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“Critical praise lauded the programs seen that summer in newspapers where the local stations broadcast Stars of Jazz. National publications like Down Beat and Metronome continued to mention and praise the series. Despite this, Stars of Jazz has fallen into oblivion.”
- James Harrod, author and researcher
There’s never been anything like it before, and I doubt that there will ever be anything like it again - a regular, weekly series devoted to Jazz on a major television network. A series about Jazz which even won an Emmy award!
The backdrop for these opening remarks was the ABC television series, Stars of Jazz which aired from 1956 - 1958.
[As a point in passing, Steve Allen, a television personality and fine pianist, produced 26 half-hour Jazz Scene USA programs in 1962 but these were syndicated on regional and local television stations and not televised nationally on one of the major networks].
On two previous occasions, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles posted blog features about Ray Avery, the late photographer and Jazz recordings maven, who became the unofficial “official” photographer of the Stars of Jazz . A compilation of Ray photographs from these shows was published in 1995 by the Danish firm Jazz Media with editorial guidance from Cynthia T. Sesso
Cynthia is a major authority on Jazz photography, and licenses Ray’s work along with the images of a number of other photographers who specialized in Jazz. You can locate more about Cynthia and her work at her website. She may also have copies of Ray’s book about Stars of Jazz still available for sale.
There the matter stood for almost 25 years until Jefferson, North Carolina based McFarland’s recent publication of James A Harrod, Stars of Jazz: A Complete History of the Innovative Television Series, 1956 - 1958.
In addition to concise annotations of all 130 episodes of the show which aired over the three year period from 1956-1958, Mr. Harrod’s work contains and Introduction that places the musical groups that appeared on the television show within the larger context of the West Coast Jazz scene of the 1950s, an interview with Ray Avery, the previously referenced unofficial “official” photographer of the program as conducted by Jazz columnist and record producer Will Thornbury, a discography, a filmography and chapter notes that convey the detailed nature of the research that he conducted in writing the book.
Also on hand is an outstanding assemblage of Ray Avery’s photographs curated by Cynthia Sesso that offer both behind-the-scenes views as well as portraits of the musicians appearing in front of the camera, very few of which have ever been made available in previous publications. Each episode and each related photograph has expert commentary by Mr. Harrod which further enriches the reader’s vicarious experience of this landmark television series on the subject of Jazz.
It’s not easy to make a book about a television series interesting, especially one, the remnants of which have been stored away in garage boxes, private collections, and university archival vaults since it ceased airing over 60 years ago.
But Mr. Harrod’s clear, concise, conversationalist-like writing style succeeds in accomplishing this task with a detailed and descriptive trip into a Jazz World that is no more and, if you blinked while it was in existence, you more than likely would have missed its brief appearance of the national entertainment stage
The background for how the series came to be is contained in these excerpts from the book’s Introduction.
“Norman Granz gave jazz performance in Los Angeles a boost when he launched his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium in July of 1944. The success of that event motivated Granz to take his concept on national tours of the United States in the following years. Gene Norman helped to fill the concert performance demand when he began his Just Jazz concerts in the late 1940s.
A jazz enthusiast, Gene Norman became Los Angeles' leading disc jockey via programs on various local radio stations. Gene Norman's Just Jazz concerts featured leading jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, June Christy, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, Red Norvo, Dave Brubeck, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Cal Tjader, and Erroll Garner at venues including the Embassy Auditorium, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and the Shrine Auditorium. Gene Norman and Frank Bull inaugurated their Dixieland Jubilee programs at the Shrine Auditorium in the late 1940s to satisfy the legions of traditional jazz fans in Los Angeles.
Norman introduced the Snader Telescriptions (1950-1952), a prototype MTV-styled concept documenting recording personalities and jazz artists of the era, on NBC-TV. He hosted one of the first televised jazz concerts on KTLA, as well as The Gene Norman Show and Campus Club on KHJ. …
Los Angeles became a national focal point for jazz when the Gerry Mulligan Quartet attracted media attention in the fall of 1952. The subsequent founding of Pacific Jazz Records accelerated the recognition of the West Coast as a center of new trends in jazz. In a similar fashion, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars launched the modern jazz series at Les Koenig's Contemporary Records and introduced a style of playing that became known as West Coast Jazz. Norman Granz established Clef and Norgran Records as a vehicle to record artists associated with his JATP organization. All three were headquartered in Los Angeles. …
Los Angeles was experiencing a continuing jazz renaissance in the spring of 1956. Nightclubs featuring jazz were thriving. Tiffany Club, Crescendo, Interlude, Zardi's Jaz-zland, Oasis, Peacock Lane, Jazz City, the Lighthouse, and The Haig were booking top names in modern jazz. Traditional jazz bastions included Royal Room, Astor's, 881 Club, 400 Club, and Beverly Cavern.
Jazz was making inroads on television as well. Ed Sullivan featured jazz occasionally and other personality shows like The Nat King Cole Show featured jazz, most notably shows with Norman Granz introducing stars from his JATP organization. But the unheralded program that presented jazz regularly, night after night, was Steve Allen's Tonight. ...
Steve Allen's Tonight was one of the first network programs to regularly feature African American artists. When the show premiered in September of 1954, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision from May 17,1954, permeated news headlines. This was during the early years of the civil rights struggle and it would be another year before Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery bus boycott after she refused to yield her seat in the black section to a white passenger.
Allen's roster of guest artists from the first six months of 1956, noted above, provides ample proof that Tonight continued to present artists on the basis of talent, not color. The production team who conceived Stars of Jazz at KABC shared the same conviction, that guest artists would be hired based on talent, not the color of their skin.
Stars of Jazz was created by a group of Channel 7 KABC employees including producers, directors, writers, cameramen, and assorted technicians who were serious fans of jazz. They were keenly aware of the absence of a dedicated TV show featuring jazz. The petition to develop and present a show devoted to jazz was led by Peter Robinson, Bob Arbogast, Norman Abbott, and Jimmie Baker who had been badgering the station's executive in charge of programming, Selig J. Seligman, for years. He finally relented and in the spring of 1956 gave Peter Robinson and Baker, the producers who would shepherd the show, a green light. He told them there was no budget for the show but they could have dead studio time and a bare bones staff, no frills. They would have to stick to musician scale, write their own material, scrape together their stage sets, and they could produce four shows. If they didn't land a sponsor by the end of the fourth show it would be canceled. …
Stars of Jazz was seen in Los Angeles on Channel 7, K ABC, from June of 1956 through April of 1958, a total of 92 shows. In mid-April of 1958 the show was granted network status where it was seen on 70-plus ABC stations across the country. KABC recorded 29 episodes for distribution before being canceled by ABC headquarters in New York in October of 1958. It resumed local-only broadcast in Los Angeles for the remainder of the year and nine final episodes. The disposal of the Stars of Jazz kinescopes sealed its fate. Surviving episodes or portions of episodes have surfaced on YouTube, making access and viewing of the program easier for audiences. Available YouTube segments are listed with each episode.”
Many of the elements that came together to make Stars of Jazz “innovative” are detailed in the book’s Coda, among them:
“Stars of Jazz was seen on over 70 stations in 39 states and Canada when it debuted on ABC's national network in the spring of 1958. The move to network broadcast was facilitated by the introduction of videotape technology that quickly gained a presence on all three national TV networks.
CBS had 14 Ampex VT-1000 videotape machines in its New York headquarters and nine in Hollywood. NBC opened its Hollywood center in April of 1958 and was in the final stages of completing a million-dollar videotape center in New York in the fall of 1958. ABC had six videotape machines in its Chicago center that was a hub for distribution to other ABC affiliates. KABC had six videotape machines in its television center in Hollywood. …
Troup spoke with Wally George at the Los Angeles Times about the challenges of presenting jazz on television in March of 1958. He credited the success of Stars of Jazz to imaginative programming, the scripts, musical examples, historical images, and creative camera work. He pointed out that the chief difficulty in presenting a show of this type was to give it visual appeal: "No one will watch long if the same standard shots are used time and again. We try to combine sight and sound into an attractive package. At times we may have ended up in left field, but at least no one can accuse the show of not trying."
Baker tapped William Claxton as artistic consultant when the show was being formulated. Claxton's eye for photography had been a major factor in the success of Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz label, and Claxton was instrumental in placing Pacific Jazz artists like Chet Baker, Jack Montrose, Chico Hamilton, and Bud Shank on Stars of Jazz.
The visual presentation of jazz was innovative although the finger painting and artist sketching on stage might have been the "left field" that Troup mentioned. The films of Charles and Ray Eames, the visuals of devices with a beat, water in motion, and other films that conveyed motion with a cadence presented jazz for the eye as well as the ear. John Wilson's film, ABC's of Jazz, likewise presented a visualization of jazz for viewers. It is regrettable that the planned visuals by John Hoppe for a future edition of Stars of Jazz were not realized. His special effects on The Bing Crosby Show dazzled the Stars of Jazz team who asked Hoppe to create effects for an episode.
One of the greatest assets of Stars of Jazz during the two and a half years it ran on Los Angeles television was the camera crew. Baker provided detailed breakdowns on every number performed as a guideline for the cameramen to follow as the jazz musicians performed the tune, but the cameramen's intuitive knowledge of music and what to focus on made every show a gem to watch and behold. The camera work seen on Stars of Jazz has not been equaled or surpassed by any television jazz program before or since.”
As the book makes clear, all styles of Jazz were represented on the program,
and some of the original makers of the music such as Paul Whiteman, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Ray Bauduc and Red Norvo were still alive in the late 1950s and made appearances on the program
For those of us who were fortunate to view the series wholly or in part when it originally aired, it’s easy to agree with Hr. Harrod when he concludes:
“Hopefully, this history and the increasing availability of Stars of Jazz on internet sites like YouTube will raise an awareness of this landmark series that deserves recognition in critical media studies and histories.”