Sixty years ago, at 5pm on Sunday December 8, 1957, a television broadcast went out on air and down in the pages of music history. The Sound of Jazz was made as a one-off show for a CBS series called The Seven Lively Arts, but it has ended up as a priceless treasure trove which has been systematically plundered by makers of jazz documentaries and which is, unfortunately, seen in its entirety all too rarely (although it can, of course, be found on YouTube).
The show was the brainchild of CBS producer Robert Herridge who had the further inspiration of leaving the selection of the musicians involved to two eminent jazz critics, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett. Hentoff and Balliett were given complete artistic control, and the results – six numbers featuring 32 of the top musicians on the jazz scene – were stimulating, surprising, and historically invaluable.
Balliett and Hentoff created various small groups featuring musicians who seldom had the chance to work together. They teamed clarinettist Pee Wee Russell – a player who was still associated with Chicago jazz of the 1930s in the minds of many – with the young clarinettist of the moment, Jimmy Giuffre. They even convinced Count Basie that he should lead an all-star big band of their choosing rather than his own, regular, outfit.
The influence of Hentoff and Balliett extended beyond the musical. It was they who decided that the show should have the minimum amount of chat, the maximum amount of music, and the informal feel of an after-hours jam session or a recording date. The musicians were asked to turn up in casual gear – there was to be none of the artifice associated with television entertainment shows of the day. Not all of the participants were initially happy with the dress code, however. Hentoff later wrote that singer Billie Holiday’s response was: ”I just spent five hundred goddam dollars on a gown!”
The resulting look and atmosphere of The Sound of Jazz are inextricably bound together with the music in the memory of anyone who has seen this icon-packed programme. Cigarette smoke billows around the horns of the Basie band as it rip roars its way through the opening number. The cameras – there were several, covering every angle since this was a live transmission – roamed about the undecorated studio, and were able to provide excellent close-ups of the likes of the bug-eyed blues singer Jimmy Rushing.
Thanks to director Jack Smight’s eye for detail, the unusual method with which pianist Thelonious Monk kept time was captured for posterity: we see him scliff his foot along the floor as he played his most famous number, Blue Monk. We also see other musicians’ reactions to the playing of Monk, an outsider whose discordant playing revolutionised jazz piano. Fellow pianist Count Basie is shown sitting at the other side of Monk’s piano, listening intently to and clearly delighted by what he hears. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins can also be glimpsed, snapping his fingers along with the music.
For the jazz fan there is endless pleasure to be found in the simplest of the many details which were caught on camera during The Sound of Jazz, in particular a rare chance to witness the interaction between musicians as they play.
Of the six numbers, one eight-minute long piece stands out. The show’s all-star version of Billie Holiday’s blues Fine and Mellow has taken on a life of its own. To appreciate fully the import of this song, consider these facts. The song signalled the reunion – after a period of estrangement – of Holiday and her musical soulmate, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, both of whom were dead within 18 months of the show. Shortly after the transmission, Young was given two months to live. He died in March 1959, and Holiday followed him four months later.
At the time of The Sound of Jazz, however, Holiday was in good form: Doc Cheatham later recalled that she was in jovial mood and invited all the musicians back to her place afterwards. Young, on the other hand, was so physically fragile that his parts in the Basie big band numbers had to be split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and he remained sitting down through most of Fine and Mellow.