Jazz: This isn't jazz. This is just terrible telly

Phil Johnson
Sunday 15 March 1998 01:02
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"WELCOME to Jazz Club. Nice!" In the wake of The Fast Show's wickedly funny skit in which a bouffant-haired, Seventies-suited compere introduces incomprehensible acts with self-regarding, in-for-a-dig asides to-camera ("Amazing!"), Jazz 606 (BBC 2, Wed) was always going to have a hard time taking itself seriously. If only they'd been bold enough to get Jazz Club's fictitious frontman to present their own programme, the format could maybe have worked. As it is, the series (two down, four to go) is unlikely to please either committed fans or the promiscuous channel- surfers it's probably aimed at. And let's face it, even an actor in a bad wig would be preferable to the presenter they have chosen to go with, the Mancunian poet Lemn Sissay.

Though he does have a jazz pedigree of sorts, Sissay is no Philip Larkin, a jazz fan to whom Sidney Bechet was God and John Coltrane the devil incarnate. No, Sissay is the kind of poet who likes to put an exclamation mark after every single word, and he addresses the camera as if trying optimistically to communicate with the deaf. "Jazz! It's great! Don't wait! Jazz! It's Spazz! Modically interesting! Does he! Take sugar!", gives a little of the flavour. Sissay's manic enthusiasm ends up having the opposite effect to that intended. I mean, if it's really this good, why is the programme filled with dodgy singers and bygone fusion acts? Though set in a real jazz club - the 606 in Chelsea Harbour - it looks more like a set from Muriel Young's Five O' Clock Club, with an audience from a Social Services version of Central Casting looking ill at ease in the background. There's smoke, but not much fire.

This view, of course, will no doubt be used by the Beeb to avoid commissioning another jazz series for years and years. I mean: jazz fans? They moan and moan about the lack of jazz on TV and then, when you finally accede to their demands, they go and slag it off. Bastards.

It's true, we're very hard to please and to most of us jazz on telly has been going down- hill since even before we can remember. Since Jazz 625 in the 1960s, in fact, which was pretty much where it started. The combination of host Humphrey Lyttelton and guests like Art Blakey, Tubby Hayes and Thelonious Monk is a very hard act to follow - especially when most of them are dead - but it does provide a model of sorts, even today: a presenter who doesn't hype; a clear, unfussy visual style; and some of the best musicians going. Jazz 606, whose title cheekily invokes its ancestor, fails on all of these counts (many of the artists are fine, although they aren't given enough space) but it's the visual style - more properly the lack of it - that irks most of all. The authenticity and intimacy that the club setting is meant to invoke is compromised by the very fact that it's being used basically as a television studio, and it ends up not looking like a jazz club at all. If authentic ambience is what was really intended, the Beeb could have done a full Ronnie Scott, put a scratch'n'sniff card of cooking- oil smells in the Radio Times and recorded people talking very loudly over the music.

Faced with the disappointment of the programme, one thinks fondly of the visual style of ECM Records, where they stick a moody photo of a landscape on the cover of the CD for you to look at while you listen. True, the picture doesn't move, but it's very well composed.

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