Historical Essays
Your Subtitle text

"The Sound of Jazz": An Interactive Essay
Part 2
by Thomas Cunniffe

Go to Part 1

The mood changes completely for “Dickie’s Dream”, an up-tempo jam featuring solos by nearly every member of the orchestra. In order, the solos are by Basie, Webster, Benny Morton, Joe Wilder, Mulligan, Dickenson, Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Hawkins, Wells, Joe Newman and Basie. The Columbia recording is significantly less energetic than the broadcast version, and one suspects that as the show was proving to be an artistic triumph, the musicians became more enthusiastic as the broadcast progressed. There’s a lot of esprit de corps as the band cheers on Vic Dickenson, and whatever Billie Holiday whispered in Basie’s ear made him very happy. And just as Pee Wee Russell made a squeak part of his “Wild Man Blues” solo, listen to how Roy Eldridge makes his trademark squeals an integral part of his “Dickie’s Dream” solo (and later, how it enlivens his appearance on “Fine and Mellow”.)
After another commercial came the segment considered the finest part of “The Sound of Jazz”, Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow”. The entire performance is exquisite, with Billie in superb voice, and fine solos by all of the musicians. However, it was made especially memorable for the reunion of Billie and her favorite tenor man, Lester Young, both of whom would pass away within the next two years.  Nat Hentoff relates the moment:
About to sing, she was perched on a high stool, facing a semi-circle of musicians who were all standing. Except one, Lester Young. Prez (as Billie had named him long before) was sick. He had been so weak during the run-throughs that most of his solos during a previous segment with Basie’s band had been split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Now Prez was slumped in a chair, his eyes averted from Billie, whom he had not talked to for some time. Once they had been very close, and I didn’t know what discord had kept them estranged for so long, but throughout the rehearsals they had ignored each other.

Lady Day (as Prez had named her) began to sing, and in the darkened control room, the producer, director and the rest of the technicians leaned forward. The song, which Billie had written, was one of the few blues in her repertory. This time she was using it not to speak so much of trouble, but rather of the bittersweet triumph of having survived—with some kicks along the way. Despite the myth that, toward the end, Billie invariably sounded like a cracked husk of what she had been before, on this afternoon, she was in full control of the tart, penetrating, sinuously swinging instrument that was her voice.

It was time for Prez’s solo. Somehow he managed to stand up, and then he blew the sparest, purest blues chorus I have ever heard. Billie, smiling, nodding to the beat, looked into Prez’s eyes and he into hers. She was looking back, with the gentlest of regrets, at their past. Prez was remembering too. Whatever had blighted their relationship was forgotten in the communion of the music. Sitting in the control room, I felt tears, and saw tears on the faces of the others there, including Herridge.

Roy Eldridge’s contribution should not be overlooked. He had the last solo of the tune, and like the others, he was scheduled to play one chorus. But as he finished one chorus, he suddenly had the urge to do another. He hit the same high squeal as on “Dickie’s Dream” and launched into a second chorus. It was totally unexpected and it would have been lost if not for the keen eyes of Herridge and Smight.

In his recorded remarks, Jimmy Giuffre emphasized the importance of communication in his music. “The Train and the River” illustrates the concept perfectly, with Giuffre’s clarinet and saxophones, Jim Hall’s guitar and Jim Atlas’ bass constantly swapping roles between soloist and accompaniment. The camera work is astounding: the entire piece is captured in one unbroken shot, with the camera man moving in a slow circle around the trio. Alfred Hitchcock used this method in his 1948 film “Rope”, and his cameramen had to rehearse for several hours to get one good 10-minute take. That “The Sound of Jazz” cameraman (whomever he was) pulled this off on a live television broadcast is nothing short of miraculous.  

A typical jazz television show would end with an all-holds-barred jam session featuring the entire cast. Herridge avoided such a cacophonous finale, and offered a low-key chamber jam featuring the clarinets of Jimmy Giuffre and Pee Wee Russell. The two clarinetists communicated brilliantly with Giuffre staying in the chalumeau register and Russell playing above him. Russell had been stuck in Dixieland bands for years, and he longed to explore modern jazz. In 1956, he recorded a blues with Giuffre at Music Inn, and in succeeding years, his albums featured more sophisticated repertoire, culminating in performances of modern jazz classics with Monk and Henry “Red” Allen. The subtle improvised blues he performed with Giuffre on “The Sound of Jazz” was an important step in Russell’s eventual emergence as a unique musician who could improvise in several jazz styles. 

"The Sound of Jazz” received glowing reviews in the press, and enthusiastic mail from viewers. A woman from White Plains, New York wrote that seldom does one get the chance “to see real people doing something that really matters to them”. Eric Larrabee’s liner notes to the Columbia album state that “the best thing that ever happened to television happened on CBS between five and six on December 8, 1957” and that it obliterated all previous standards of comparison. “The Seven Lively Arts” went off the air shortly after “The Sound of Jazz”, but Herridge and his crew were given a new series, called “The Robert Herridge Theatre” which played from 1959 to 1961. For that series, Herridge produced two more jazz shows, “The Sound of Miles Davis”, recorded between the two sessions of “Kind of Blue”, and “Jazz From Sixty-One” featuring groups led by Ben Webster and Ahmad Jamal. Later, Herridge produced a now-lost program featuring Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, and eventually retired from television in 1966. He did one further jazz show, a 1981 tribute to Ellington on the PBS series, “Kennedy Center Tonight”. While the show was respectable, it beared little resemblance to Herridge’s earlier works. During the production of the show, jazz film collector David Chertok approached Herridge and said “I just want you to know that “The Sound of Jazz” was a landmark. It was the most incredible musical show ever done on television”. Herridge replied, “Thank you very much. How come I’m not working?” Herridge died of a heart attack later that year.

Few shows have followed in the wake of “The Sound of Jazz”. Timex’s series of “All-Star Jazz Shows” were inspired by the success of Herridge’s broadcast, but despite some memorable segments (including the only duet by Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie on the fourth show) the programs had too many musicians with not enough time to perform. Herridge’s most faithful followers were probably Art Ford and Ralph J. Gleason. Ford’s short-lived program “Jazz Party” featured informal jam sessions using many of the same musicians that had appeared on “The Sound of Jazz”. Unfortunately, Ford’s program, made for a station in Newark, New Jersey only appeared for about a half year. Gleason’s show “Jazz Casual” was shot in San Francisco and distributed on National Educational Television (the predecessor to PBS). The show featured artists for a half-hour of music, and Gleason interviewed most of the musicians without taking undue time away from the music. Gleason’s show had two runs, one in 1961-1963 and another in 1968. While Ford’s programs have not been issued on home video, the entire collection of Gleason’s show can be found here.

“The Sound of Jazz” has also been issued on home video. There are technical issues with some of the issues, including missing and misplaced tracks, and incorrect running speeds (The version used in this article correct all of the flaws). Yet, one compilation that includes the show offers an eternal tribute to Herridge and “The Sound of Jazz”. It’s title? “The Greatest Jazz Films Ever”.