The Subject Is Seldes, Taylor And Jazz

Whether the mercantile strictures of 21st century television will ever again permit cultural programming of substance on the commercial networks is anybody’s guess. The field has largely been left to public television, which has met the challenge with various degrees of responsibility and effectiveness.

In the medium’s early days, serious music may not have been welcomed with open arms on the major US networks, but it did make it onto the schedules. NBC-TV’s The Subject Is Jazz ran once a week in 1958, during what more than one commentator has referred to as New York’s last golden age of jazz. The program presented prominent representatives of several jazz eras who were at work in the city. Gilbert Seldes was the host, with pianist Billy Taylor (1921-2010) as the viewer’s articulate guide through the mysteries of improvisation, orchestration and swing, among other aspects of the music. Seldes (1893-1970) was a prominent cultural critic whose books, included The 7 Lively Arts and The Public Arts. He had considerable influence on Americans’ understanding of cultural matters.

Seldes may have been a bit stiff on television, but he prepared his questions and comments with care. Taylor exhibited the same relaxation and expertise that later made him an attraction on CBS-TV’s Sunday Morning. Here they are discussing rhythm and leading into a segment that features guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist Eddie Safranski, drummer Osie Johnson and Taylor in the rhythm section. We hear solos by trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, baritone saxophonist Tony Scott and—in a brilliant bebop chorus from his pre-Tonight Show days—trumpeter Doc Severinsen.

YouTube has several segments from The Subject Is Jazz. To view them and see Ben Webster, Lee Konitz, Bill Evans go here to make your selections.

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  1. Jon Foley says

    I’m giving away my age, but I remember watching every episode of this series live, back in that other century. Wouldn’t dare miss a week. I haven’t seen all of these shows on YouTube yet, but I remember one in which a panel, led by Tony Scott, took apart and analyzed Charlie Parker’s famous stop-time alto break on the first take of the Dial 1946 “Night In Tunisia” (the one he said he could never do again), complete with musical excerpts, the entire thing plotted out on a blackboard, and lots of discussion.

    Imagine finding anything like that on TV today, even on PBS, never mind commercial TV, which carried the original series? As the Brits would say, not bloody likely!