Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Sound of Jazz by Whitney Balliett [From the Archives]

  © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Until the publication of Whitney Balliett’s essay “The Sound of Jazz” in the New Yorker [1983], very little of the background information was known by the general public about what is arguably the best program on Jazz in performance ever produced for TV as well as Whitney’s role in its development.

It’s a fascinating story from so many perspectives that I thought I’d share it with you as a remembrance of times gone by for some of the original makers of the music.

MP3 files of the program are available for download and used CD copies can still be found through various online sellers.

“The confusion about the soundtrack of "The Sound of Jazz," the celebrated hour-long program broadcast live on CBS television on December 8, 1957, began a minute or so before the program ended, when an announcer said, "Columbia Records has cut a long-playing record of today's program, which will be called The Sound of Jazz. It'll be released early next year." 

A Columbia recording by that name and bearing the CBS television logotype was issued early in 1958, but it was not the soundtrack of the show. It was a recording made on December 4th in Columbia's Thirtieth Street studio as a kind of rehearsal for the television production. It included many of the musicians who did appear on December 8th, and except for one number the materials were the same. Columbia probably made the recording as a precaution: a live jazz television program lasting a full hour (then, as it is now, the basic unit of television time was the minute) and built around thirty-odd (unpredictable) jazz musicians might easily turn into a shambles. It didn't. The soundtrack, which is at last available in its entirety — as The Real Sound of Jazz, on Pumpkin Records — is superior to the Columbia record in almost every way, sound included.

The Sound of Jazz has long been an underground classic, and a lot of cotton wool has accumulated around it. So here, allowing for vagaries of memory, is how the program came to be. In the spring of 1957, Robert Goldman asked me if I would be interested in helping put together a show on jazz for John Houseman's new "Seven Lively Arts" series, scheduled to be broadcast on CBS in the winter of 1957-58. I submitted an outline, and it was accepted. I invited Nat Hentoff to join me as co-advisor, and we began discussing personnel and what should be played. Our wish was to offer the best jazz there was in the simplest and most direct way — no history, no apologetics, no furbelows. But John Crosby, the television columnist of the Herald Tribune, had been hired as master of ceremonies for the "Seven Lively Arts," and we feared that he would do just what we wanted to avoid — talk about the music. We suggested listing the musicians and the tunes on tel-ops (now common practice), but Crosby was under contract for the whole series, and that was that. Crosby, it turned out, pretty much agreed with us, and what he did say was to the point. For the brilliant visual side of the show, CBS chose the late Robert Herridge as the producer and Jack Smight as the director. The excitement of the camerawork and of Smight's picture selection — he had five cameramen — has never been equaled on any program of this kind.

Here is the form the program finally took: A big band, built around the nucleus of the old Count Basie band, was the first group to be heard, and it included Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Joe Newman, Joe Wilder, and Emmett Berry on trumpets; Earle Warren, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Gerry Mulligan on reeds,- Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, and Dicky Wells on trombones; and a rhythm section of Basie, Freddie Green, Eddie Jones, and Jo Jones. This Utopian band, which Basie seemed immensely pleased to front, played a fast blues, "Open All Night," written and arranged by Nat Pierce, who did all the arranging on the show. Then a smaller band, made up of Red Allen and Rex Stewart on trumpet and cornet, Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, Hawkins, Dickenson, Pierce, Danny Barker on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, and Jo Jones, did the old Jelly Roll Morton-Louis Armstrong "Wild Man Blues" and Earl Hines' "Rosetta." The group was a distillation of the various historic associations, on recordings, of Allen and Russell, of Allen and Hawkins, and of Stewart and Hawkins, with Dickenson's adaptability holding everything together. 

The rhythm section was all-purpose and somewhat in the Basie mode. Thelonious Monk, accompanied by Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Osie Johnson on drums, did his "Blue Monk." The big band returned for a slow blues, "I Left My Baby," with Jimmy Rushing on the vocal, and for a fast thirty-two-bar number by Lester Young called "Dickie's Dream." Billie Holiday sang her blues "Fine and Mellow," accompanied by Mal Waldron on piano and by Eldridge, Cheatham, Young, Hawkins, Webster, Mulligan, Dickenson, Barker, Hinton, and Osie Johnson. The Jimmy Giuffre Three, with Giuffre on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar, and Jim Atlas on bass, did Giuffre's "The Train and the River," and the show was closed by a slow blues, in which Giuffre and Pee Wee Russell played a duet, accompanied by Barker, Hinton, and Jo Jones. Crosby introduced each group, and there were pre-recorded statements about the blues from Red Allen, Rushing, Billie Holiday, and Guiffre. (I found these intrusive, but Hentoff and Herridge liked them.) 

The show was held in a big, bare two-story studio at Ninth Avenue and Fifty-sixth Street, and the musicians were told to wear what they wanted. Many wore hats, as jazz musicians are wont to do at recording sessions. Some had on suits and ties, some were in sports shirts and tweed jackets. Monk wore a cap and dark glasses with bamboo side pieces. Billie Holiday arrived with an evening gown she had got specially for the show, and was upset when she found that we wanted her in what she was wearing—a pony tail, a short-sleeved white sweater, and plaid pants. There was cigarette smoke in the air, and there were cables on the floor. A ladder leaned against a wall. Television cameras moved like skaters, sometimes photographing each other. The musicians were allowed to move around: Basie ended up watching Monk, and later Billie Holiday went over and stood beside Basie.

The atmosphere at the Columbia recording session was similar. Many of the musicians had not been together in a long time, and a rare early-December blizzard, which began just before the session and left as much as a foot of snow on the ground, intensified everything. It also caused problems. Our plan had been to reunite the All-American rhythm section of Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page on bass, and Jo Jones, but Page called and said that he was sick and that, anyway, he couldn't find a cab. (He didn't make the television show, either, and he died two weeks later.) Eddie Jones, Basie's current bassist, replaced him. Thelonious Monk didn't turn up, and that is why Mal Waldron recorded a four-minute piano solo, aptly titled "Nervous." 

There were various other differences between the recording and the show. Frank Rehak took Benny Morton's place on the recording, because Morton was busy. Harry Carney, a man of infinite graciousness, filled in for Gerry Mulligan, a man of infinite ego, because Mulligan insisted he be paid double scale, and was refused. Doc Cheatham solos on the Columbia session but only plays obbligatos behind Billie Holiday on the television show; he had asked to be excused from all soloing, claiming that it would ruin his lip for his regular gig with a Latin band. Lester Young provides obbligatos behind Jimmy Rushing on "I Left My Baby" on the Columbia record, and he also solos twice. He was particularly ethereal that day, walking on his toes and talking incomprehensibly, and most of the musicians avoided him. But he was intractable on Sunday during the first of the two run-throughs that preceded the television show. He refused to read his parts, and he soloed poorly. He was removed from the big-band reed section and was replaced by Ben Webster, and his only solo is his famous twelve bars on "Fine and Mellow"—famous because this sequence had been used so many times on other television shows and because of Billie Holiday's expression as she listens to her old friend, an expression somewhere between laughter and tears. Billie Holiday came close to not being on the show. A week or so before, word of her difficulties with drugs and the law had reached the upper levels at CBS, and it was suggested that she be replaced by someone wholesome, like Ella Fitzgerald. We refused, and were backed by Herridge, and she stayed.

It is astonishing how good the music is on "The Real Sound of Jazz." Billie Holiday and Red Allen and Jimmy Rushing are in fine voice. The big-band ensembles are generally dazzling. The solos are almost always first-rate. (Giuffre is dull, and Roy Eldridge is overexcited.) Listen to Dickenson's boiling, shouting statement on "Dickie's Dream," wisely taken at a slightly slower tempo than on the Columbia record, and to his easy, rocking solo on "Wild Man Blues." And listen to Rex Stewart, sly and cool, on "Wild Man" (he had recently emerged from a long semi-retirement) and to the way Jo Jones frames its breaks—suspending time, shaping melody, italicizing emotion. Some of the music on the show has not weathered well. Monk, surprisingly, sounds hurried and the Giuffre trio, which was extremely popular at the time, is thin and synthetic. And Pee Wee Russell swallows Giuffre in their duet. CBS never ran the program again, but it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the sixties, and there is now a copy at the Museum of Broadcasting.”

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