Well before Ken Burns produced his (now) definitive video opus on the history of jazz, the Masters of American Music series was among the first serious documentaries on the music. Originally sold or broadcast in the '80s and '90s, they are now making their DVD debuts from Naxos/Medici Arts. The Story of Jazz ($21.98, 98 mins.) presents a solid, if basic narrative to the story of the music and some of its biggest players. Starting with the familiar theory of the Congo Square/New Orleans "birth" of jazz, its emphasis is on the development of jazz from the '30s through the '50s. The DVD combines performance footage and a slew of talking heads (Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann, Roy Haynes, a young Wynton Marsalis). But some of the most revealing clips are of jazz audiences. Whether dancing to the big-band sounds of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman to the café tableside admirers of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, the faces of these audience members show their love for the music. "Jazz is spontaneous...it is instant swing," one interviewee recalls, while a voiceover notes "Jazz set the whole body in motion." Post-bop styles and eras are wrapped up (a bit too quickly) in the DVD's waning minutes, but The Story of Jazz is a good entry point for the interested.
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In Thelonious Monk: American Composer ($21.98, 59 mins.), it's the music of the offbeat icon that gets the attention over biographical details. Historical footage of Monk on stage and in the studio, combined with interviews with fellow musicians, former bandmates and Monk's sister and son make the DVD a good complement to the Straight, No Chaser documentary. Throughout, Monk's unique approach to the keyboard (the stabbing fingers and dissonant chording) is demonstrated, dissected, and discussed. And though it's this approach that made Monk's music both anathema to some and compelling to others, history has clearly sided with the latter. Other titles in this DVD series profile saxophonist Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, and this year will see continued releases on John Coltrane, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan.