Black Icons in Conversation: Archives of American Masters

Christina Knight | February 8, 2021


In January 2021, THIRTEEN’s award-winning PBS documentary series American Masters released 500 videos from its robust archive of interviews covering the last four decades of American Masters films. More than 1,000-plus hours of footage from more than 1,000 original, never-before-seen, full, raw interviews is now public and fully searchable for the first time ever.

This treasure trove of video featuring the movers and shakers of American culture makes for rewarding exploration, especially as a resource during Black History Month. Among the Black artists and influencers are Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Audra McDonald, Denzel Washington, Dionne Warwick, Herbie Hancock, as well as less well known figures such as native New Yorker Norma Miller, a comedian and Lindy-Hop dancer who toured with Ella Fitzgerald.

Interview topics range from personal relationships and career highlights to the ramifications of racism in America and how it impacted personal lives and professions.

Approximately 96% of interview footage never gets released in final films or other productions. Now, this American Masters video archive has become a rich catalog of history available to all on the American Masters website. Here are just a few highlights.

Friendship: Quincy Jones and Maya Angelou

A black woman wears bright red headscarf, gold loop earring and a light purple top.

Maya Angelou interview for American Masters–Quincy Jones: In the Pocket.

“He looked like heaven walking.” This spontaneous description of musician and producer Quincy Jones (b. 1933) came from the poet and writer Maya Angelou (1928–2014), as she talked about first meeting Jones in Paris in the 1950s.

The archive of 21 interviews for the film Quincy Jones: In The Pocket (2001) includes Angelou, herself a future American Masters documentary subject in And Still I Rise (2017). Angelou’s recollections remind us that the renowned author was also a performer, like Jones.

He was already considered a great musician. But more important than that, at that time, he was pretty. OK? He looked like heaven walking. He was just a wonderful looking chap and with a wonderful sense of humor.

All that time ago, I was a dancer – the principal dancer with Porgy and Bess – and taught dance in Paris. And I sang a bit, I doubled in nightclubs after I left the opera. We didn’t become good friends until later back in the States. I don’t know how it happened. It just happened the way people fall in love – people fall in friendship, you know? And in fact, the friendship may be a love without sexuality, but lots of sensuality.

Among the other uncut interviews to watch and listen to are those with Quincy Jones and musician Herbie Hancock, and Jones’ ex-wives Peggy Lipton and Jeri (Caldwell) Jones.

American Racism: Sidney Poitier

“It would take me years to get to understand how such a value could be cultivated in an adult person.” – Sidney Poitier on the unfamiliar shock of racism in white Americans.  The Academy Award-winning actor and Bahamian statesman Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) gave two interviews for the making of Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (2000), which was directed by Lee Grant, Poitier’s co-star in the dramatic film, In the Heat of the Night (1967).

Poitier was raised in the Bahamas until age 15, when he returned to Miami, Florida, his birthplace, to live with his eldest brother. That year he had a chilling encounter with police. One night an officer held his gun out and beckoned Poitier to his patrol car. He then pressed the gun’s muzzle to the center of Poitier’s forehead. Poitier was told to walk home, and if he ever glanced back, he would be shot. The patrol car followed him for miles as he walked. This racist, threat of violence was new to Poitier.

These cops had no understanding of the dynamics of their behavior, really, they really didn’t. I suppose they must have been trained to behave that way. They had seen other people behave that way, and it had grown to be an accepted behavior under such circumstances so that they could come to it with such ease. [It] amazed me.

Luckily for me – on the other side of the coin – I was not raised in Florida. Had I been raised in Florida, the desired effect would have been instant. I would have been sufficiently afraid, as would have been the expectation….But I wasn’t raised in Florida. I was raised somewhere else. And I had time where I was raised to get a fix on myself. So there you are.

After this recollection, told with carefully chosen words, Poitier’s interviewer, Lee Grant, moves on to another question. The expression in Poitiers’s eyes and the use of his hand at this point, as during the entire recounting of his near-deadly encounter with American racism, speaks volumes. In his two-hour and 22-minute interview, the backdrop to the above remarks begins at approximately minute 11:57.

Other interviewees for the film in this archive include actors James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington, and musician-composer-producer Quincy Jones.

The American Dream and Racism: Gloria Naylor

“The dreams that were held out for me to attain were ones of self actualization.” – Gloria Naylor.

Native New Yorker, novelist and professor Gloria Naylor (1950–2016) is perhaps best known for her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1992). It was adapted into a television miniseries in 1989 with a star-studded ensemble cast, including Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Lynn Whitfield, Oprah Winfrey, and many others.

In her 44-minute interview for the film Novel Reflections on the American Dream (2007), Naylor addresses racism and the American Dream, and analyzes the novels The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Passing (1929) by Nella Larson; The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck.

Naylor, who says the American Dream is a lie, had a more personal mission in her life. She  answered the question, “What is the American Dream in your life?”:

The ability to be able to live as a full citizen when I was coming of age – the dreams that were held out for me to attain were ones of self actualization. They were not so much succeeding within society as to succeed within one’s own skin and to try to attain a sense of your own full humanity – because that was the fight in those years. You know, you were constantly being degraded. Wherever you looked, there were stereotypes about you, about your culture, about you, your social class. And so my parents always sort of reinforced in my sisters and I that you have to set your own standards of excellence. You have to strive to become a full person.

Mutual Admiration: Lena Horne and Dionne Warwick

A light-skinned Black woman reclines in a sequined gown with her head resting in her hands.

Lena Horne, jazz singer and Hollywood film star. She is featured in the American Masters film, How It Feels To Be Free.

“You’re one of my children.” When singer Dionne Warwick (b. 1940) finally got to meet Lena Horne (1917–2010), the native New Yorker and star she had idolized since her childhood in East Orange, NJ –– she was shocked to learn that Horne knew about her career and had been rooting for her all along.

The archival interviews for Lena Horne: In Her Own Words (1996) includes a 50-minute interview with Dionne Warwick, in which she relates how Lena Horne surprised her when they first met in the 1960s. The Hollywood musical film star told Warwick:

‘I not only know about your recordings, I know that you’re going to Paris and you’re going to be at the Olympia. I know where you’re going after you leave Paris and a few other places after that even…I followed your career. I’ve watched the way you handle it, the steps you’re making. And it makes me feel good to let you know that you’re one of my children. So I’ll keep my eye on you.’

Horne herself gave more than five hours of interview time for the film. Lena Horne is also one of the six trailblazing Black performers featured in American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free (2021).

Musical Collaboration: Ella Fitzgerald and Jazz Pianist Oscar Peterson

“Accompanying Ella was not like accompanying a singer.” Pianist Oscar Peterson (1925–2007), one of the greatest jazz pianists and winner of multiple Grammy Awards, was interviewed for the film Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (1999). He preferred not to play with vocalists, but Swing jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) was an exception.

Accompanying Ella was not like accompanying a singer – at points it was like accompanying a real instrument. Not just a vocalist who was trying to sound like an instrument. She has a facility not just with intonation or the particular notes she chose, but where she put them, and how she scatted. A lot of vocalists tried scatting and it really meant nothing. But Ella – it was like playing for a horn. It was not at all like backing a vocalist. It was like trying to find the right setting for this instrument that was playing out front.

Also interviewed for for the film was Norma Miller, a professional  dancer from New York City who toured with Ella Fitzgerald and often performed with fellow dancer Frankie Manning. Just as Oscar Peterson felt Ella’s voice was a unique match for a musician, Miller claimed that Ella’s voice was the best, natural fit for Swing dancers.

Visit the American Masters Archive  to see these interviews in full, plus many more.