Storyville films does it again! This lovely European firm dedicated to presenting American cultural heritage brings us brilliant films and clips from Ellington's rich history (1929-1943);
the material is well remastared (as opposed to some other editions); starting with Duke's film debut in Dudley Murphy directed musical short "Black and Tan Fantasy", featuring Arthur Whetsol, Barney Bigard, Tricky Sam Nanton, wellman Braud...); than there's a fun although less essential click from a less known commercial film "Check and Double Check"... "Simphony in Black", as you probably know, features, among others, young Billie Holiday in her first film performance... Ellington's great vocalist Ivy Anderson is featured in the "Paramount Pictorial", which actually gives more insight into producing pre-LP records and, more substantially, in a clip from a film "The Hit Parade of 1937"...
"RKO Jamboree No 7" (from 1943) gives us a nice "greatest hits" program - "Mood Indigo/Sophisticated lady" medley,"It don't mean a thing" and "Don't get around much anymore"... Duke is shown stroking the keys in his lovely manner, with fine solos from other musicians; Ray Nance and the trumpet player I didn't recognize sing on "It Don't Mean a Thing" (Ray strokes his fiddle as well)... Ben Webster (still quite lean) tries to fake his solo listening to the previously the recorded music....
BTW, who is that caucasian looking guy seen on some tracks in the trombone section? Is that Juan Tizol?
Although some of the films are bizarre from the present day perspective, my general feeling is that you can hardly find better DVD with examples from Ellington's work of the era; soloists are well featured (Tricky Sam, Whetsol, Hodges, Bigard, Anderson, Nance...). That along makes this essential; considering the quality of the material, 5 stars is the only mark I can imagine.
Although, one would wish for more full data on soloists for each number, these (approximately) 46 minutes of material is essential in any serious jazz fan's library (IMHO).
The DVD menu has the option of choosing the film and looking the biography of Ellington (not of other performers). All the films and clips are in Black and White.
For a bit later classic Ellington, check out Jazz Festival, Vol. 2; not a jazz festival as stated in the title, but a fine collection of jazz films, in color and in stereo.