Filling out the picture
Reviewed December 2009
Jazz Icons: Series 4 Box Set (DVD)
By various artists
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
Music is a visual art nearly as much as an audio one, a reality the founders of MTV knew when they began the 24-hour music channel by airing old concert footage of classic rock bands before there were special music videos to fill airtime.
A recent series of jazz performance DVDs is out in a fourth volume, offering modern audiendes yet more opportunities to see legendary jazz musicians in concert. The fourth volume of the "Jazz Icons" series from Naxos has vintage concert footage of singer Anita O'Day, trumpeter Art Farmer, pianist Erroll Garner, organist Jimmy Smith, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, bandleader Woodyo Herman and drummer Art Blakey. While those seven discs are also available individually, a bonus disc with performances by Hawkins, Garner and Smith not included on their own discs is only available with the box set.
As the adulatory quotes from jazz journalist Nat Hentoff and composer/arranger Quincy Jones make clear, it would be hard to overestimate the importance and impact of this collection. It's one thing to hear the great Coleman Hawkins play "Moonlight in Vermont" or "Lover Come Back to Me" on your stereo; seeing how he held his sax, his fingering technique, his interplay with his band all of that is part of how the music is made, and is only available to us visually. The framing of Garner's 1963 performance is often from above, letting us see how his hands danced above the keyboards, how he interacted with his drummer and bassist.
Most of these seem to have been shot on tape, not film; the Hawkins 1962 set, in particular, suffers from degradation of quality. The format is the square pictute of TV of the time, too. The sound isn't audiophile, but is better than FM radio most of the time sounded fine running it from the TV through the floor speakers.
More important is the artistic and historic content found here and what it says about the accepted narrative of jazz history.
Take the Herman set, from 1964. Some 15 years after the end of the Big Band era, and almost 20 since his first Thundering Herd band made him a favorite, he was still fronting a powerfully swinging big band. Most jazz histories won't give Herman's New Thundering Herd much if any attention, but watching Bill Chase (trumpet) and Sal Nistico (sax) tear up their solos makes clear that big band swing didn't die out just because rock 'n' roll and R&B ruled the charts.
Coleman Hawkins, too, in his 1962 and '64 performances is decades past his supposedly influential period before the war yet his playing remains powerful, nuanced and gorgeous (surrounding himself with Basie alumni Papa Jo Jones on drums and Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet didn't hurt any, either).
Jimmy Smith and Art Farmer (and even Art Blakey) were closer to their most critically acclaimed periods on their live sets, yet even here the video record tells a different part of their story than just their studio recordings. A record album is released, reviewed by the critics, and assigned a place in the artist's career and the larger pantheon of the style they play in. But while that is happening, the musician is generally also still touring, still performing and especially in jazz, those performances draw on the musician's entire catalogue and even covers of songs they've never recorded.
So while whatever album Jimmy Smith released in 1969, the year of this concert in France, that wasn't the totality of where his music was at that point in time. This concert captures other sides of what he was doing.
What these videos make clear is that Coleman Hawkins didn't stop performing at an astounding level when he left Fletcher Henderson's band, that Anita O'Day didn't cease being one of the best jazz vocalists going when the hits dried up, that Woody Herman's band still swung like crazy even during the British Invasion.
Getting to hear these artists in a live setting again is a treat, and provides a fuller understanding of why they were so beloved in the first place.
Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif., and was a contributor to the "Grove Press Guide to Blues on CD" (1993) and "The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues" (2005).