Hal Miller, one of the key people putting together the series of Jazz Icons DVD releases, was recently interviewed by Felix Conteras of NPR's A Blog Supreme. The series features archival performances, many of them never-before-released, from key giants like Sonny Rollins, Roland Kirk, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Art Blakey and Ella Fitzgerald. I've seen the Roland Kirk and the Nina performances, and they are spectacular. Well annotated, too.
In the interview, Miller describes how he combs through known footage to find the tasty bits, and how he digs through the video libraries of universities and European television stations to find lost and hidden gems. One of the best jobs in the world?
Here's one part, written by Miller, I found particularly awesome:
A jazz trio touring Germany in the 1950s or 1960s might have been televised locally for a single concert. In most instances the leader of the trio would have been paid a flat fee for this on top of the trio's payment for the actual concert. In virtually every case, the only name on the contract for the television fee would have been that of the leader with no mention of the sideman. Further, there is obviously no mention in the contract of any future payments for commercial videotape or DVD releases since such media had not yet been commercially available or -- in the case of DVD -- even been invented at the time.That's some championship decision-making right there.
So, fast forward to 2009, some 45 years later, and Jazz Icons -- or any other company with a similar enterprise -- decides to make a commercial release of this video performance. By law they may not even have to pay the leader or his estate and definitely and clearly have no obligation to pay the sidemen. David Peck has taken the stance that every musician involved gets paid regardless of the contract language or absence of such. David works through the American Federation of Musicians' Union to find the contributing musicians and to pay them.
I do have some quibbles with the series. Miller says Jazz Icons has an arbitrary cut-off date of 1970 for the material they're reviewing and releasing. Which is a shame because I consider the early 1970s to be one of the most interesting periods for jazz -- it's when the players were abandoning a lot of the constructs laid out by the heavyweights of the 50s and 60s and really trying to find a new voice in a post-Hendrix, post-Bitches Brew world. By enforcing a hard stop at 1970, you're missing some primo shit.
Also, Miller says they "cherry pick" performers. Looking at the list of releases thus far, I'll read this statement as code for "playing it safe" -- choosing the marquee names that guarantee a return on the investment. Understandable, but I'd challenge Jazz Icons to pull back the curtain a little on future releases and feature some players that are more left of mainstream.
Sure, some of the featured players, like Kirk, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus were edgy. But that list reads like the table of contents in a Who's Who book. What about Archie Shepp? Sun Ra? Rashied Ali? Grachan Moncur III? Jakie McLean? Eric Dolphy as a leader? Oliver Lake? Don Cherry? I'm sure there's some killer footage out there those of us who "travel the spaceways" would love to experience.
Those two issues aside, these guys are doing incredible work. Read the interview, check out the clips and buy as many of the Jazz Icons DVDs you can afford. Especially since, according to them, the money is going to all the right places!
And now, Art Blakey:
Mingus Photo: Verve Records