Last July, Rifftides examined the pilot program for the Public Broadcasting System series Legends of Jazz. Here is part of that posting.
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.
Nearly a year later, has it happened? No. Since the 1950s, television has accumulated so many layers of technical advances, production oversight, marketing skills, promotion know-how and showbiz values that even if a producer wished in his deepest being to create a program with the straightforward simplicity of The Sound of Jazz, it is doubtful that he could prevail over what television has become: slick.
Thus, Legends of Jazz is slick. And entertaining. I mean that in the kindest way. In format, it resembles Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual. Each program in the series is a half hour. In TV time, a half hour is 24 minutes and 27 seconds. The host is pianist Ramsey Lewis, who does a relaxed job of briefly interviewing the principal performers. The rest of the time, minus opening and closing credits, is devoted to music.
Some of the highlights of the shows I have seen on the air or on DVD:
Alone at the piano, Chick Corea generating as much swing in “Armando’s Rhumba” as if he were driven by a rhythm section.
Benny Golson on tenor saxophone, pouring himself into a performance of his “Killer Joe.”
Clark Terry in his incarnation as “Mumbles,” playing and mumbling beautifully, ending with “If I keep talking like this, I might get elected.”
Singers Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau, inventive on “Take Five,” surpassing what either might have done alone.
In another duet, Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor collaborating at two grand pianos on “Take The ‘A’ Train” with humor, grace and the wisdom of 85-year-olds.
Dave Valentin in a flute performance full of Latin rhythm and pzazz, marred only by a few seconds of showboating at the end.
John Pizzarelli in an astonishing moment of vocal accuracy and control as he executes doubletime in guitar-voice unison during his solo on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Roy Hargrove expresssing astonishment in conversation when Chris Botti describes his record company’s elaborate promotion scheme: “What record company is that?”
To be inclusive and reach the wide audience marketing studies encourage, the program presents a range of music including genres that have accreted around jazz without quite being jazz. It gives us the master alto saxophonist Phil Woods not with one of his peers—say, Bud Shank, Charles McPherson or Jackie McLean (who was alive when the show was taped last year)—but with the smooth-jazz player David Sanborn. The producers team Clark Terry and Roy Hargrove with the pop-jazz trumpeter and singer Chris Botti, rather than with Ryan Kisor, Jeremy Pelt, Terell Stafford or one of a dozen other top-flight young jazz trumpet artists. Jane Monheit, a creation of publicity, is the one female vocalist in the series; not, for example, Karrin Allyson, Diane Reeves, Nancy King, Tierney Sutton or Meredith d’Ambrosio—singers steeped in jazz. Under the “contemporary jazz” label, Legends of Jazz brings together the rock-jazz-soul-funk fusion experts Marcus Miller, George Duke and Lee Ritenour. They are good at what they do. They are entertaining, and so are the urban blues singers and guitarists Robert Cray and Keb’ Mo’.
Maybe those are the kinds of compromises producers must make in the 21st century to get a “jazz” television program on the air. Or, it could be that they believe Sanborn, Monheit and Ritenour are jazz artists.
A word or two about production: The sound is excellent. The lighting on the performers is superb. The shifting, often pulsating, colored light effects in the background are a distraction from the music. The quick shot changes, swooping pans and frequent zooms are irritating. Television producers and directors brought up on action films and cartoons believe that pictorial stillness and calm are to be avoided at all costs. The seasick viewer pays the costs. Constant motion is de rigueur, and if there’s no motion in the subject, directors produce it by moving the camera. The car-chase mentality of shooting and cutting now extends to all television, even news programs. One of the wonderful things about The Sound of Jazz and Jazz Casual was that the camera and the director served the music, drew the viewer into it, allowed us to observe people simply doing what they do best. There should be no distractions.
The house band of pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce, Jr., deserves more credit than a lightning roll-by in the end titles. How about spoken credit by Ramsey Lewis or the old-fashioned, and effective, technique of superimposing their names in the lower third when they appear on screen? That may not be acceptably hip in the post-MTV school of television production, but it sure lets you know who you’re seeing and hearing.