If you’ve ever been looking to build a solid jazz library without spending too much coin, look no further. The European arm of Universal Music Group, through its EmArcy and Decca labels, has announced a series of Complete Masters boxes that offer considerable bang for your buck! The Complete Masters slate kicks off with five box sets devoted to Louis Armstrong (1925-1945, 14 discs), Ella Fitzgerald (1935-1955, 14 discs), Billie Holiday (1933-1959, 15 discs), Sidney Bechet (American Masters 1931-1953, 14 discs) and Charlie Parker (1941-1954, 13 discs). Based on the time periods, it seems that a great deal of licensing has been done by Universal to create these all-encompassing packages. Alas, complete and verified track listings have not yet been released.
Information is most readily available as to the Billie Holiday box, which will take in her recordings for the Columbia, Commodore, Decca and Verve labels over its 14 CDs. At a price of roughly £27 GBP from Amazon U.K. (or $40 USD, at the time of this writing) vs. $101.36 as an import from Amazon.com, ordering from a European retailer is a no-brainer. Holiday tragically died in 1959 aged just 44, so this set represents the entirety of her released body of work. (Alternate takes which have surfaced on numerous box sets including Legacy’s comprehensive Lady Day have not been included.) One report indicates that four tracks recorded circa 1957 may be missing from the box set, so although we currently don’t have an explanation, it’s hard to argue with fourteen discs from this influential singer for 40 bucks. No less an eminence than Frank Sinatra said of Holiday not long before her death, “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”
Another important influence to musicians of every genre is trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). Satchmo has been feted in recent months with a new career-spanning box set (also from Universal) as well as acclaimed biographies by Terry Teachout and Ricky Riccardi that anyone reading this should seek out. The man described by his friend Bing Crosby as “the beginning and end of music in America” recorded for numerous labels during his long career, and as this set spans the period between 1925 and 1945, it should take in recordings from OKeh, Columbia, Vocalion, Victor and Decca across its 14 CDs.
One of Armstrong’s favorite collaborators was Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), with whom he recorded both for Decca and Verve. Fitzgerald had a lengthy career, with her discography ranging from 1935 to 1989. The Complete Masters box set concerns itself with the singer’s first twenty years as a recording artist, from 1935 to 1955. During this time, she was signed to the Decca label where she broke new ground in vocal jazz interpretation. This box set takes listeners up until Fitzgerald’s signing with Norman Granz and his Verve label; that collaboration of manager and artist would influence Fitzgerald mightily through the rest of her career.
Hit the jump on the details of the Complete Masters sets for two overwhelming instrumental heroes!
Saxophonist and bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) tragically died even younger than Holiday, at the age of 34. As with the Holiday set, this box represents all of Parker’s masters as recorded between 1941 and 1954; they have been derived from the catalogues of Savoy, Dial and Verve. Parker exerted tremendous influence on his contemporaries as he pushed the envelope of jazz with his trailblazing approaches to melody, rhythm and harmony. Four of Parker’s recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: the singles “Billie’s Bounce” and “Ornithology,” and the albums Jazz at Massey Hall and Charlie Parker with Strings.
Another jazz legend at the vanguard was Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), a saxophonist, clarinetist and composer. Often recognized as one of the very first important soloists in jazz and perhaps the first notable jazz saxophonist, Bechet even beat cornetist/trumpeter Louis Armstrong to the studio by a number of months. Though born in New Orleans, Bechet found fame in Europe. In 1919, he became a star in London, where he had travelled as a clarinetist. It was there that he discovered the soprano saxophone. Despite a series of altercations with the law, Bechet returned to Europe often, and in 1950 he relocated to France, where his popularity soared. The Complete Masters box for Bechet only chronicles his American studio recordings between the years of 1931 and 1953. Bechet died in Paris in 1959 on his 62nd birthday.
All five box sets are available in the U.K. beginning November 7 from Universal Music. Track listings are not currently available other than for the Billie Holiday box. Rest assured, we’ll update with more information as soon as it’s available!