Pop Life

Seven Jazz Icons Hit the Screen

Compared to Deadheads, Beatles fans and the KISS Army, fans of classic '50s and '60s jazz are, admittedly, a small but extremely dedicated bunch. Somewhere out there is a middle-aged man (possibly with a beard) creaming his corduroys to discover tape of Miles Davis sneezing into the mike during a lost take of “Freddie Freeloader,” or grainy nightclub footage of Charlie Parker leaving the stage and disappearing into the bathroom while his band takes a long, long break.

So that’s why jazz fans celebrate each release in the Jazz Icons DVD series as something akin to Harrison Ford planting his mud-caked mitts on the Lost Ark. The recently-released third series features individual releases by Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone and a bonus disc available only with the box set.

Each DVD features several full concerts and appearances taken from European television, shot mostly during the 1960s but restored with incredible clarity of sight and sound. Each DVD also features an detailed booklet containing an insightful critical essay, photos of rare memorabilia, and a foreword often by the performers’ widows and children.

Rocks Off recently spoke with David Peck, Phillip Galloway and Tom Gulotta of Jazz Icons producers Reelin’ In the Years Productions in a four-way gang-bang phone call.

Rocks Off: The concerts and performances are all from European television and films. What do you think that says about the appreciation for American jazz and performers over there as compared to here? I can’t imagine CBS giving an hour of airtime for an uninterrupted jazz concert in the mid-'60s.

Tom Gulotta: Well, look at the color of [the performers’] skin! That explains why they weren’t on American TV. The Europeans were way ahead of us in appreciating the cultural contributions of jazz.

David Peck: Also, European television had no commercials. Plus, these artists were treated like royalty when they went over there, and the music was respected. And not just jazz, but blues as well.

RO: I was actually surprised at how amazingly clear the footage looks and sounds, given that it was recorded decades ago for what may have been a single broadcast. What was the restoration process like?

DP: We make a point of going back to the original formats – film or video – and transferring it digitally. We also work with a [restorer] in England for sound. Look, we could put it through a George Lucas process and spend $300,000 to get every scratch and grain out if the footage, but that’s not gonna happen. But we do everything in our power. And a lot of these [shows] were recorded on actual recording tape, and the mikes were placed very well.

RO: On the Sonny Rollins disc, you have two shows several years apart both featuring his signature song “St. Thomas,” but sounding radically different. Does jazz – more than any other genre – allow the artist to change up their material like that?

TG: Yes, definitely. The nature of jazz is the live performance, and for so many of these guys the thrill of changing a song and the improvisation was part of the art of jazz. On our Charles Mingus tape from a previous series, we had three shows in one week, and each one has “So Long, Eric,” but it’s completely different each time. That’s what makes jazz exciting. The audience may not appreciate it because they were seeing only one version, but for what the band is experiencing, it’s amazing.

RO: Another interesting DVD was the one with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He’s often dismissed by some jazz fans as an Uncle-Tomming blind freak whose claim to fame is playing three horns at once. But on the DVD, you really see his dexterity and skill in a way that just listening to a record can’t deliver.

Phillip Galloway: Absolutely. What comes out on the DVD is what a dynamo he was. And to watch the way he goes between two horns and they’re all hanging from his neck, there’s nothing circusey about it – it’s pure genius. Just watch the sidemen try and keep up with him! With Kirk, there’s a tornado effect just watching this high-speed genius.

RO: And then there’s the Nina Simone tape. I wasn’t that familiar with her work, but was struck by the intensity of her songs, much of it concentrating on then-current political and racial subject material. And the way she almost acts out the lyrics. Her version of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” is way more foreboding and scary going to the murderous climax than his own.

DP: As an African-American woman in 1965, all of what she was seeing and experiencing came out. All three of us here worship Dylan, but when she does it, you kind of forget he even wrote the song.

PG: Dylan wrote it [based on the real-life story] of this poor, white hillbilly farmer who kills his family. When Nina does it, it has a whole different edge to it. When [music journalist] Rob Bowman sent over his liner notes for the DVD, he talked about Hollis Brown being a black man. But of course, he was white! Nina just made that song so much of her own, you couldn’t see has as anything but black. Now that’s a powerful singer!

RO: Are you planning a fourth series?

DP: Holy hell, yeah! There is so much footage all around the world. We’re not done yet.

RO: One last question. Have you ever gotten a cease-and-desist order from Steely Dan about the name of your company?

DP (laughing): Ha! Well, I don’t believe you can own the rights to a song title. Thankfully. - Bob Ruggiero

For more information on the Jazz Icons series, visit www.jazzicons.com.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero