Legends of Jazz
with Ramsey Lewis
A PBS television series
LRSmedia & WTTW National Productions
Here's cause for great celebration: for the first time in forty years, a American national network will air a weekly program devoted to jazz. Quite naturally, it's going to be on public television; expect an opening one-hour special and thirteen subsequent half-hour episodes, all hosted by Ramsey Lewis and featuring different musical guests in performance and conversation. Not that far away from the Jazz Casual series back in the day, all things considered, except that by now, jazz is but a distant memory in mainstream American culture.
Now, here's cause for disappointment: I had a chance to see the opening episode, and it's just plain uninspiring. It features five recipients of the NEA Jazz Masters award (Nancy Wilson, Jon Hendricks, James Moody, Paquito D'Rivera, and George Wein), each of whom answers a few questions from the host and makes a brief performance (except Wein, who performs by telling stories). None of the conversation is particularly witty or revealing, though everyone comes across well-grounded and sincere.
As I was watching the show, I couldn't help but feel really young. And since age is relative, I guess that's really the same thing as saying that the people on the tube seemed old. Of course, "legend is a term automatically reserved for veterans, and admittedly everyone on the show has spent a full lifetime making music. No disrespect intended toward the people who have added so much to the creative vocabulary of jazz over the years. But my reaction came less from their chronological age and more from their attitude, which seemed to be focused around memory and a certain self-aware pride about having contributed to history. I think they collectively overplayed their legendary status, frankly.
Which begs this question, which appears toward the end of the show: where is jazz headed? None of the guests have any great wisdom to add. I got the feeling they really aren't interested in the subject. The final "answer comes in the form of teenage vocalist Renee Olstead, who does a convincing job singing "Taking a Chance on Love, but doesn't reveal any particularly futuristic stance toward the music. More of the same old thing, all said and done. No risks taken, no sparks generated.
I know a lot of people put in a lot of long hours to make this series happen, and it's quite possible that the ensuing episodes will be different, but the opening hour of Legends of Jazz doesn't do anything whatsoever to make jazz relevant to the 21st century. If anything, it cements a sort of well-preserved fossilization that will distance more newcomers than it will attract.
At this point in history, jazz needs to be presented as the dynamic, diverse, and vibrant thing it is. It needs to come across as exciting. If someone like me who's already deep into the musicdoesn't feel his pulse rise at least a little bit when watching these people talk and perform, that doesn't bode well for the public in general.
For more information, visit Legends of Jazz on the web.
Production notes: Legends of Jazz, produced in HDTV and Dolby Surround 5.1 audio, will air this fall on PBS television. The hour-long debut is scheduled for June 16, 2005. The series is co-produced by LRSmedia and WTTW National Productions (a Chicago PBS affiliate). Other partners include the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE), Jazz Alliance International (JAI), and Verizon.