The Sound of Jazz as Essential Image

Television, Performance, and the Modern Jazz Canon

  • Michael Borshuk Texas Tech University
Keywords: Sound of Jazz, jazz on television, Robert Herridge, Count Basie, Henry “Red” Allen, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Billie Holiday, Lester Young


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.

Author Biography

Michael Borshuk, Texas Tech University

Michael Borshuk is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature (Routledge, 2006), and numerous articles and book chapters on African American literature, American modernism, and music. This work is adapted from his current book project on jazz, performance, and visual culture. In addition, for ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for Coda magazine.


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How to Cite
Borshuk, M. (2019). The Sound of Jazz as Essential Image. Jazz Research Journal, 12(1), 12-35.