounts Thelonious Monk's journey from little-known pianist and composer to groundbreaking artist on the cover of Time magazine. Interviews with pianists Barry Harris, Billy Taylor and Randy Weston, Monk's son Thelonious Monk, Jr. and others give detailed insights into who he was and the archival performance footage -- of everything from "Blue Monk" to "Lulu's Back in Town" -- demonstrate his undeniable prowess and verve. Other initial releases: "Charlie Parker: Celebrating Bird," about the maverick alto saxophonist and bebop innovator; "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday," about the superlative singer; and "The Story of Jazz," with performances by John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. --, Zan Stewart, November 25, 2009

This is a 1991 documentary about Monk, and overall quite satisfying. There's (surprisingly) not much video documentation of the great composer-pianist out there (while this disc's blurb claims it to be the first such, Clint Eastwood's remarkable film Straight No Chaser predates it by three years). The title is appropriate. Monk is one of the great American composers, period. His works are concise products of a truly eccentric vision, twisted jewels. In a sense he's a swinging Webern, but he's also too much his own person to invite much comparison. The bottom line is that the pieces endure. They can be treated as touchstones for extended improvisation and open forms, or compact concert pieces like Chopin preludes. Their simultaneously closed and open forms are part of their genius.

This film provides several examples of Monk performing live, televised appearances from the 1960s. They illuminate his idiosyncratic yet commanding style of play, as well as some of his kinks (the parade of hats, the quasi-spastic dancing while other members of his band took solos). There is no voice-over narration; instead there are a series of eminent musicians who reminisce and comment on Monk. Perhaps the most thoughtful (and at time amusing) are pianist Randy Weston and Ben Riley, Monk's longtime drummer.

There are a few missed opportunities. There's only one brief excerpt from a television interview when we actually hear Monk speak (which is a sound for sore ears, a classic jazzer mumble; Straight No Chaser gives one much more of this). It seems that most of the excerpts come from the 1960s, when images were more available, but it tends to skew the sense of Monk's development; we know from the commentators that he was "present at the creation" of bebop, but I don't think we get a firm enough sense of his stylistic and technical evolution over the decades. And though I realize it sounds scholarly-picky, I wish the performance excerpts could have been better annotated. We never know where they come from (I believe some come from Scandinavian broadcasts the band made on tour). Even more painful, the other musicians aren't identified. Riley is only identifiable because we know him from his commentary; we only know the saxophonist is Charlie Rouse from one passing remark; and bassist Larry Gales is never mentioned. Seems a shame when dealing with an art form whose essence is collaboration. That said, this is a good, and probably essential addition for any jazz video library. Just try to get Straight No Chaser as well to make a satisfying whole. -- Fanfare, Robert Carl, Mar-Apr 2010

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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