DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Woody Herman – Blue Fame: Portrait of a Jazz Legend (2012)

A masterful documentary covering a half-century tenure of a brilliant band leader.

Published on October 21, 2012

Woody Herman – Blue Fame: Portrait of a Jazz Legend (2012)  

Producer/Director: Graham Carter
Studio: Jazzed Media JM9005 [11/13/12]
Video: Picture-framed 4:3 (borders all around)
Audio: Mono & PCM stereo
All regions
Length: 110:00
Ratings – Audio: ***½     Video: ***

Graham Carter of Jazzed Media has continued his string of thorough and comprehensive documentaries of jazz masters. We have reviewed and enjoyed prior DVDs on the lives of Phil Woods (thankfully still with us),  Bud Shank, and Stan Kenton. Now Graham has just finished taking on the monumental task of celebrating Woody Herman. Only Duke Ellington approached the longevity of Herman as a band leader.

Herman led a big band starting in 1936 and continued almost non-stop till his death in 1987. Like Kenton, Woody was a one of a kind bandleader, beloved by his members, as he permitted and even encouraged them to think outside of the box, both in accepting their idiosyncrasies as well as letting them branch off in exploring  new music genres as they came up throughout the years.

Woody’s band had some of the best arrangers of the day beginning with Ralph Burns, Neil Hefti, and Shorty Rogers and progressing to Nat Pierce, John Fedchock, and Alan Broadbent. The love that Woody’s band members had for him is expressed warmly on this DVD by numerous musicians like Joe Lovano, Jeff Hamilton, Phil Wilson, and Frank Tiberi (who took over Herman’s band for a period after Woody’s death); and jazz historians Dr. Herb Wong and Dan Morgenstern.

Carter was able fit an inordinate amount of information in Blue Flame in less than two hours running time. He covers Woody’s famous Herd bands in the 40s and 50s that could blow down the roof of dance halls with their swing, bebop, and cool jazz. As jazz rock and fusion came on the scene in the 60s and 70s, Herman was there fully embracing these genres but not losing the swing and power that made his big bands so popular. It is a blast to witness on video the changes in hair styles and clothing that came with the latest new waves in musical taste.

Very prevalent is the power and importance of Woody’s drummers throughout his career as the driving force behind his polished front line horns. When you talk about famous saxophonists and trumpeters who were incubated under Herman’s big bands, the names of legends like the Candoli brothers, Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Sal Nistico are just a few who found their footing under Herman.

It was a gas to watch some relatively unknown video from Iowa Public Television (in fairly good shape), and old Ed Sullivan broadcasts from the 1960s. There are also several old interviews with Herman that Graham Carter was able to obtain. It is also wrenching to see how poorly Herman was treated by the IRS over back taxes that were not taken by unscrupulous business managers, unknown to him. This forced Herman to have a grueling touring schedule, even while he was in poor health, to pay off huge government tax liens.

Herman is shown to be a gracious and kind band leader, who was as proud of his band members as a father would be to see his children succeed in life. Woody’s life was his music, and Blue Flame is a testament to the man’s genius, and dedication to his craft. For fans of big band jazz, and Woody Herman in particular, the purchase of this DVD is a must have…

[But why, oh why, is the image thruout picture-framed with big borders all around? It's bad enough on a large 16:9 display—and zooming in only makes the often poor video quality look even worse—but on a 20-inch set it's going to be only a very tiny screen in the center...Ed.]

—Jeff Krow




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