The Sound of Jazz as Essential Image
Television, Performance, and the Modern Jazz Canon
Over the past two decades, jazz scholars have challenged the limited way that the music’s aesthetic was understood for decades prior, moving away from the study of jazz as merely a body of recorded or transcribed texts, to consider the myriad elements that produce meaning in every act of jazz performance. Examples of this important critical turn include Dana Reason’s assertion that ‘meaning [in jazz improvisation can be] located in the ways in which improvisers situate their bodies, change their facial expressions, and use their voices to accompany notes, gestures, silences or phrases’; or Vijay Iyer’s imperative for the music’s critical interlocutors to ‘explode’ the idea of the ‘narrative’ as the dominant way to understand meaning in jazz. While the field’s collective critical focus has expanded, especially to observe the gestural and visual elements in jazz performance, the specific influence of television in formalizing audiences’ understanding of these elements demands more attention.
In this paper, I focus on the 1957 CBS television production, The Sound of Jazz, to consider the medium’s role in shaping mid-century understandings of jazz musicians as visual characters and theatrical agents. Conceptualized by innovative producer Robert Herridge, The Sound of Jazz proposed an unfiltered glimpse of a whole array of jazz luminaries in performance, including Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Count Basie. For musical advice, Herridge called upon the critics Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff, intent on assembling musicians who were not necessarily the most commercially successful, but instead the most representative of the music’s ethos. As Hentoff remembered later, Herridge’s emphasis on ‘purity’ inspired many of the production’s choices, from the lack of artifice in the stage set, to the suggestion that musicians should dress as they would for rehearsal—in their own clothes and hats, that is, rather than in the exaggerated black tie that a TV spot might otherwise impel (xv). Superficially, one might read the effect of these decisions as a ‘behind-thescenes’ view of jazz musicians at work en route to a staged performance. As I suggest in counterpoint, though, what the programme ultimately offered was the sight of jazz artists exercising their self-representation and theatrical agency as they would in more liberated performance contexts. Freed from exterior expectations about setting and costume, that is, these musicians gave the show’s audience a look at how they envisioned and exhibited themselves in the representative settings where the jazz aesthetic developed.
As Philip Auslander has written about the relationship between theater and television, the new medium’s ontology turned on the assumption that it presented something ‘live’, rather than approximate the fixity of cinematic texts. Effectively, Auslander writes, television ‘colonized’ theatre’s ‘liveness’ and remediated stage performance through a ‘claim to immediacy’ (13). With this distinction in mind, I argue that The Sound of Jazz is of inestimable importance to the critical imperatives of new jazz studies. Just as the most acclaimed jazz records simulated access to the sound of live performance, the 1957 programme codified audiences’ awareness of the music’s theatrical elements and visual codes. Ultimately, if jazz is to be understood in this more expansive way, then this television document must be seen—and additionally, seen as canonical, with the same weight given to the contemporaneous LPs that earlier defined our sense of what jazz is.
Auslander, Philip (2006) ‘Musical Personae’. TDR: The Performance Studies Review 50/1: 100–19.
——(2008) Liveness: Performance in a mediatized culture, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
——(2013) ‘Jazz Improvisation as a Social Arrangement’. In Taking it to the Bridge: Music as Performance, ed. Nicholas Cook and Richard Pettengill, 52–69. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Berliner, Paul (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Elsdon, Peter (2006) ‘Listening in the Gaze: The Body in Keith Jarrett’s Solo Piano Improvisations’. In Music and Gesture, ed. Anthony Gritten and Elaine King, 192–207. Aldershot: Ashgate. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315091006-12
Fraser, C. Gerald (1981) ‘Robert Herridge, TV Producer’. New York Times, 17 August. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/17/obituaries/robert-herridge-tv-producer.html (accessed 31 December, 2017).
Griffin, Farah Jasmine (2001) If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. New York: Free Press.
Heile, Björn, Peter Elsdon and Jenny Doctor (2016) Watching Jazz: Encounters with Jazz Performance on Screen. New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199347650.001.0001
Hentoff, Nat (1972) ‘The Real Lady Day’. In, The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary, ed. Leslie Gourse, 1997, 153–60. New York: Schirmer.
——(1995) Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music. New York: Harper.
Herridge, Robert (1956) ‘“Camera Three”: An Adventure in Education’. The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television 10/3: 302–311.
Hirsch, Foster (1984) A Method to their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio. New York: Norton.
Iyer, Vijay (2004) ‘Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation’. In Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, ed. Robert G. O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards and Farah Jasmine Griffin, 393–403. New York: Columbia University Press. https://doi.org/10.7312/omea12350-020
Kelley, Robin D. G. (2009) Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. New York: Free Press.
Larrabee, Eric (1958) Liner notes. Various artists, The Sound of Jazz. Columbia CL-1098.
Mailer, Norman (1957) The White Negro. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Myers, Marc (2015) ‘Filming Sonic Emotion: Robert Herridge’s TV programs changed the way people viewed jazz’. Wall Street Journal, 14 January. https://www.wsj.com/articles/filming-sonic-emotion-robert-herridge-jazz-on-tv-at-the-paley-center-for-media-1421278725 (accessed 31 December, 2017).
Perchard, Tom (2017) ‘Mid-century Modern Jazz: Music and Design in the Postwar Home’. Popular Music 36/1: 55–74. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0261143016000672
Pillai, Nicolas (2016) Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television, and the Dissonant Image. London: I.B. Tauris.
Porter, Eric (2002) What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Reason, Dana (2004) ‘“Navigable Structures and Transforming Mirrors”: Improvisation and Interactivity’. In The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, ed. Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, 71–83. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021875806371800
Rose, Brian G. (1986) Television and the Performing Arts: A Handbook and Reference Guide to American Cultural Programming. New York: Greenwood.
Shadwick, Keith (2007) ‘Brave New World’. Jazzwise (March): 34–37.
Shipton, Alyn (2007) A New History of Jazz. Rev. edn. New York: Continuum.
Soules, Marshall (2004) ‘Improvising Character: Jazz, the Actor and Protocols of Improvisation’. In The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, ed. Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, 268–97. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021875806371800
The Sound of Jazz: Complete Edition (2003) Idem. DVD.
Tucker, Sherrie (2004) ‘Bordering on Community: Improvising Women Improvising Women-In-Jazz’. In The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, ed. Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, 244–67. Middletown, CT:: Wesleyan University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021875806371800
‘Television: Review’ (1957) Time 23 December. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,936770,00.html (accessed 31 December, 2017).
Ward, Brian (2004) Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd.
For information regarding our Open Access policy, click here.