The public television station where I live finally got around to airing the first installment of the new PBS series Legends of Jazz, three weeks after most of the rest of the country saw it. Given the near-absence of jazz on TV, it was welcome. The program presented tenor saxophonist James Moody, clarinetist Paquito d’Rivera, festival impressario George Wein and singers Jon Hendricks and Nancy Wilson, all named jazz masters by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The hour was as much a panel discussion with the host, pianist Ramsey Lewis, as it was a musical event. It served as a preview of and promotion for a thirteen-week series of half-hour shows that will air in the fall. Lewis moderated with relaxation, thoughtful questions and camaraderie that arose from mutual respect between him and his guests. “Wait a minute,” he said to Hendricks, “back up a couple of sentences and tell us about Art Tatum.” That prompted the story of the great pianist grooming the thirteen-year-old Hendricks’ talent in their mutual hometown of Toledo in the early 1930s.
Wein told about cajoling Duke Ellington into reaching for something special at the Newport festival in 1956. The result was “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” with Paul Gonsalvez’s celebrated 27-chorus tenor saxophone solo in the “wailing interval.” Moody talked about the thrill of coming out of the service in 1946 and into Dizzy Gillespie’s big band on 42nd Street.
Knocked me out, ’cause I’d be sitting in the band with Diz and I’d look up and there sitting at the bar were Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins—and in the band, Thelonious Monk, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson.
Then, Moody played a piece indelibly associated with the bebop era, Gillespie’s “Woody’n You.” He was accompanied by the superb rhythm section of pianist Billy Childs, bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Roy McCurdy. They also backed Hendricks in his over-the-hills-and-dales vocalise on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.” In an inexcusable slight, Childs, Carpenter and McCurdy were never introduced until the last seconds of the show, in a fly-by roll of the credits.
D’Rivera told of growing up in a household in Cuba in which all kinds of music were played and studied, so that by the time he was a professional clarinetist and saxophonist he made no distinction among categories. He was equally at home with classical concertos, Afro-Cuban claves and Charlie Parker bop tunes. He demonstrated his range in a virtuoso performance of an unaccompanied, and unidentified, classical piece that melded into a jazz duet with bass guitarist Oscar Stagnaro. Stagnaro got the same anonymous treatment as Childs, Carpenter, McCurdy and the classical piece. Surely, when the fall series airs, the producers will have corrected those little injustices.
Asked about her influences, Nancy Wilson emphasized—above all others—Little Jimmy Scott. Her performance of “God Bless The Child,” with Lewis at the piano, confirmed that there is much more of Scott in her lineage than of the song’s composer, Billie Holiday.
As the program was winding down, Wein introduced Renee Olstead, a fifteen-year-old sitcom star and singer whom he identified as emblematic of his belief that young people will embrace jazz and guarantee its future. Ms. Olstead sang “Taking A Chance On Love,” credibly, then told Lewis that she is making a project of converting her contemporaries to jazz. That brought a round of “Yeah” and applause from the veterans.
It was a charming and engaging program. It lacked the intensity, focus and video artistry of the immortal 1957 The Sound of Jazz on CBS-TV, Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual series of the sixties and the Jazz At The Maintenance Shop programs directed by John Beyer for PBS in the late seventies and early eighties. But, after all, it was a pilot and a promo. We may hope that when the series hits in the fall, it will reflect the values of those earlier programs—creative camera work for directors who know how to use it, good sound, lighting without gimmicks, and a minimum of explanation (The Sound of Jazz, the best program of its kind, ever, had almost no talk). In his notes for the long-playing record of the music from that show, Eric Larabee wrote that because of the artistic, if not commercial, success of the television program, there was talk of a series. He said that Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff, the critics whose taste and instincts guided the show, should remain in charge.
But one wonders if the miracle can happen twice. Part of the reason that Balliett and Hentoff were let alone was that no one in high authority really understood what they were up to. Now the secret is out and there will be many hazards.
Larabee was right. No successor to The Sound of Jazz, let alone a series, emerged. That does not mean that it couldn’t happen. Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan and all of the other musicians but two who populated The Sound of Jazz are gone. Only the master guitarist Jim Hall is thriving. Clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre survives in ill health. Still, we have important players of several generations with us today. Let us wish the people in charge of Legends of Jazz the understanding, integrity and lack of interference required to gather the cream of today’s jazz artists and present this music on television in the best possible way, simply and naturally. Ms. Olstead’s teenaged peers—and the rest of us—might just dig it.