Miles Kington: Jazz on television? I must be dreaming

'What Ken Burns has done is show that jazz is not something apart, not a cult object, but a part of life'
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The Independent Online

In the heyday of The Fast Show, they used to have a regular item which took the mickey out of jazz aficionados. John Thompson would come on and introduce some jazz group in the most pretentious way possible, then lean towards the camera and murmur "Nice...!", and people would roar with laughter.

Why, I never quite knew. I had never seen any jazz programme on TV introduced like that. Jazz musicians themselves tend to be fairly uncommunicative people when faced with the public. The trombonist Chris Pyne once told me that this had even gained him a job.

"I was asked to join a group called Coe, Wheeler and Co," he said. "This had at least three great players in it, Tony Coe on tenor, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, and John Taylor on piano. I could never understand why they wanted me in the group, which didn't actually need a trombonist at all. But it gradually dawned on me that Tony and Kenny and John were all pretty painfully shy and hated going near a microphone. I'll swear that the main reason I had been hired was to make the group's announcements...!"

When John Thompson did his jazz mickey-take, there must have been a lot of people out there who wondered what he was on about. Do you know why? Because there were no jazz programmes on TV. He was parodying something that didn't exist. Often, during the run of The Fast Show, John Thompson's parody slot was the only jazz anywhere on TV.

Television people are so nervous of anything to do with jazz that they will run a mile rather than work out a way of handling it properly. They always assume that anything to do with jazz will have low viewing figures, and in any case most of them don't like it much – there was a persistent story that Alan Yentob hated jazz, which would certainly explain a lot of non-jazz on BBC.

Radio 3 does much better by jazz, probably better than all TV put together, and I wouldn't be surprised if the opera and lieder crowd don't groan about Roger Wright's generosity sometimes. But on BBC TV, no jazz at all.

Or there wasn't, until Ken Burns's series Jazz was recently turned on in the jazz-parched desert of BBC 2. Suddenly, where there had been nothing, there was what seemed to be a nightly fountain of the most wonderful pictures and music, which has been watched and enjoyed to my knowledge by lots of people who wouldn't call themselves jazz fans. Because what Ken Burns has done, and it is something that is rarely done, is see that jazz is not something apart, not a cult object, but part of life, and he tell its history along with American history, black history, social history, our history.

It's what Robert Hughes did so stunningly with American painting the other year, in a series called American Visions – he interwove everything that American artists had done in 200 years with what America was doing at the same time. It was braver for Hughes, in a way, because he is an art critic and might be forgiven for putting art in a ghetto, whereas Burns is not a jazz expert – he is a film-maker who has set out to teach himself jazz and therefore naturally sees it in context.

When Robert Hughes's American Visions was bought by the BBC, Private Eye sneered that it was the kind of thing that would be screened quickly, and then rake in a lot of money by being sold on video. Oh, how I wish they had been right. The BBC, always mean-minded if given the chance, never put out the Robert Hughes series on video at all.

They have shown similar mean tendencies with Ken Burns's Jazz. They are not screening the whole series, for a start, which ran at much greater length in the USA. A lot of it is going out late at night when even jazz fans are falling asleep. The series has had its critics too, people who grumble that it doesn't mention Jack Teagarden or Keith Jarrett or someone else...

But they miss the whole point. This is not a reference work on jazz. It's a history of what jazz was all about. Everything I have seen so far has wonderful pictures and great words and some quite nice music, too, and I am not going to grumble for fear of waking up and finding that jazz on BBC 2 was all a dream.

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