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PBS Blows Jazz's Horn In 13-Part 'Legends' Series

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

For an art form so proudly and unmistakably American, jazz receives shabby treatment in its native land. Record sales are lousy, radio play is limited, and it's rarely on broadcast television.

Aside from Ken Burns's landmark 10-part documentary in 2001, jazz has had little non-cable presence since Johnny Carson retired from NBC in 1992, bringing down the curtain on Doc Severinsen and the "Tonight Show" band.

That's why expectations for a new PBS series, "Legends of Jazz," are so high. Originally scheduled to run last fall, then in January, the 13-week series premieres tonight, during Jazz Appreciation Month. The show is being heralded in musical circles as the long-awaited return of jazz to the entertainment mainstream. (It airs Fridays at 11:30 p.m. on Channel 26, and is scheduled to air on 230 stations.)

PBS might not be one of the Big Four, but "Legends" is being billed as the first network jazz series in more than 40 years ("Jazz Scene U.S.A.," a Steve Allen production, ran in the early 1960s).

In tonight's episode, host Ramsey Lewis chats with Clark Terry -- a veteran of the "Tonight Show" band, as it happens -- and a pair of younger trumpet players, Roy Hargrove and Chris Botti, in a forum meant to evoke the continuity of the jazz tradition.

Future episodes feature musicians linked by instrument (saxophonists, pianists, organists), musical style (blues, Brazilian jazz, classic American song) or happenstance (officially designated "jazz masters" by the National Endowment for the Arts).

Chicago's WTTW has produced the show in HDTV, with Dolby Surround audio, as well as smart photography, lighting and sets. "Legends of Jazz" has a nifty Web site, too, where CDs, DVDs and other spinoffs are for sale. If the show doesn't succeed, it won't be for lack of trying.

Each program opens with Lewis -- the pianist famous for his '60s soul-jazz hits "The In Crowd" and "Hang On, Sloopy" -- offering a brief historical overview, then settles into a talk-and-performance format that wraps up in less than 25 minutes.

For the most part, the guests and their musical choices are safely conservative, although that's not necessarily a complaint. If you're trying to reach an uncomprehending nation about jazz, it's probably wiser to start with Dave Brubeck and Benny Golson than with, say, Matthew Shipp and David Murray.

But including pop-jazz artists such as Botti, saxophonist David Sanborn and singer Al Jarreau -- and devoting an episode to contemporary jazz -- might be taking populism too far. To jazz purists, who are incensed at anything that compromises the historic integrity of the music, it's like inviting Danielle Steel to discuss the modern novel with Philip Roth.

Lewis proves to be an affable and efficient host, taking over a role once handled by Billy Taylor, who, in a passing of the tutelary torch, has a guest turn in the episode about jazz piano. But because of time constraints, and because Lewis seldom steps beyond the "Who were your influences?" line of questioning, the interviews rarely yield much substance. When a promising avenue of discussion opens, it's too often cut off to keep the show moving.

Still, there are some revealing segments, such as singer Kurt Elling's discussion of his vocalese arrangement of "She's Funny That Way." Elling explains that he wrote lyrics to fit the notes of a saxophone solo Lester Young played while backing Billie Holiday on the same song decades ago. The new lyrics maintain the tone of the original, while transforming it into something exciting and fresh. When Elling sings his brilliant reconstitution of the song, it might be the series's single most exhilarating moment.

Another highlight comes in the episode on Brazilian music, when Oscar Castro-Neves and Ivan Lins discuss their homeland and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim with unabashed love. Singer Jane Monheit, in the "American Songbook" program, explains more revealingly than most how she chooses her material: "I like songs that drive me crazy. I like songs that make me feel like I need to sing them. I like songs that make me start crying . . . or laughing."

Musically, the series provides a lot to enjoy. Smooth-jazzer Sanborn remembers enough of his bebop roots to play a rousing duet with alto saxophonist Phil Woods on Horace Silver's "SeƱor Blues." Monheit's performance of "I Should Care" is exquisite. And each episode ends with Lewis leading his guests in a new variation on the show's lively (and uncredited) theme song.

Back when pop culture still aspired to be grown up, jazz showed up on television fairly often. Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland featured it on their programs, and Ella Fitzgerald was a frequent guest on variety shows.

Whether this new series, faults and all, can draw new fans to jazz -- or be renewed for a second season -- is an open question.

Back in 1962, when Allen launched "Jazz Scene U.S.A." with host Oscar Brown Jr., jazz was still part of the nation's musical vernacular. Today, videos of the show are prized by collectors.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Allen's series was canceled after one season.

Legends of Jazz premieres tonight at 11:30 on Channel 26.

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