Weekend Extra: The Subject Is Cool Jazz

In the days when commercial television networks in the United States were still working their way toward the shallowness we know and love today and cable networks did not exist, there was an NBC-TV program called The Subject Is Jazz. Its host was the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes. One 1958 installment of the series explored the proposition that a fairly new tributary of the jazz mainstream ran cooler than the jazz that preceded it. The musicians were Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Warne Marsh, tenor saxophone; Don Elliott, trumpet, mellophone and vibes; Billy Taylor, piano; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Eddie Safranski, bass; and Ed Thigpen, drums.
This investigation with examples is valuable enough that Rifftides is going to bring you the whole thing. You’ve had enough football this weekend anyway. It is necessary to post it in sections, which is how it is available. Here is part 1.

In the second part of the program, Seldes again quotes Andre Hodeir on the nature of cool, introduces Konitz and Marsh playing hot in “Subconscious-Lee,” and interrogates Konitz, who is forthcoming and, bless him, amused by the idea of pigeon-holing art.

Was there a difference between approaches to justify the claim that there was a cool school? According to Billy Taylor there was. He explained and demonstrated it to Seldes with the articulateness that in following decades viewers of CBS Sunday Morning came to know well.

Bret Primack, the jazz video guy, deserves great credit for posting those segments on YouTube. Gilbert Seldes’ book The Public Arts, published in 1956, is still a great, stimulating read. Seldes died in 1970.

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  1. Bill Crow says

    What a nice Sunday morning treat! Thanks! I’m so glad this material has been preserved. It shows Lee and Warne at their best, and gives a nice slice of Lee in conversation. And there are such good shots of Warne’s peculiar embouchure, with the lower jaw moving from side to side while he plays. Amazing!
    I’m glad Don Elliot is presented so well. I did a lot of gigs with him in the 1950s, and he always played very well. He had so much talent he didn’t know what to do with it all. He eventually left the jazz world and made a lot of money.

  2. says

    This will be in my viewing library! Peter Ind will be very interested of course, since he played with and recorded most of these musicians, particularly Konitz and Warne Marsh, as well as Lennie Tristano. Keep ’em coming!

  3. says

    Is it just me, or does this style (“Birth of the Cool” excepted, perhaps) seem a bit “effete” in the ensemble? The soloists are amazing, of course, especially Konitz.
    I notice Billy Taylor has taken the “country” out of his accent in the decades since!