TV ignores notes and notables of jazz world

June 11, 1995|By Howard Reich | Howard Reich,Chicago Tribune

They are giants of American musical culture, revered in countries near and far, celebrated in movies past and present, honored at music festivals, studied in universities, recorded in studios, nightclubs and concert halls around the world.

They gave America a musical form to call its own and created a vast repertoire of songs, solos and techniques that help define the American experience in sound.

But so far as television is concerned, America's jazz musicians are all but invisible. Effectively banned from prime time, mocked on late-night talk shows, largely ignored by public broadcasting, paid scant attention even on cable, jazz very nearly has been wiped off the tube.

The music may be one of "the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced," as commentator Gerald Early eloquently noted on Ken Burns' epic "Baseball" series (the other two being the national pastime and the Constitution), but jazz doesn't rate much exposure on America's predominant entertainment medium.

"Just try to get a jazz musician on TV -- it's almost impossible," says Charles Fishman, a veteran promoter who managed trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie, among other masters.

"The TV industry believes that jazz is not commercial, so they're not interested."

Adds Marian McPartland, the esteemed jazz pianist whose "Piano Jazz" music-and-talk series is heard on more than 200 National Public Radio stations nationwide, "We've been trying to get 'Piano Jazz' on TV for years. We even made a pilot, and no one would pick it up.

"One producer said to me, 'Who wants to watch musicians talking to each other?'

"In TV, if it's not going to make a huge pile of money, forget it. But what gets me is that just about everything else gets on the tube."

Indeed, few musical forms, popular or elite, have been so effectively banished. Rockers, rappers, blues shouters and country crooners all turn up on the late-night talk shows and on awards programs devoted to mass-appeal genres. Country musicians, in fact, bask in the glow of two major, nationally televised awards programs, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards.

Gospel music, a smaller niche than jazz, gets its moment in the sun during the Dove Awards. Classical music, a field no larger than jazz, enjoys numerous broadcast occasions, including "Live From Lincoln Center" and various opera telecasts.

Virtually all the musical genres turn up on the Grammy Awards program, which doesn't even announce all the jazz winners.

But television's attitude toward jazz music often goes beyond benign neglect. Viewers of David Letterman's "The Late Show," on CBS, for instance, occasionally hear the music bashed by the host.

"At the end of David Letterman's monologue, the CBS Orchestra plays some 'peppy' (as Letterman likes to call it) music while Dave walks over to his desk," wrote JazzTimes reader Jeff

Goldblatt in a letter to the editor last year.

"On the night of May 26th, Paul Shaffer chose to play a few bars of John Coltrane's 'Giant Steps,' which the audience seemed to enjoy. However, Letterman didn't.

"The conversation was: 'By the way, Paul, what was that music, I didn't like it.'

"Sensing trouble and thinking fast, Shaffer replied, 'Oh, that's an old Broadway play-off.'

"Letterman: 'Well, don't play it again.'

"Three cheers to Paul Shaffer for protecting John Coltrane's good name and reputation from any further Letterman wisecracks."

As for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," "Branford [Marsalis] and the 'Tonight Show' band were about the last big hope for jazz on network TV," says Frank Alkyer, associate publisher of Down Beat magazine. "When Branford left the band, that was about the end."

Yet even Mr. Marsalis' "Tonight Show" band, which looked and acted like a jazz ensemble, rarely sounded like one. From the start, this was a mainstream, light pop-funk outfit with jazz pretensions. Now even the pretensions are gone.

As Newton Minow once said of television in the '60s, today it remains "a vast wasteland," so far as America's indigenous music is concerned.

It's worth remembering, however, that it was not always thus. Jazz once held a high place in American broadcasting, even if it often shared the stage with other forms of music and entertainment. "The Ed Sullivan Show" dating back to 1948, the "Omnibus" cultural program of the mid-'50s, the musical variety programs of Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others, put America's finest jazz artists before nationwide TV audiences.

The stars came out

Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Nat "King" Cole, Art Hodes, Jimmy McPartland, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Billie Holiday -- all were featured on the tube. By 1958, National Educational Television was offering America "The Subject Is Jazz," in which pianist Billy Taylor, the program's host, featured "all the legends we could think of," Mr. Taylor recalls today.

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