From Ragtime to Rock-A History of American Music (1970 Today Show Special)

Ken Dryden By

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When I attended the 2001 IAJE Conference in New York City, I made one of my first trips to Fred Cohen's Jazz Record Center, a mandatory stop for jazz collectors visiting the Big Apple. Within the LP bins I found an unusual record which was the soundtrack to a Today Special (broadcast January 13, 1970) that celebrated the completion of its 18th year on the air. In spite of the $60 price tag, I snapped it up without hesitation, only learning later how rare it was. It turns out that Mrs. Paul's Kitchens, the lone sponsor of this special broadcast, arranged for the pressing of around 100 albums of this soundtrack, which they evidently gave to prized customers, valued employees, or possibly as some promotion with the public.

Today co-host Hugh Downs serves as narrator between tracks, with excerpts of various recordings played behind him, while he also introduces each soloist or bandleader. Most of the performances were evidently videotaped shortly prior to the broadcast or played live, with the exception of Duke Ellington, who is represented by a film clip form a few years earlier.

Harlem Stride great Willie the Lion Smith starts things off with an enthusiastic romp through "Russian Rag;" though nearing the end of his life, he is in top form on this occasion. Louis Armstrong & His Allstars (including trombonist Trummy Young, though other musicians aren't identified) offer an easygoing, swinging treatment of "Some Day," with Armstrong doubling on vocals. Tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, a musician who is often overlooked for his contributions, is joined by a rhythm section for a cooking treatment of "I Got Rhythm." The first side concludes with bandleader Doc Severinson & The NBC Tonight Show Band playing a medley of hits from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Side two begins a concert performance by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra of "Satin Doll" (I'm guessing circa 1965-1967). There really aren't any solos, but Ellington briefly exchanges some breaks with his bassist. Lionel Hampton is joined by his quintet (with an organist, probably Milt Buckner) and Severinson's band for a rousing rendition of the perennial request, "Flying Home." The only group introduced in full on this recording is the Dave Brubeck Trio + Gerry Mulligan, with bassist Jack Six and drummer Alan Dawson. Mulligan is the only soloist in an abbreviated performance of his lovely "Lullaby de Mexico."

The final two selections are a bit disappointing. The Today Show was obviously trying to show how music had evolved to the current day, but picked the uninspired rock band The Jam Factory, which released one record or so for Epic before disappearing for good into obscurity. Downs' description of them as "a new and excellent band" sounds more like scripted hyperbole rather than his own opinion; their song "You Better Listen" is hardly worth a second hearing. Severinson and company return for another medley of tunes, yet it comes off rather stale, as most scripted medleys of numerous songs in a short time frame do.

Since I didn't see this historic broadcast, I wonder if there were other performances not included on this promotional-only LP. One of the rarest broadcast recordings that I've ever run across in my many decades of collecting, it makes me wonder if other such jazz performances are stored in NBC vaults; one I would like to find was a spring 1978 set by the Jazz Piano Quartet, featuring Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Sir Roland Hanna and Marian McPartland, which was promoted just as I was leaving for work one morning!

Tracks: The Russian Rag; Some Day; I Got Rhythm; Jumpin' at the Woodside/ Sing, Sing, Sing!/In the Mood/Opus One/Take the A Train; Satin Doll; Flying Home; Lullaby de Mexico; You Better Listen; Rags to Rock [medley]


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