Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Passing the Late Night Jazz TV Torch (?)

Jazz on TV is, of course, a non-starter. Programs like "The Sound of Jazz," "Frankly Jazz,""The Subject is Jazz" and events like Clifford Brown on the Soupy Sales show are to Millennials as Medicine Shows are to seniors.
The last redoubts for jazz were the "hip" talk shows and jazz hasn't had a good track record even there since Johnny Carson retired. The passing of trumpeter Clark Terry, a stalwart of the Tonight Show Orchestra was a symbolic marker of the end of a 60-year relationship between big band jazz and television.               
         Clark Terry
Jon Batiste
Jon Batiste will be the bandleader as Stephen Colbert takes over for David Letterman on the Late Show. This represents a return, of sorts, to late night bandleaders with a jazz background. What are his chances? Let's look at the history and the landscape:

Post-Carson, Jay Leno tried to keep one foot in the Tonight Show's jazz past, while bridging to the present with Branford Marsalis, leading to an often uneasy three years. Marsalis was followed by Kevin Eubanks, a better fit who had a fifteen-year tenure. Although Eubanks had jazz chops, he weighed in as a more natural rock guy and his personality jibed better with the format than Marsalis'.

Conan O'Brien's band-Max Weinberg and company-was a hybrid, with a fair amount of swing. Was too much jazz one of the elements that pushed Conan off network TV and onto cable?
David Letterman was a pop/rock/country guy and never cared much for jazz (Knowing Carson was a pretty staunch jazz fan, if Dave really wanted that gig, he shoulda feigned interest). Letterman's band, led by Paul Shaffer, went the funk-jazz route that began to dominate late night TV. Actually it was the Saturday Night Live band that led the way-Howard Shore, with Lenny Pickett's Tower of Power sound on tenor sax. Shaffer was a member of that SNL band, as was Seth Meyers current bandleader Fred Armisen. Cleto Escobeto, Kimmel's bandleader is also out of that tradition. 
Jimmy Fallon's band The Roots, is much more in the contemporary black music vein. While it's true that Jon Batiste and The Roots both bring a black sensibility, it's pretty different. The Roots are Philadelphia and Batiste is New Orleans. The Roots busked on the street, but with bucket drums and rapping. Jon Batiste has an advanced music degree and his family has a long N.O. jazz pedigree. 

Batiste is solid for the Second Line and loves to move into the crowd and stir things up. As far as late night talk show audience participation goes, social media is now where that is supposed to happen (R.I.P. 'Stump The Band'). It's hard to think that the Second Line idea will mix easily in this high-price, high-stakes, timed-to-the-second context. Going into the audience knowing you have exactly 4'33" to get people dancing in the aisle, back onstage and back in their seats might tend to undermine spontaneity. After all, this is valuable time we're talking about.

Well, as we jazz types find ourselves saying more and more often: "maybe a little exposure will help." Can't hurt, right?

[ADDENDUM: I didn't see the whole show, but I did see this clip of "Everyday People," which they performed with a number of guest musicians. Very, very nice job. A few musicians went briefly into the audience, while most stayed onstage; a compromise, but the energy was great and the whole thing didn't drag on, as these multi-star performances usually do.]

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