PBS fundraising week: jazz & soul tv abounds

What gets New Yorkers to watch and/or contribute to PBS? Jazz, blues, r&b — American vernacular music, of course.

I assume it’s time for WLIW‘s spring fundraiser, for instance, because “New York Public Television” has scheduled for one evening (March 11) of prime time the smooth r&b couple Ashford and Simpson in performance at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency; photogenic trumpeter Chris Botti  performing with John Mayer, Josh Groban, Steve Tyler and the Boston Pops, and the 1959 broadcast “The Sound of Miles Davis,” featuring music from the trumpeter’s classic album Kind of Blue, now 50 years old and satisfying as ever. 
This tv show, produced between the album’s two recording sessions, has kerchief-wearing Davis leading John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb through “So What” (but not Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans, who also were key to the music’s success). Shot in black and white with an air of intensity and reverence, the show also includes Davis’ great friend and collaborator Gil Evans gently conducting a chamber orchestra. It has been available on various video collections for years, and of course can be viewed on YouTube, too.

The rendition of “So What” is close to the album version, taken at the same teasingly moderate tempo rather than sped up as in many of Davis’ subsequent recordings. There’s faint riffing from a trombone section under the end of Miles’ solo, and pianist Kelly doesn’t know what to do with the modal basis of the piece as well as Bill Evans who plays it on the album. But hey, it’s Miles and Trane, captured in their full glory, and fans are thankful it exists at all.

That fact and the enduring popularity of good jazz performances on video apparently leads PBS stations to air such shows (the Stax/Volt revue, captured in Oslo, 1967, was on WLIW just a few weeks ago) during fundraising and rating periods. Which always leads me to wonder why there’s not more jazz video by artists in their prime being produced now. PBS’s Legends of Jazz series hosted by Ramsey Lewis put a square frame on the hippest improvs, BET formalized its jazz-in-the-studio shots and seems to have abandoned such efforts, and David Sanborn’s Night Music from way back in ’88 and ’90 remains the best “recent” attempt.
Is it too expensive to get jazz players on camera? Too chancy that their spontaneous playing will fail? Simply not enough audience for this stuff? Then why does PBS trot it out when the viewing numbers are important and/or there’s money to be asked for? 

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  1. Richard Mitnick says

    Interesting and at the same time irritating, we never get these programs without the pitching.

  2. says

    Slightly related…we all know how the acts on the bill for any random festival like Montreux will often be related tenuously at best to jazz (Lou Rawls, Anita baker, etc.)? Well OK, this is getting out of hand…a listing from one of the TV cable channels:
    Montreux Jazz Festival 2004
    Performances include Van Morrison, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple and Brian Ferry
    HM: Good point, Chris, but what interests me about this is why Cheap Trick and Deep Purple would even want to be at a fest that dubs itself jazz (well, the fee of course. . .) Do such bands get any imprimatur from the identification? Van and Brian, at least I can imagine enjoying the cred.

  3. says

    I slightly disagree with your opinion, Howard, that “Kelly doesn’t know what to do with the modal basis of the piece” … I rather hear him improvising on it as it would be a gospel tune, which it actually is sounding like to my ears.
    It’s almost kinda spiritual, sung during a service: Paul Chambers is preaching while the others say, well, ehm “So What?” instead of “amen” … I’m only half-kidding here, since Miles and Trane were completely aware of the origins of their music. They subconsciously might have reflected the sounds of their childhoods, as was the rest of the quintet.
    HM: Hear it as you will, I perceive Kelly as somewhat stymied about what to do just going back and forth — gospelesque it may be, I’m never very qualified to speak to that — while Trane and Miles find plenty of options. And Kelly didn’t play this on the recording, Evans did, exquisitely.