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Television and Jazz

excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music, with contributions from Loren Schoenberg, Conductor and Saxophonist.

For better or worse, in the 1940s and 50s jazz seemed on its way to becoming an art music, meant for concert halls and nightclubs, not ballrooms — adventurous and demanding; intended for aficionados, not ordinary people; infused with the every-musician-for-himself spirit of the jam session; aligned not with the American mainstream but with the growing counterculture for which commercial success was evidence of corruption, of "selling out."

Ballrooms — where jazz orchestras once reigned — began to close all across the country as Americans turned in ever-growing numbers to television for their entertainment. In February 1950, Down Beat presented Duke Ellington with a special award simply for still being in business. By then, every one of the big bands that had appeared in the 1949 readers' poll had left the road but his; even Count Basie had now been forced to give up his orchestra in favor of an octet, before forming what Albert Murray called his "New Testament" band and starting all over again two years later.

On the evening of April 3, 1956, a little over a month before Miles Davis first recorded with his new quintet, 21-year-old Elvis Presley was scheduled to perform on the Milton Berle television program. Berle had slipped a little since he was known as "Mr. Television" because of the number of sets people had bought in order to see him, but millions still tuned in each week. This program was to be broadcast live from the deck of the USS Hancock, anchored in San Diego harbor. A septet led by Harry James was also on the bill, and they were openly scornful of Presley when he turned up for rehearsal with his guitar and no arrangements. The drummer Buddy Rich traced the form of a square in the air behind the singer's back and muttered, "This is the worst." James nodded agreement.

The audience was filled with sailor's wives and girlfriends, who never stopped shrieking with excitement as Presley performed Heartbreak Hotel, but after the show, James still assured a friend that this hillbilly had no talent and no future. It was wishful thinking. Heartbreak Hotel was already at the top of Billboard's pop, country and rhythm and blues charts; Presley's version of Blue Suede Shoes was climbing the same polls fast; his first long-playing album was on its way to becoming RCA Victor's first million-dollar seller; and he had just signed a Hollywood contract. Millions of adolescents, the fortunate beneficiaries of unprecedented American prosperity, with tens of millions of dollars of their own money to spend, were about to transform the music business. The audience for jazz was about to shrink further still. The age of rock 'n' roll had begun. "[W]hite kids were jamming the rock halls and the older people were staying home and watching TV," wrote pianist Hampton Hawes. "Maybe they found they couldn't pat their feet to our music anymore."

Though there would be other jazz and jazz-tinged hits during the 1960s — Louis Armstrong's popular Hello, Dolly; tenor saxophonist Stan Getz's Brazilian bossa nova; and Cannonball Adderley's soulful tune Mercy, Mercy, Mercy — Adderley mournfully summed up the new era: "The jazz we knew and loved in the thirties, forties, fifties, yes, even the sixties ... is gone. The audience for it is gradually fading away."

The Sound of Jazz

On December 6th, 1957, the writers Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff helped gather an extraordinary group of musicians for a one-time only, live program on CBS called The Sound of Jazz. Nothing like it had ever been tried before on American television. It was an all-star assemblage: Jo Jones and Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster. Lester Young and Billie Holiday were there, too. They had made their first unforgettable records together 20 years earlier and had subsequently fallen out, most likely over Holiday's drug use. "They had grown way apart," Hentoff said, "and when we were there for the blocking and the sound check, they very carefully were on different sides of the studio." Young was too weak to play in the big band section of the show, so Hentoff told him he should save his strength for a small-group session with Holiday. "And you can sit down. You don't have to stand."

They were to perform Fine and Mellow, Holiday's own song and one of the very few blues she ever recorded. Gerry Mulligan played the first solo, in double time. Ben Webster came next, blowing a single breathy, heartbreaking chorus. "Then, Lester got up," Hentoff remembered, "and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half-smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been — whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they still went their separate ways."

Though no one could have known it then, The Sound of Jazz remains the high-water mark of jazz on American television. Its producer, Robert Herridge, followed up with a couple of outstanding shows, one of which featured Miles Davis' band (with John Coltrane) and Gil Evans' orchestra. The Sound of Jazz inspired a series of hour-long broadcasts hosted by Art Ford, using some of the same artists (Hawkins, Young, Holiday, Rex Stewart, Pee Wee Russell). In addition, it captured for posterity many other forgotten giants, such as Zutty Singleton and J.C. Higginbotham. A few years later, Chicago and All That Jazz traced the Windy City's flirtation with jazz in the 1920s, but this and other network specials were essentially glib affairs where one had to wait (most often in vain) for any glimmer of depth. Clichéd scripts and short tune after short tune made serious music next to impossible. Somewhat better were the Timex All-Star Jazz Shows (1957-59), one of which had a finale with Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa and Coleman Hawkins all blowing over the Ellington band.

The 1960s brought Ralph Gleason's public television series Jazz Casual. The format consisted of talk and performance, and his guests included Sonny Rollins, Count Basie (with just his rhythm section), Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane. There were the occasional specials dedicated to Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington, but these were rare. Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, plus shows hosted by Merv Giffin and Mike Douglas, had the occasional jazz guest, who usually played with the resident studio band, which frequently included such great players as Snooky Young, Jim Hall, Ray Brown, Bob Brookmeyer, George Duvivier, Joe Wilder, Hank Jones, and Conte Candoli. Billy Taylor was the musical director of the David Frost Show, and there was one memorable broadcast where he played a piano trio along with Duke Ellington and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Since 1981, Taylor has also hosted jazz's longest running network segment on CBS's Sunday Morning. But the kind of extended and sensitive treatment the music needed was not forthcoming.

Jazz and TV Today

Over the last few decades, public television has broadcast jazz from the White House a few times (President Carter's party had him singing Salt Peanuts along with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach), and also from jazz festivals such as Newport and Wolf Trap. As far as jazz is concerned, commercial television remained largely a wasteland, as it does today. Some of the better cable stations have the occasional jazz special, and air notable jazz films — one of them is dedicated exclusively to jazz, with one foot firmly sunk in "smooth jazz". It wasn't until 1995 that Wynton Marsalis' series Marsalis on Music addressed jazz seriously in a larger musical and cultural context.

Europe has done a much better job of capturing the essential nature of jazz. This is why a great deal of the source material used in jazz documentaries comes from European television sources.