Monday, February 1, 2010

Jazz and the Birth of Television, With Elvis, Satchmo, and Art Ford

Though network television began with NBC’s first broadcast from the New York’s world fair in 1939, television didn’t become very popular in the United States until the early 50s. One of the main issues for early television was finding appropriate programming that people would like and watch. Since television was brand new, there was no formula for success. There was barely a formula for anything, as no one had ever put a show together for television, much less know what kinds of shows the public would like. As a result, most television programming was stolen from other information outlets. There were news shows from the newspaper, educational programming from the classroom and broadcasts of sports events from stadiums across America.

The main source for programming ideas, however, was radio. Instead of approaching television as a new medium, producers saw it as an advanced radio- radio with video- and so many early television shows were updated radio shows. Popular radio shows were either directly put on screen, like Amos and Andy, or adapted for the screen, such as I Love Lucy, from her show My Favorite Husband, to try to duplicate their radio success on screen. Music from the radio was copied as well. Live studio performances of classical orchestras carried over from radio to television. Additionally, the networks would put together smaller live studio concerts of whatever popular musicians they could find hosted by a popular radio DJ. Music programming was also taken from popular music concerts. If a popular musician was playing for a week at a New York theater, they might set up a camera crew to record a show or two for a wider audience.

Jazz, though no longer as widely popular as it used to be, was good programming for early television. There were a variety of styles and there would be some sort of audience no matter what style they chose. People had already liked the music, so, with some exposure through television shows, jazz could possibly regain its mass popularity once again, thus making money for the show and leading to new, profitable jazz shows. Also, there already were popular artists and bands to focus on and big names that would draw audiences.

It was relatively easy to record too. Musicians, like Nat King Cole already went on tour or would have temporary or permanent engagements at certain venues, like The Copa room in the Sands hotel in Las Vegas (as a very specific example from some video I just watched). All television producers had to do was record those shows. This is obviously a lot easier said than done, but it presented viable profitable opportunities to the networks. Logically, if people would pay money to go see concerts, then they would watch one for free in the comfort of their own home.

As a result, early jazz shows were intended as popular pieces of entertainment. The shows themselves were marketed as concerts in the home and often virtually were exactly that, except with a host. The shows were broadcast live from concert venues, like a theater or club, and would promote the show similarly, trying to have on the biggest names to attract the biggest audience. The shows often touted themselves as all-star reviews, combining the best available talent in jazz for one show. This often was problematic however, because several bands that usually performed concerts several hours long would all be giving a couple minutes of performance time. As a result, the musicians only had a few measures for each solo, not enough time to really explore and develop the piece.

Furthermore, a band might have several soloists and a diverse selection of songs that never get exposed simply because there wasn’t enough time. Instead, each group would get a song or two before they had to cede to another group. The beginning and end especially would usually include a collaboration between several groups. This idea is good in theory- two (or more) famous musicians playing together must be better than a single band- but it usually turned into a confusing cacophony on sounds. Nevertheless, these shows featured some great performances from some of the most popular, successful, and talented jazz musicians of their day.

As examples of the shows, I have picked three videos from You Tube that are quite interesting. The first is a song featuring Louis Armstrong from the Timex Jazz All Stars, the same show that featured Armstrong's only recorded performance with Dizzy Gillespie. This time he is with a group that included Bobby Hackett, Barbara Dane, and the remarkable drummer Gene Krupa, who is one of the most animated, and talented jazz musicians ever. The second example is Art Ford's Jazz Party. Art Ford was a successful local DJ in Newark, NJ who had connections throughout the Jazz industry and was able to convince many successful musicians to join his cozy and relatively impromptu sessions. This session includes Osie Johnson, Roy Eldridge, the violinist Stuff Smith, Harry Sheppard on Vibraphones. The last video is of a performance by Elvis Presley on Stage Show, hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Jimmy and Tommy. This show (though not this performance) is the location of Elvis' first appearance on television. The Dorsey Brothers were very successful bandleaders in their own right and their big band orchestra backed most of the performers on the show (though clearly not Elvis). Enjoy!

Timex Jazz All Stars

Art Ford's Jazz Party

Stage Show

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