Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Late Night TV Big Band Litmus Test

The attention that used to be paid to jazz on such programs as "The Sound of Jazz," "Frankly Jazz,""The Subject is Jazz," "Playboy After Dark" and events like Clifford Brown on Soupy Sales show, jazz musicians "What's My Line," etc. petered out decades ago.

The late night big band managed to hang around a lot longer, but the recent passing of trumpeter Snooky Young, seen in the photo above and in this video with the Tonight Show Orchestra-struck me as the mortality marker for the 60-year relationship between big band jazz and television.

No longer will cameras spend valuable time scanning the band to show us the likes of Snooky, Clark Terry, Conte Condoli, Jack Sheldon, Ray Brown... And, apart from being able to see these musicians in the flesh, my guess is that it was also a boost to jazz record consumers, as a stable group of jazz musicians did not have to go on the road and could spend time in the recording studio. 

  Late night television carried over the radio idea that big bands were de riguer for variety shows. Late night was America's best well-known dirty-little-secret and the Tonight Show led the pack. While still riddled with taboos (a sketch wherein a WC was taken for a church was censored, leading to Jack Paar's walkout), sponsors were willing to pair jazz music with hosts who had vaguely "hip" credentials: Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Al "Jazzbo" Collins (no hip creds except his name), Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson (In his early days, Carson had a fair whiff of disreputableness).

Merv Griffin (a big band singer himself) often guest-hosted, then got his own show and his big band was the West Coast version of the Tonight Show's until Carson moved out there in 1972. Big band vocalists Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore also had successful variety shows.

No doubt sponsors and producers thought that having a large band onstage gave the show some "klass," but, well, it did. It represented sophistication and a grown-up's hedge, if you will, against the onslaught of rock and roll. It also meant that any kind of a musical guest could be booked-tuba to musical saw-as solid accompaniment would always be there. This did lead to some very cheesy rock/jazz hybrids, but we won't go there.

I'm not saying that an anti-jazz stance became a litmus test for late night host survival. However:

David Letterman never cared much for jazz. His band (Paul Shaffer) and that of Saturday Night Live (Howard Shore, but it was really Lenny Pickett's Tower of Power sound on tenor sax) led the new musical way. Letterman may have been too far ahead of the curve, though, as Carson was a pretty staunch jazz fan and chose not to dub Letterman his successor. Dave shoulda feigned interest.

Jay Leno did and kept the big band thing going for a little while, Then, with Branford Marsalis, oversaw the band's mutation into the standard form funk-jazz that started to rule late night TV.

Conan O'Brien's band-Max Weinberg and company-was a hybrid, with a fair amount of swing; perhaps too much jazz in there for Conan to stay on a major network.

Now, who else ya got: Kimmel, Fallon, Ferguson. They might stick around awhile-no jazz.

I'll take a cup of Laphroaig then, for Auld Lang Syne.


  1. Laphroig for ALS, Red Bull for trance-dance nation, White Lightning for elders with their memories intact, and expensive bottled water for... no good reason. Whatever your situation, just remember: Safely Thirst!

  2. I still remember Schaeffer & Co. playing "Giant Steps" once after Letterman's monologue, and Dave saying, "didn't much care for that tune." "OK, got it, no more Giant Steps," Paul said. Oh well.

  3. INRE: Snooky Young --

    Snooky was for Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, and numerous other great swingin' bands, what were Al Kilian, and later Cat Anderson for the Duke, or Maynard Ferguson, and Al Porcino for Kenton, and Herman (although Al rarely improvised).

    Similar to Doc Cheatham, he started out as a lead trumpeter, and ended as a grand seigneur of jazz.

    INRE: comments --

    Steve, for warming up an old joke - remember I*N*R*E ? ;) - Was this one long enough for the long absence of yours truly's comments?

  4. Brew-You were certainly one of the folks I missed having around...You're right about Snooky-he especially became master of the plunger.

    My memory, unfortunately, is not what it was-if it ever was. I don't get your I*N*R*E allusion.