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Music Video Distributors presents
That Old Black Magic (2002)

"We're going to open the vaults, turn back the clock, and spend an hour with some of the greatest American performers of all time."
- narrator Oliver Jones

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: February 25, 2003

Stars: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Marion Anderson, Sammy Davis Jr., Della Reese
Other Stars: Oliver Jones, Wally Koster
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:57m:00s
Release Date: January 28, 2003
UPC: 063634013037
Genre: jazz

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

A special thank you is due to whichever intrepid Canadian television employee thought that, back in the day, it might be worth recording what was being broadcast, and therefore set up a film camera to capture the shows from television's earlier days that otherwise might have been lost forever. These kinescopes were recently rediscovered, and this disc collects performances from the CBC from some of the brightest lights in American music from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.

All the performers on hand are African American, and the narration track here and the disc packaging make a very big deal about the Canadian enlightenment regarding race relations, versus their neighbors to the South. The institutionalized racism of much of U.S. history is disgraceful, and in many ways we're still living with that legacy; but I just don't buy it that up north there was a paradise of harmony. Much of the history presented here is pretty crude—there's a repeated emphasis on the fact that, in the 1950s in the U.S., "racism was legal." The government can't control what's in its citizens' heads and hearts—if we had an Orwellian thought police, millions of Americans would be in jail. And my misgivings about the political outlook on this disc are reinforced by its title, which I can't help but think has a patronizing, racist tinge of its own.

But then there's the music. There are some terrific clips here, snipped out from longer specials broadcast between 1955 and 1961, featuring some of the greatest American performers at the heights of their powers. They're strung together with narration providing brief biographical information on each musician, but happily they're not too long, and we get right to the music.

Duke Ellington leads off, fronting a small ensemble, not his entire big band, in a medley of some of his biggest hits. Cab Calloway rips it up with a rendition of his signature tune, Minnie the Moocher—his satin suit looks way over the top and beautiful, even in black and white. Ella Fitzgerald is typically marvelous in her three-song set; especially memorable is a rendition of Imagination.

Billy Eckstine's amazing vibrato is on full display in September Song, and then Sarah Vaughan plays Misty for us, which sounds terrific. What follows may be the most revolutionary clip on the disc: it's Vaughan singing a duet with Wally Koster, a white man, on How About You? The lyrics are modified to include some pop culture references, but Vaughan is allowed to sing only about white men, like Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.

The Nat King Cole song is a disappointment—it's staged with him crashing a party of white people, and has the unfortunate elements of a minstrel show. Dinah Washington delivers a pair of tunes, having fun especially with an old Bessie Smith blues number, Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair. Marian Anderson delivers a moving performance of Ave Maria, but seems a bit out of place on this jazz disc. The Sammy Davis clips come from his own 1959 CBC special, and he's already moving into self-parody, the style from which only the Rat Pack would give him a stay.

The true revelation on the disc is Della Reese—if you think of her only as the lady from Touched By An Angel, you're in for a surprise, and a treat. She sounds great, adding just a dollop of gospel to Someday, a Johnny Hodges song—even the staid Canadian audience gets caught up in her enthusiasm. The credits roll over an Ellington encore of Sophisticated Lady, the most progressive cut on the disc.

What's notable, too, is that despite the packaging and the emphasis on the race of the performers, the roster of songs comes straight from the middle of the American songbook—a compilation featuring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney might feature an identical set list. Despite Canada's professed progressivism, it seems as if the CBC audience wasn't ready for bebop, scat or harder-driving blues. Anyway, here's a complete set list:

Duke Ellington
Medley—I'm Beginning to See the Light / Sophisticated Lady / Caravan / I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good) / Don't Get Around Much Anymore

Cab Calloway:
Minnie the Moocher

Ella Fitzgerald:
A Tisket, A Tasket
Oh, Lady Be Good

Billy Eckstine
September Song

Sarah Vaughan
How About You?

Nat King Cole
Stay With Love

Dinah Washington
Love Came Back to Me
Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair

Marian Anderson
Ave Maria

Sammy Davis Jr.
Gypsy In My Soul

Della Reese
Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)

Duke Ellington
Sophisticated Lady

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: These performances weren't made to last, and it shows, as the picture quality is pretty crude—the images are full of scratches, and the resolution is lousy. Still, we're fortunate to have these at all, I suppose, and the transfer to DVD from the compromised originals is respectable enough.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio quality is surprisingly high, especially when compared to the picture. The music doesn't have the sharpness that you'll find from these same performers' studio recordings of the period, or even from other recorded concerts, but the music is presented with little interference. A different, unnamed narrator provides the background information on the French track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Brief biographies are provided in both French and English for the ten principal performers, and only in English for the narrator, Oliver Jones. The DVD case seems to have gone to press without even a glance from a copy editor—it's rife with typographical errors (the song that provides the disc's title is quoted as "that old black magic has me in it's spell" [sic]) and numerous misspellings of the performers' names. Also, the case insert includes running times for each of the performers that are completely inaccurate.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Forget the political stuff, and listen to the music, and the rewards on this disc are many. The women of 1950s American music are especially well represented here, and it's a chance to hear Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington at the height of their powers, and to be wowed by a young Della Reese.


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