Musical Greats on `American Masters'

Documentaries on three major performers use interviews and fascinating footage to create portraits of varying vividness. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

CELEBRATING BIRD: THE TRIUMPH OF CHARLIE PARKER. PBS, Monday, 9-10:00 p.m. `American Masters' documentary on the great jazz saxaphonist. ARETHA FRANKLIN: THE QUEEN OF SOUL. PBS, Mon., July 24, 9-10:00 p.m. `American Masters' documentary on `the queen of soul.'' SATCHMO. PBS, Mon., July 31, 9-10:30 p.m. `American Masters' documentary about jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. AMERICAN artists are getting their due on PBS's ``American Masters,'' an innovative series of documentaries that depict the lives and contributions of authors, theater groups, playwrights, actors, painters, photographers, filmmakers, and musicians.

Susan Lacy, executive producer of ``American Masters,'' has stated that the objective of the series is to focus on artists who have made a significant impact on American and world culture. Starting Monday, ``American Masters'' will air documentaries on three important contributors to American music: the late alto saxophonist Charlie ``Bird'' Parker, the late trumpeter Louis ``Satchmo'' Armstrong, and singer Aretha Franklin.

``Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker,'' which premi`eres Monday, is based on the award-winning book of the same title by Gary Giddins, jazz critic since 1973 for the Village Voice. It's an exceptionally sensitive and thoughtful portrait of the great alto saxophonist, and, to a degree, an antidote to last year's Clint Eastwood film ``Bird,'' a musically satisfying but psychologiclly depressing dramatization of Parker's life that emphasized his drug addiction over more positive aspects of his character.

Using available film clips and stills of Parker, the documentary weaves an uncannily vivid tapestry of the short but extraordinary life of the man who ushered in that iconoclastic and demanding music called bebop, changing the face of jazz forever. Parker's music and character are brought to life through interviews with two of Parker's wives, Rebecca Parker Davis and Chan Parker, along with comments - some humorous, others touching - by fellow musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann, and Roy Haynes, and jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather.

In addition to the excellent depiction of Parker himself, the documentary establishes the ambience in which the music grew, with footage of the Kansas City of Parker's boyhood, as well as scenes of Harlem and 52nd Street in New York during the late '40s and '50s.

`Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul'

Airing July 24, this is an overview of the singer's life and accomplishments which doesn't reveal much about the enigmatic Ms. Franklin herself. A co-production of the Program Development Company and ``American Masters'' in association with BBC-TV, the program includes segments from a recent interview with the singer, in which her own comments are guarded. The film leaves comments about her character and personality to others, such as record producers and fellow musicians. But it does include some excellent footage of Franklin performing - notably her magical 1972 concert at San Francisco's Fillmore West, in which she and Ray Charles sang a duet on ``Spirit in the Dark,'' and an outstanding solo clip of Franklin singing and accompanying herself at the piano in Sam Cooke's ``You Send Me.''

Interviews with family members and friends round out the story of the girl from Detroit who grew up in the Baptist church (her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a liberal-minded minister who encouraged her singing career). She struggled to find her own musical identity through a maze of conflicting opinions voiced by record company executives and advisers, and ended up dominating the soul music scene from 1967 through much of the '70s.

Although it's hard to figure out what sort of person Franklin is from viewing this documentary, her identity as an artist comes through - strong, self-knowing, consistently progressive and versatile, keeping up with the times without compromising her own inimitable style.

`Satchmo'

``Bird'' director Giddins also wrote and directed this documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, airing July 31. The 90-minute film traces Armstrong's life from his New Orleans childhood, where he learned to play trumpet at the Colored Waif's Home for Boys, to his death in 1971 after a career as one of America's greatest jazz innovators and most-loved entertainers.

Especially insightful comments by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singer Tony Bennett, among others, help delineate Armstrong - the first jazz scat singer, the first jazz musician to play extended jazz solos (in contrast to the customary group improvisation of the Dixieland-style players), and the first to spread jazz around the globe.

The film also spotlights Armstrong's genuine talent as an actor - overlooked by the Hollywood movie machine, even though he appeared in many films. Most telling is a clip from his appearance in the movie ``Rhapsody in Black and Blue,'' where he somehow manages to rise above the humiliation of standing ankle-deep in soap bubbles, wearing a leopard skin, while he sings and plays his trumpet.

Ironically, although Armstrong was deeply involved with the civil rights movement, he was later accused of being an Uncle Tom, ostensibly because of his wide-eyed mugging and ever-present grin. But, as the film points out, the charge more likely grew out of his immense popularity among whites.

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