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Published: 2008/04/30
by Mark Burnell

Blue Note : The Story of Modern JazzPlay Your Own Thing : The Story of Jazz in Europe


These two documentaries, both written and directed by Julian Benedikt, are each so absolutely essential that EuroArts should have bundled them together as a double disc release. It wouldn’t have affected sales one whit, as everyone with an interest in jazz is doing himself a disservice if they don’t grab these DVDs.

The Story of Modern Jazz delves into the history of Blue Note records , the quintessential jazz label, from its founding by two white Germans who emigrated to the US in the 1930s in search of the music that had mesmerized them from afar, to its status as revered Mecca of artistic freedom and home to the most important jazz players of the 1950s. The parallels between the freedom and prosperity Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff found in the US and the freedom they afforded the musicians in their roster, as well as the incongruity of two white guys running the hippest black label on the planet, are skillfully drawn by Benedikt, and there are archive clips aplenty squeezed in between extensive new interviews done for the documentary, forming a documentary that is simply fascinating.

Play Your Own Thing starts with a great quote, “Jazz is America’s gift to the world,” and, after explaining how the music came to Europe via black American GIs who played instruments, tries to prove how European players have taken jazz and added their own traditions to the mix, creating something different from its American roots in the process. Benedict is a tad more successful in telling the story of the former rather than proving the latter, but in either case, the journey is a wonderful one. Gypsy gatherings in memory of Django Reinhardt and the austere, very Nordic trumpet stylings of a Scandinavian trumpeter show how Europe blends its roots with jazz. There are also some very incisive observations about how the French intelligentsia of the post war era identified with the cerebral nature of certain forms of jazz. As in his previous film, a mixture of archival footage and modern interviews keeps thing moving at a pretty quick snap, and the 90 minutes really do fly by.

It seems to be an exciting time for the jazz DVD collector; first there were the superlative Jazz Icon series from last year, and now there are a pair of documentaries that equal anything accomplished in the Ken Burns series. These are certainly brilliant and essential viewing.

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