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Charlie Parker: Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker (DVD)
Charlie Parker: Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker (DVD)

Charlie Parker: Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker (DVD)

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This was the first authorized documentary about one of the great legends in American music. A virtuoso saxophonist, Parker created a new style of the king of the hipsters. Film clips, photos, and interviews trace Parker's life from Kansas City, where he was born, to his ascendancy as a pioneer in the New York City jazz scene of the 1950s, where he transformed jazz traditions into startling and innovative music.



Charlie Parker: "Celebrating Bird -- The Triumph of Charlie Parker" (Medici Arts): This award-winning documentary, which dates to 1987, includes the lone existing clip of Bird performing on television, as well as interviews with Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes and Rebecca Parker Davis, Parker's first wife. It's part of an excellent reissue series, entertaining and erudite, titled "Masters of American Music." Other documentary discs in the series focus on masters Armstrong, Holiday, Monk and more. -- Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News, January 2010

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. -- MetalJazz.com, December 3, 2009

Charlie "Yardbird" Parker enjoys a mixed regard, as much for his drug problems as his revolutionary music, but one thing this documentary makes clear is that, come Hell of high water, he was dedicated to music and his horn, nothing else came even close. The drugs, the eternal indebtedness, the wandering life, all went to ensure that he could make music first, everything else second. Consider this: one of Parker's burning passions was to study under Edgar Varese.

Bird now dwells securely in the museum of the finest players, along with Miles, Louis Armstrong, Monk, Duke Ellington, Coltrane, and Holiday, but his prowess was just as much worshipped by the few, especially by fellow players, in his own day. Always ahead of the curve, artists knew what he was doing was extraordinary, and the saxophonist quickly became the most studied musician of the time...though the American public at large paid scant attention overall. That didn't much change even upon the advent of a couple of European tours, where Parker was hailed as a living treasure by vastly more sophisticated audiences. Not so here: save for Leonard Feather and a small devoted cult, he was pretty much ignored.

Being black, a creative, sensitive, and gifted in a white society well known for its cruelties to those not favored by bleached skin took its toll, and, when Charlie discovered heroin following a car accident that left him with cracked ribs and a broken spine, a form of heaven come to Earth and began its well-known "magic", a sorcery that would spell his doom, even to the point of being barred from the NY club named for him, Birdland.

The story of Charlie Parker is one of the most tragic in American arts, but the man could, even in the throes of dependency, anger, and exasperation, play like both demon and angel. The survey here shows both sides, well remembered by past confreres and admirers as well as his two wives. As with the rest of the DVDs in this reissue series, the viewer is treated to snippets of songs, performances, and a wealth of photographs and such, gaining the resonating air of the time.

Bird's fall from whatever grace he was to enjoy in his day was fairly rapid, and he ended up playing tiny dives, passing away at the tender age of 34 in the apartment living room of a genuine European patroness of jazz. Even in death, he was tormented, his dead body was removed from a "proper" white funeral home, carted off to Kansas city, put in a cheap coffin with a cross (Bird was irreligious), and subjected to what Chan, his second wife, aptly called a travesty. Of the four reissue DVDs presented in this series, his is by far the saddest.

For the rest of the series, see the reviews for Billy Holiday, Thelonius Monk, and the overview The Story of Jazz . More are on the way next year: Coltrane, Basie, Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn. -- Acoustic Music, Mark S. Tucker, November 2009

DVD discovery of the week. A new series of DVDs was released recently that manages to combine great music with smart history and well-told tales. When I popped on Masters of American Music's Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, I fully expecting a cliche offering. What I found was a terrific story illustrated by rare interviews with Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes, Jay McShann, Chan Parker and others.

Even if you know the Charlie Parker story inside and out, it's told here with renewed grace and import, in a highly animated and dramatic fashion. In fact, the narration writing was so good I grabbed the packaging to see who had a hand in its development. The DVD was written by Gary Giddins [pictured] and directed by Gary and Kendrick Simmons. No wonder it's so good. This DVD is for anyone who wants an entertaining refresher on Parker--or as a gift for those who aren't familiar with him or jazz but want an intro to the artist and music. Perfect for those who ask: "Who was Charlie Parker and what's the big deal?"

The other three DVDs in the Masters of American Music series are Thelonious Monk: American Composer, Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday and The Story of Jazz.

You'll find Celebrating Bird here. The other three DVDs are pictured and offered if you scroll down the Amazon page. -- JazzWax, Marc Myers, December 20, 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

It is well-documented that alto saxophonist Charlie Parker's tragic addiction to heroin served as a prominent and unfortunate sidebar to his musical brilliance. This fifty-nine minute DVD originally issued in VHS format, was written and co-produced by award-winning jazz journalist and author, Gary Giddins. The film chronicles Parkers upbringing in Kansas City and obsession with music at an early age. Hence, Parker asked his mother to buy him an alto sax when he was twelve, yet at the time, music schools didn't allow blacks. And he grew up admiring early tenor sax giants such as Leon "Chu" Berry, Lester Young, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and big band leader/alto saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey.

Interview clips of one-time boss and bandleader Jay McShann discusses Parker's personality, quirks and mesmeric technical gifts, hearkening back to the blossoming late 1930's Kansas City jazz scene. There are some interesting anecdotes by Parker's common-law wife Chan, citing sociological battles concerning interracial relationships and the devastating loss of their daughter Pree. Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes and others offer heartwarming reminisces of Parker amid period footage and photographs. Interestingly enough, the movie spawns a memory-lane type muse of the hip, bebop lifestyle, which was often mimicked in TV commercials and advertisements.

Parker's infamous bop piece "Coco," was a variation of saxophonist/bandleader, Charlie Barnett's classic "Cherokee," And the film traces Parker's late 1940's glory years and experiences in Europe. He was imitated and analyzed. However, Parker extended his musicality with strings sections under the direction of producer Norman Granz. Other musings include Parker's desire to diminish his use of heroine, while drinking cheap wine to compensate for the high. Parker also felt that bop was mistreated by the media. We also see the fabled 1951 clip of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, accepting Downbeat magazine awards on columnist Earl Wilson's TV show "Stage Entrance", along with assistance from jazz journalist and composer, Leonard Feather." Nonetheless, we are treated to a concise overview of Parker's legacy, nicely balanced with discussions of his persona and aspirations. Sentiment is reinforced as the program is embellished with a soundtrack of his amazingly fluent phrasings. In effect, one might get the impression that Parker was summoned from the heavens to cast an aura that nestled itself within the production. -- Jazz News Daily, Glenn Astarita, January 8, 2010

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.

"Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker" is first and only authorized documentary about one of the great legends in American music. A virtuoso saxophonist who went by the moniker Charlie "Bird," Parker created a new style of jazz and won equal fame as the king of the hipsters.

Film clips, photos, and interviews trace Parker's life from Kansas City, where he was born, to his ascendancy as a pioneer in the New York City jazz scene of the 1940's, where he transformed jazz traditions into startling and innovative music

... -- The Delaware County Daily Times, Michael Christopher, December 18, 2009

Naxos has revived a documentary series from the '80s and '90s by moving them for the first time to DVD. The first four releases of this series are "The Story of Jazz," "Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker," "Thelonious Monk: American Composer" and "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday." All but the Monk disc won awards. The releases sometimes look old -- the Parker disc is from the '80s -- and that shows most in interviews: Some of the people who are taking have long since passed. But in Naxos fashion, the video and audio quality has been given new life and made first rate. The biographical efforts are the best, particularly the Monk and Holiday discs, both of which have good performance and historical footage of places and bands. "The Story of Jazz" also is strong that way, but, like the Ken Burns' PBS series, tends to imply there is no merit to contemporary forays into the genre. But the quality of these works more than makes up for any weakness in points of view. -- Pittsburghlive.com, Bob Karlovitz, December 6, 2009

Ranks as the best among many film and docs about Parker, receiving numerous honors and awards in the 17 years since its release. Featuring the only filmed interview with his first wife, Rebecca. Film performances, photos and interviews document Parker's era and life. -- Nuvo, Chuck Workman, December 9, 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