Johnny Carson and Jazz
The late and great Steve Allen, originator of the “Tonight Show” format, was well known as a jazz fan, friend to jazz musicians and a pretty decent jazz pianist. Few remember that Allen really went out on the television limb in the mid-fifties by booking folks like Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and many others.
Johnny Carson, who died at the age of 79, will be remembered as the quintessential talk show host, comic and interviewer, but Carson also continued Steve Allen’s legacy of using the power of television to further the cause of jazz. An amateur drummer since childhood, Carson was more than a fan. He supported the music and the musicians publicly and privately.
As one rather spectacular example, it was Johnny Carson who helped jazz drummer Buddy Rich become a star again, at a time when a 50-year-old Buddy Rich and big bands were considered old hat. Carson opened up his program to Buddy and Buddy’s new big band, beginning around 1966, and helped garner an entire new audience of all ages for “Buddy Rich: caustic comic and world’s greatest drummer.”
In 1956 Buddy was breaking in his solo act at Larry Potter's Supper Club on Ventura Blvd in the San Fernando Valley (LA).
The famed Pete Fountain and NBC staff drummer, Jack Sperling took Johnny Carson to the club, this was before his Tonight Show days and Carson was still a game show host. Of course, there were a bunch of drummers in the crowd. One night, the entire percussion section of the San Francisco Symphony drove down to see his act.