Robert Herridge, Jazz and TV

Up until 1955, modern jazz was largely a punchline. The music wasn’t easy to understand by those who grew up listening to big bands and other forms of pop and dance music, and many post-war jazz musicians seemed silly in their cool extreme — people with names like Dizzy, Monk, Chubby, Hawk, Shorty and Bird who recorded for equally quirky jazz labels. Jazz was perceived by the white mainstream as insider’s music, largely urban, performed by eccentric outsiders with an independent streak that made them a tough fit for life depicted in magazine ads. Movies used jazz when the subject was drug and alcohol abuse, people down on their luck or good girls gone bad. Comics had fun at jazz’s expense, using exaggerated hipster lingo in their bits, while jazz clubs were considered Runyonesque dens of vice favored by mixed couples, grifters and drug dealers. Progressive jazz was a big joke.

That is, until producer George Avakian signed Miles Davis to Columbia Records in 1955. Suddenly, modern jazz had its first star in the LP era, someone so magnificent and poetic that one of the country’s leading labels put him on the cover and insisted he be heard by everyone. Dave Brubeck, of course, had been signed a year earlier to the label, but he was viewed (wrongly) at first as a classical pianist who played a mean jazz piano.

With the rise of the LP in the early 1950s, Verve also stood out by merging jazz artists like Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster with the American Songbook. After 1955, as the 12-inch album replaced the 10-inch disc, jazz began to be taken more seriously by record companies, largely as a result of Columbia’s success with Davis. New homes meant phonographs and phonographs needed product.

Television, however, was a different story. Other than aircraft-carrier entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, few progressive jazz musicians had an opportunity to perform on network television. Part of the problem was the way television was set up back then. Today, shows sell time to any advertiser willing to pay for the slot. In the 1950s, television shows depended on a single sponsor to air, and many sponsors did significant business in markets that were segregated. Featuring the jazz of musicians who seemed superior to their audiences — especially in integrated groups — was a non-starter.

As a result, very little pure modern jazz made it on to network television. Whatever jazz did air — like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing Hot House in 1952 or Bobby Troup’s Stars of Jazz program starting in ‘56 — were shows in local markets that just featured musicians playing. No interviews, not narratives, no exchanges.

In 1957, Robert Herridge, a producer at CBS who specialized in drama, decided to change that. Herridge had pioneered something called “open theater,” which typically featured a raw sound stage with just stools and a table. Then he’d fill the space with fine actors who would perform dramatizations of classic works, as multiple cameras slid around and captures their performances up-close from multiple angles. Herridge wanted to do the same for jazz.

When he approached Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff [above] in 1957 with the idea, both loved the concept. Herridge, a hermetic thinker and brooding champion of the arts needed help bringing in great musicians and that task fell to Balliett and Nat. Except Balliett felt there would be a conflict if he asked favors of the musicians whose next albums he might pan. Nat viewed jazz journalism differently, that to write emotionally and authoritatively about a jazz musician, you had to know them personally. Otherwise, how else were you going to get inside their souls?

Herridge told Nat he wanted only the giants, and Hentoff delivered Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and many others. Not even Nat was prepared for what Herridge had in mind. Instead of just featuring musicians playing jazz, a static concept, Herridge wanted drama. And to get that drama, he told his four cameramen to shoot for expressions, admiration, glances, glares and smiles — everything and anything that might turn up on the faces of these musicians as they performed not for the camera but for each other.

The result was “The Sound of Jazz,” which aired live at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8, 1957. The special transformed how television treated jazz musicians and brought a new mystique and status to the music and artists. Instead of jazz functioning as the soundtrack to TV shows and movies about pill-crazed bank robbers, jazz now had a heart and soul. You could see it on the musicians’ faces. Jazz was art, like classical music, made by musicians who were in love with beauty, discord, harmony and improvisation. It was romantic music at its core and reflective of personal tragedies and triumphs, tough times and bonanzas and, most of all, exhilaration.

Herridge made several of these jazz specials into the 1960s — some taped and others filmed for syndication. Four are being screened this weekend at New York’s Paley Center for Media — The Sound of Jazz; Frankie and Johnny, a ballet with music composed by Charles Mingus and performed by the Mingus Dynasty; The Sound of Miles Davis, featuring Gil Evans and his orchestra as well as the Miles Davis Quintet performing So What, featuring a blistering John Coltrane; and my favorite, Jazz From Sixty-One, the name of the studio in which it was recorded. On Sixty One, the Ben Webster Sextet performs first and then surrounds the piano as the Ahmad Jamal Trio plays Darn That Dream. The looks on the faces of these old-school greats listening in amazement to Ahmad’s lithe, delicate swing is priceless. [Pictured above, Miles Davis and Robert Herridge in rehearsal in 1959 by CBS/Getty Images]

While clips of these Herridge specials have popped up on YouTube, the resolution has been watery and the sound acceptable at best. The black-and-white versions that will be screened are crisp and beautiful, like opening a mint album for the first time. As I note in my WSJ essay today (go here), Herridge’s genius was that he understood how art needed to be positioned for TV audiences — through the faces of performers and other insiders.

JazzWax clip: Here’s the Ahmad Jamal Trio playing Darn That Dream from Jazz in Sixty-One as members of Ben Webster’s sextet and others surround the piano and respond to what they’re hearing. This was uploaded nearly eight years ago, and the one being shown at the Paley Center is stunningly crisp. By the way, that’s a 34-year-old Nat Hentoff with the beard and pipe digging the music. Jazz owes Nat a debt of gratitude for this special and the others…

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