Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sound of Jazz

In 1957, CBS broadcast a series focusing on the performing arts -- it was called The Seven Lively Arts and produced by John Houseman.  In December of that year, an episode called The Sound of Jazz aired.  You can watch it on You-Tube.  Nat Hentoff was one of the musical advisors for the program and the show is exemplary.  (I read about the show and its availability on You-Tube in one of the obituaries for Hentoff -- he died this last week.) Commencing with a big band piece by Count Basie, the show tours various styles of jazz, offering complete musical performances with very brief, half-stammered interludes of commentary.  The program's director, Jack Smight, imposed an improvisatorial, fluid style on the way in which the performances are filmed -- the show seems to be shot in something like a continuous take in a large studio where the various ensembles are stationed side-by-side or in front (or behind one another).  The skeleton of the program, its structure, is revealed by an opening pan across a blackboard in which the musicians are listed in the order of their performances -- the shot serves as something like a printed program to the concert.  A lisping, somewhat inarticulate emcee moves between the ensembles, reading from a clipboard that apparently recapitulates the information shown on the blackboard at the beginning of the show.  Although the film is designed to give the illusion of a continuous shot, the camera gracefully tracking from one musical group to another without interruption, the show also features many close-up inserted into the dollying master-shot and many of those images are profoundly moving.  The lighting is haphazard at times and the show is preserved on a murky black-and-white video tape that's verges on the illegible.  Somehow, this adds to the Orphic effect -- the musicians are like shades, ghosts summoned from the Underworld to sojourn for us awhile in this dim and gloomy soundstage, fenced in by cameras, and subject to the rules written on the black- and clipboard.  If you turn around to look at the way that you have come, you will find yourself sliding once more back into the impenetrable and soundless darkness.

Hentoff's taste was impeccable and, as far as I can tell, every musician and ensemble performs flawlessly.  During the Basie overture, the trumpets and trombones catch the light in such a way as to flare violently on screen, then, reverting into ashes and cinder.  For me, the hour-long concert's highlight is Lester Young playing with Billy Holiday on her song "Fine and Mellow."  Young was very ill and Holiday looks immeasurably weary.  She is tiny, sitting on a round stool in the circle of musicians.  During the solos, the camera cuts to close-ups of Holiday listening -- she has an odd Sybilline expression on her face and her eyes glitter in a way that seems strangely unhealthy:  too much fire is blazing there for such a small, feeble-looking person.  As the musicians play (particularly Lester Young), she nods and her mask-like features open into a faint smile:  she seems infinitely intelligent, canny, a woman sensing that there is a thread in the music played to her that might save her life, if only she could grasp that thread and hold onto it.  The trumpeter hits a note so high that there is no name for it -- an effect that would be freakish and off-putting except for the melancholy context.  Holiday's voice is a little ravaged -- it has a grain and grit to it, but her pitch is completely pure and her phrasing impeccable.  "Love is like a faucet," she says, "it's turns off and on."  Then, she says at the song's end the faucet is turned off and "it's gone" -- something infinitely irrevocable in that declaration. The musicians around her wear big, boxy suits and also wear their homburg hats on their heads as they play.  I think you could watch Holiday and Lester Young for hours and always hear (and see) something new in that performance.    Other performers on the TV broadcast are Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Rushing, and Red Allen (among others).

No comments:

Post a Comment