Cultural education: Documentary films about Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.


These three quarter-century old musical documentaries remain excellent, and are essential to your cultural education. Each is about jazz, but moreover, each also is about the social history and experience of Black America. Needless to say, most of the interviewees are gone, but their testimony remains. We are richer for it.

Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1989)

The film was part of the “American Masters” series on public television, intended to accompany the book by writer Gary Giddins.

Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (PBS)

The seeds of modern jazz, or “bebop,” as the new style came to be called, were also being sown by now legendary pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, drummers Kenny Clark and Max Roach, and trumpeter Miles Davis. All were frequent Parker collaborators on recordings and in the lively 52nd Street clubs that were the jazz center of the mid-1940s. Beyond his amazing technical capacity, Parker was able to invent a more complex and individual music by disregarding the four- and eight-bar standards of jazz and creating solos that were both fluid and harsh.

Learn more about Giddins’ book.

Celebrating Bird: The Triumph Of Charlie Parker By Gary Giddins, review by C. Michael Bailey (All ABout Jazz)

Giddins’ book has held up very well since its 1987 first edition (Beech Tree Books). The author “revises” his work by only providing an updated preface and discography (retaining the original discography for comparison). His text remains as it was, taut and trim.

John Coltrane – The World According to John Coltrane (1990)

These many decades later, Coltrane’s virtuoso spirituality is fascinating. He stands alongside musicians like Jimi Hendrix in the sense of “What else would he have done?”

The World According to John Coltrane: His Life & Music Revealed in Heartfelt 1990 Documentary (Open Culture)

In his short life, John Coltrane continually pushed the boundaries of music. From swing to bebop to hard bop to free jazz, Coltrane was a restless seeker of new sounds. Inspired by the hypnotic, trance-inducing traditional music of North Africa and Asia, Coltrane created a new kind of music that fused jazz and Eastern spirituality.

Eric Dolphy — Last Date (1991)

Parker’s lifestyle did him in, while Coltrane was a casualty of cancer. Dolphy should not have died when (and where) he did, particularly since Europe was affording him a level of professional achievement impossible in the States in the early 1960s.

Eric Dolphy – Last Date, by Christopher Porter (Jazz Times)

This 1991 documentary is a love letter to Eric Dolphy, mysterious master of the alto sax, flute and bass clarinet who died at 36 in Germany after he lapsed into a coma brought about by diabetes; doctors mistakenly assumed it was because he was a drug addict and didn’t give him the proper care.