Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz
Director: Matthew Seig
This 93-minute documentary preceded the Ken Burns jazz project by eight years, and used a similar format, although not as creatively. Employing soundtrack, film, still photography and talking heads, director Matthew Seig traces the history of jazz from Congo Square to Ornette Coleman, approximately. There is footage of the usual suspects (sometimes it’s the usual footage), all of which is a delight, and a whole raft of testimonials, from Bud Freeman to the inevitable Wynton Marsalis. They are all pretty terrific, too. Roy Haynes is my favorite among them; with a few choice words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and the shifting of the gum in his jaw, he just nails it. Diz is awesome, too.
It’s just too bad that America is so bored by its own history that it even ignores the present.
Our addiction to instant gratification recalls the rat in the famous experiment, that continued to nudge the pleasure button, neglecting its own need for food and sleep, until it died. We need history because it provides a deeper pleasure by providing context and continuity, if pleasure is all we care about. There should be so much more on this subject, more documentary films, more photographs, and more books. Why were there not more feature length documentaries made in the 1930s? The 1940s? The 1950s? The 1960s? The 1970s? The 1980s? The 1990s? Is the answer the same in every case? Why was Don Cheadle not cast as Albert Ayler in a biopic, ten years ago? Why does Cecil Taylor not have his own TV showcase? Why does Wynton Marsalis not have his own TV show? We all know the answers, of course. If there were an Albert Ayler biopic, either Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler would be cast as Albert, no doubt.
The Story of Jazz is an excellent piece of work, good for personal viewing, and a perfect classroom introduction to the culture of the music know as jazz. There’s a good script by Chris Albertson, intelligent structure, and there ‘s Louis Armstrong, , Willie "the Lion" Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Dig it.