PREVIEW: A Ton of Jazz: America’s Coolest Generation on British TV – (BFI Southbank, Sept-Oct ’17)

Screen shot of Dizzy Gillespie on Jazz625 in 1965
(to be screened at NFT3, 12 Sept)
Photo courtesy of BFI

As the BFI begins a season of jazz screenings under the heading A Ton of Jazz: America’s Coolest Generation, Nicolas Pillai remembers our rich television heritage:

The Dizzy Gillespie Quintet’s 1965 appearance on Jazz 625 is probably my favourite half-hour of television. I’ve taught it to undergraduates, shown it to friends and now I’m looking forward to seeing it on a big screen at BFI Southbank as part of their A Ton of Jazz season. Curated by Dick Fiddy, the events focus on five key performers: Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich and Lena Horne.

Well-known favourites jostle with rarities in this attractive programme: Ella with the Oscar Peterson Trio at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (1964, ITV) and ten years later at Ronnie Scott’s (BBC Omnibus 1974); Dizzy in that beloved Jazz 625 and in a 1975 appearance at Ronnie Scott’s; Monk on Jazz 625; Rich on BBC and ITV in 1974 and 1987 (the latter directed by Terry Henebery, producer of so much BBC jazz telly in the 1960s); and, most intriguingly, a selection of extracts compiled by Fiddy of Lena Horne, with an introduction by noted historian Stephen Bourne.

These TV programmes did more than just popularise jazz musicians to a general audience. For the BBC, jazz television played a key role in a new conception of public service television, following the Pilkington Report and the institution of BBC2. In the 1960s, after a long Musicians’ Union ban on US players, programmes like Jazz 625allowed British audiences to see American masters they’d only heard before or to sample the British cutting-edge without having to stray into the clubs of Soho.

Alongside the musicians, we should remember the expertise, commitment and inspiration of the programme-makers. For many, this was just a job of work but one they approached with skill and invention. A visit to the BBC Written Archive shows how camera scripts were meticulously drawn up to match each bar of music, with camera movement and lighting effects designed to expressively represent the music.

When I asked curator Dick Fiddy about the place of jazz in British arts television, he noted that the examples he had chosen all created ‘a visual style to complement the music on offer.’ While much jazz television during the 1960s was wiped, we’re lucky that these programmes have survived, a point which Fiddy also expanded upon: ‘Using this unique five-way centenary as a focus enables us to look back on some terrific talents expertly embraced by small screen and – thankfully – preserved for posterity. Lightning caught in a bottle.’

If these screenings are successful, the BFI is likely to programme more, delving further into the archive.

And I’ll be there, settling in to watch Dizzy Gillespie once more and no doubt discovering some new favourites along the way.

Dr Nicolas Pillai (School of Media, BCU) leads a research project entitled ‘Jazz on BBC-TV 1960-1969’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He is interested to hear from  people involved in the production of jazz television, or who attended any of the recording sessions: nicolas.pillai@bcu.ac.uk


Saturday 09 September 2017 18:20 – NFT1
Ella Fitzgerald

Tuesday 12 September 2017 20:30 – NFT3
Dizzy Gillespie

Wednesday 20 September 2017 18:35 – NFT3
Thelonious Monk

Saturday 30 September 2017 20:40 – NFT2
Buddy Rich

Tuesday 03 October 2017 18:20 – NFT2
Lena Horne + intro by author and historian Stephen Bourne

Full programme of events at the BFI website

Categories: miscellaneous

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