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Blair’s DVD Watch: Great Historic Jazz for the Holidays

Hello, again! Here’s the deal: I LOVE watching music DVDs! There are so many fantastic releases coming out every day, I could practically spend all my time watching them and doing nothing else—sounds like a good job to me. So I thought it would be fun to use this space in MixLine every two weeks to give a little virtual ink to some of the music DVDs that I’m diggin’. With the holiday season in full swing, there are lots to talk about, and plenty worth recommending. So let’s dive in…

The Jazz Icons Series

A couple of years ago in the pages of Mix, I enthusiastically reviewed the first pair of DVDs in the American Folk and Blues Festival 1962-1966 series, which presented never-before-released European performances by some of the greatest U.S. blues performers. Well, now the same company that put out those extraordinary DVDs—Reelin’ in the Years Productions and producers David Peck and Phillip Galloway—has put out a series of nine fantastic jazz concert releases, all drawn from European TV sources, and spanning from the late ’50s to the late ’70s. Like the blues releases, both the audio and video quality is extraordinary, the packaging and liner notes also top-notch. This is a truly a goldmine of great jazz: I can’t recommend them highly enough—all of them!

And what a collection of great names: Count Basie, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.

Here are my five favorites (so far):

*The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, captured in small-group settings in Brussels in 1957 and Stockholm in 1963, with such notable sidemen as guitarist Herb Ellis, Ray Brown on bass, Papa Jo Jones on drums and Tommy Flanagan on piano. This is jazz singing at its absolute finest; it will make the hair on your arms stand up. (To see a clip, go to:

*The spread between the two sets of performances by Chet Baker is more extreme—1964 and 1979—and it’s somewhat shocking to see Baker’s physical decline between the two, but his playing and singing is sublime in both: what an incredible balladeer he was! And there’s also an informative interview in between the two concert segments that further illuminates his genius. A sweet guy with a deep soul. (Clip:

*It’s remarkable to be able to see a full, 13-song, one-hour concert by Louis Armstrong and a five-piece band from 1958, when he was still at the peak of his powers. (A month after this concert he would suffer a heart attack, the first of a series of ailments that slowed him down through the years.) His incredible charisma and his talent as both trumpeter and singer are on full display here, as he steers the tight group through a selection of tunes from the earliest days of jazz to the ’50s. Satchmo from any era is a treat, but this seems extra-special somehow. I love his pre-Darin take on “Mack the Knife,” and his spirited duet with trombonist Trummy Young, “Now You Has Jazz.” (Clip:

*Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers were recorded in Belgium in 1958, a month to the day after they cut their most famous album, Moanin’, with Rudy Van Gelder. With a young Lee Morgan on trumpet and Benny Golson on sax, there’s tons of energy and great communication among the players throughout the seven-song set; it’s quite a revelation. (Clip:

*Generally speaking, I prefer smaller ensembles to big bands (the fine Dizzy Gillespie DVD features both kinds of groups, 12 years apart), but I’ve always had a soft spot for Count Basie big, powerful band—maybe it’s because he’s the only one of these artists I ever saw perform live (in New York in 1971). I thought he was the essence of cool that night, and he’s that and more on this concert from Sweden nine years earlier. He leads a big band through a nice collection of standards—ballads and swinging tunes alike—with characteristic grace and élan. (Clip:

I was so knocked out by the Jazz Icons series that I put in a call to associate producer and consultant Don Sickler—himself a trumpeter of considerable renown—to find out a little more about how it came about. Rumors had been circulating for years that there were dozens of jazz (and blues) concerts languishing in the vaults of various European television stations, and a number of bootlegs have surfaced, but mostly from Italy, rather than Belgium and Scandinavia, where these come from. Sickler noted that because so many countries in Europe had non-commercial, government-controlled TV stations, they were willing to devote air time to jazz (and blues), much as PBS in this country has traditionally been the primary outlet for jazz (though only sporadically).

“[David Peck and others] had found several of the programs through the years,” Sickler says, “but didn’t have a handle of how they could approach some of the big band projects they had, so I talked to the musicians unions and had them create a scale and then we were able to have a vehicle to pay all the musicians, because that’s something that’s very important to David—everybody had to get paid.” Alas, most of the musicians themselves are no longer living, but in those cases the money goes to their estates. Still, Sickler says, “there are also a number who are still alive—Quincy Jones, obviously—but also some of the players here and there. I got to take the Basie one up to [tenor player] Frank Wess’ apartment and sat right between Frank and [trombonist] Bennie Powell and played the whole show for them and we talked it about it after—they were blown away. So was I!”

In the case of that Basie show, at first, only 30 minutes of it was available, but Sickler could tell that there should be more (judging from the set list of what the band usually playede in that era) and sure enough, the Swedish television station dug deeper into their vault and found more. The Art Blakey DVD was another miraculous find: “We had actually ordered a different [later] Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers show from Belgium. In fact, it wasn’t even officially a Jazz Messengers show, though it featured Art Blakey. But for some reason, when they sent the film over from Belgium, they sent a different one. At first, David was all bent out of shape, calling me from the studio saying, ‘Man, the guy in the studio who’s seen the film is a trumpet player and he says he knows that isn’t Freddie Hubbard [who was supposed to be part of the band], so what is this?’ He played some of it over the phone to me and I thought I knew what it was, but I said, ‘That’s impossible, because the version of the band I’m hearing never did any film footage.’ Well, as we found out the next day when we looked at it, they did. It was Blakey’s group—with a 20-year-old Lee Morgan—a month after they’d recorded ‘Moanin’,’ which became his biggest hit and established his career with Blue Note. Before this we didn’t think there was a full set of that lineup on film. So that’s an important piece of history.”

I told Sickler I was so impressed by the audio quality on all the DVDs—though mono, there’s both clarity and separation. “That’s true,” he says. “We just got really lucky. They really took the care with both the audio and the video, doing the best they could with the equipment they had at that time. We’ve all heard horrendous broadcasts, where it seems like you’re always hearing the wrong instrument—It’s a big band and all you hear clearly is the piano, for instance. It’s so frustrating. But on these they took the care to mic the instruments or the rooms well and the balance is surprisingly good. On the Blakey one, you don’t hear enough bass at first, and then you actually see them up there adjusting the bass mic. It’s not [up to] the standards of what they did a month before at Van Gelder’s when they were recording there, but it’s still really good. And we’re fortunate that it is so good because frankly, there’s not much you can do with the sound on these shows now besides roll a little low end off or whatever.”

It’s sad, in a way, that so much of this country’s musical legacy has been better preserved by Europeans than by Americans. “That’s been true for many, many years. Europe has always loved and respected American musicians,” Sickler says. “A lot of the members of Quincy’s band and Dizzy’s band moved over to Europe and were living in Europe because they could play jazz and work in radio studio orchestras that played jazz. I agree it’s a sad commentary, but thank goodness that Europeans—and the Japanese, too—are very art-conscious and when American jazz musicians would come, they would film it. Thank goodness because we wouldn’t have hour-long shows of these artists. At best you might just have a little clip. There have been a few things in the United States, but not the volume that is in Europe.

The good news, too, is that the Jazz Icons series is just the tip of the iceberg. “The sky’s the limit,” Sickler says. “There’s a tremendous amount of stuff over there that hopefully will come out at some point. When David showed me these and we put together these nine, I said, ‘This is like a whole little history of jazz. You’ve got most of the bases covered.’ But if we can make a go of it, I know we’ll be able to talk him into putting out some of the other ones that are historically important but perhaps lesser-named people. There are still a lot of vaults to go through. We know there’s some amazing stuff still to be discovered.”

For more info on all the releases, go to

Next time: A sleighful of music DVD picks—from Moby to Nina Simone to the Black-Eyed Peas to The Byrds—for all you late holiday shoppers (or those expecting to find some cash under the tree).