The Staying Inside Guide: Jazz Performances That Stand the Test of Time
From the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, they capture not only the sounds and sights of jazz, but—more important—its feeling and deep inner essence.
April 7, 2020 4:19 pm ET
To fully enjoy both the spontaneity and the intimacy of jazz, you have to be—as the musical “Hamilton” would say—in the room where it happens. Obviously, that’s a challenge these days, when neither musicians nor listeners get around much anymore. So it’s reassuring to remember that over nearly all of jazz’s century-plus history, film and video have played a vital role in both documenting and disseminating the music. Here is a short list of classic videos, all readily available on YouTube and other platforms, that brilliantly and excitingly capture not only the sound of jazz and the sight of it, but—more important—its feeling and deep inner essence.
If you can watch only one jazz film ever, let this be it. In August 1944, the budding jazz impresario Norman Granz (who had just produced the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert) assembled an outstanding band that was built around the tenor saxophone colossus Lester Young and also included trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, instructing them to play two blues (one slow and one fast) and a standard (“On the Sunny Side of the Street”). The results were remarkable, not only for the amazing playing of Young, but for the artful way in which they were captured by director and veteran Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili—from the opening visual, a seemingly abstract image of concentric circles that turn out to be the top of Young’s signature porkpie hat, to the way he transmutes a repeated phrase of the blues played by Edison into multiple images of the trumpeter. It’s hard to think of any musical film that’s as much of a treat for the eyes as this one.
Jazz’s finest hour on television. Robert Herridge produced this exuberant live show for the CBS series “The Seven Lively Arts,” and hired Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett as consultants to pick the talent and the tunes. To give a vivid picture of both the diversity and the overall continuity of the music, they focused on the blues, the traditional and the modern, the up- and the down-tempo, the sung and the swung, played by a wide variety of the best musicians then active. The emphasis was on Count Basie, with many storied veterans of his band as well as sympathetic modernists like Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and Jimmy Giuffre. Young’s unexpected and exquisite improvisation on his longtime partner Billie Holiday’s epic nine-minute reading of “Fine and Mellow” is one that music students have been memorizing ever since. Herridge and director Jack Smight achieve the stated objective better than anyone has before or since, to capture the energy and the feeling of live jazz and improvisation with the television camera. Through masterful staging and rhythmic editing, soloists like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge are endowed with a commanding visual presence that’s equal parts Shakespearean orator and heavyweight prizefighter.
“The Sound of Miles Davis”(1959)
While Miles Davis was in the middle of recording “Kind of Blue,” the most celebrated jazz album of all time, the already iconic trumpeter and trendsetter took time off to perform some music from it on CBS TV. The first part features Davis’s legendary 1959 sextet, co-starring saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley; the second spotlights the collaboration of Davis and arranger-composer-conductor Gil Evans in three big-band numbers from the 1957 “Miles Ahead” album. Kudos to producer and host Herridge, who obviously was well aware of how important this music would be to history. This is the only time Davis’s legendary sextet and his collaboration with Evans were ever filmed, and we’re doubly lucky that the staging and photography of Herridge and his crew are at the same consistently high level as the music.
This third of five annual Sinatra specials found the greatest of American male singers sharing the stage with two giants of music who inspired him to reach a pinnacle beyond even his usual Olympian heights. The three numbers with Brazilian maestro Antônio Carlos Jobim were an amazing change of pace for the Chairman and representative of a classic album, while the extended duet section with Ella Fitzgerald, which climaxes in “The Lady is a Tramp,” is a tantalizing promise of the greatest album Sinatra was never able to make—his long-desired collaboration project with the First Lady of Song.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.
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