Jazz: Big sounds for the small screen

Putting music on television has always been difficult. Putting jazz on television has often proved impossible. Can a new Channel 4 series do it justice?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A new series beginning on Channel 4 on Sunday night (Jazz Heroes, 7.30pm) inevitably provokes thoughts about the history (chequered), and the treatment (variable) of the peculiar institution of jazz on British television. Ever since the BBC's superb Jazz 625 series in the mid-Sixties, when Humphrey Lyttelton introduced the likes of Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and Cannonball Adderley to both a live studio audience and a nation of viewers watching the wonderfully high contrast black and white broadcasts at home, jazz has had to struggle to find a place in the schedules at all, and then struggle once again for sympathetic treatment.

Although there have been some excellent programmes in the past, like Derek Bailey's revelatory series on improvisation for Channel 4 some years ago, a few Arena specials, and the sensitive documentaries on both jazz and world music directed by John Jeremy, we are more used to hearing jazz on the telly - most notably in Barry Norman's theme music or the opening title-sequence for Omnibus - than we are to seeing musicians actually playing it. And then when we do, what happens? That's right, we moan about it.

The recent BBC 2 series Jazz 606, whose title cheekily invoked Jazz 625, was a case in point. One is all too aware that someone must have had to beg on bended knee for the thing to be commissioned in the first place, but apart from the important by-product of giving an appearance fee and some valuable exposure to a few deserving musicians, the programme didn't really repay the effort. Perhaps it was the inevitable spirit of compromise that getting jazz on telly at all, in any form, must involve, that led to the shows falling between far too many stools right from the off, but the format simply didn't work.

Despite the attempt to create a sense of realism by taping the shows in a real club, the 606 in Chelsea, it still looked like an unusually badly lit studio production. The perceived need to cover different genres of jazz appeared to take precedence over the quality of some of the acts who were invited, and a misguided attempt at "yoof" appeal hipness created an unfortunate proselytising, happy-clappy air that probably offended those who already liked the music (and had therefore dutifully tuned in), without doing much to attract those who were really looking for Newsnight. True, the series improved over its six-week run, but then it couldn't have got much worse.

And as if it wasn't difficult enough already, any attempt at putting jazz on television now has to contend with the brilliant skit of the fictional "Jazz Club" from The Fast Show, whose loony acts (remember the trumpeter who sucked instead of blowing?) and smarmy, superior compere ("Nice!") parodied the form so successfully that the role of jazz presenter may never resurface again. Viewers with cable can watch a real version of Jazz Club every night on the Performance channel, where the music is often excellent but the visuals usually deadly: low budget, live vision-mixes whose two or three cameras offer the choice of full-face or profile shots of a man sitting at a keyboard, typically taped at an Italian outdoor festival where the African-American musicians are trying to hide behind their instruments from a gale-force wind.

While it's admirable that someone is showing this stuff, however late at night, to however small an audience, you could argue that simply watching jazz musicians play makes for inherently boring television. Then again, this can't be true because I remember as a kid seeing Roland Kirk on some late-night BBC arts show where the intensity of his performance threatened to make the screen to explode.

Independent films made primarily for the cinema and later shown on telly, like Isaac Julien's short film on Langston Hughes, and John Akomfrah's film about Michael X, have also demonstrated that jazz can be communicated by the small screen. Here, the music (which wasn't the real subject-matter at all) was given a clear cultural context and a coherent visual style, and the same can be said for numerous low budget films on jazz, like the excellent American documentaries about Mingus, Monk, Sun Ra, Art Pepper, and Bruce Weber's wonderful film about Chet Baker.

There's an honourable British tradition too, going back to the Free Cinema movement of the Fifties, and Tony Richardson's short film about a trad club, Mamma Don't Allow. If only television could offer young film-makers the chance to contribute to a series of short films on jazz, at however low a budget, and however late a transmission time, then the reliance on tired old formats might be overcome. Certainly there's no shortage of interesting subjects: profiles of Tomorrow's Warriors or Billy Jenkins; the links between jazz and jungle; jazz film soundtracks, biographies of Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriet; jazz and the English folk tradition. Honestly, there's a million of them.

Happily, Jazz Heroes is an excellent series that works very well given its fairly modest means, mixing archive footage (including clips from Jazz 625), interviews with authentic "witnesses" and retrospective commentary from contemporary musicians, many of whom are British. How one can hope to account for figures as important as Thelonious Monk (the subject of the first programme), Ella Fitzgerald, or Dizzy Gillespie in twenty minutes or so, however, is a problem that emphasises the way that television routinely marginalises the significance of jazz to contemporary culture. That programmes about musicians should look most of all at their music is fair enough, but one wants to learn about their lives too, with the kind of imaginative insight that Geoff Dyer's excellent, and just reissued, book about jazz, But Beautiful, displays so well. And if there were more jazz on telly perhaps we would be able to. As it is, we have to be happy with what we get.

'Jazz Heroes', Channel 4, Sundays, 7.30pm, for the next six weeks. A book to accompany the series, written by John Fordham, is published by Collins and Brown, price pounds 17.99.