Musical commentary: jazz, Ed Sullivan and television

By Stephen Proizer

These performances on The Ed Sullivan Show happened almost exclusively between 1957 and 1964 and that is no coincidence. They coincide with the only time frame where different styles of jazz have ever been shown significantly on television.

Sarah Vaughan performing “Poor Butterfly” in 1957 on The Ed Sullivan Show.

the EdSullivan Show, which took place from 1948 to 1971, has today become a nostalgic cultural reference. The program represents a time when Elvis and the Beatles captured our attention, before three television stations exploded into what has become a fractured media world. As part of the 22n/a Jazz Appreciation Month edition, the “Ed Sullivan Show Youtube Channel” airs 14 performances by jazz musicians that originally aired on the Sullivan Show. Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald are among the featured artists.

These Sullivan performances took place almost exclusively between 1957 and 1964 and this is no accident. They coincide with the only time frame where different styles of jazz have ever been shown significantly on television. It was the time of The sound of jazz, downright jazz, jazz stars, Timex Star Jazz Show and The subject is jazz. Events like trumpeter Clifford Brown appearing on the Sales Soupy program were not fantasies; they actually happened.

Jazz continued to have a television redoubt: late-night talk shows. Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop all presented great jazz ensembles and often booked jazz artists. These appearances could be seen as a reverence for sophistication, a grown-up hedge, if you will, against the onslaught of rock and roll. It also meant that any kind of musical guest could be booked – from lyric soprano to musical saw – and the accompaniment would still be solid. There was a musical transition period in television from the 90s marked by hybrid music on shows like Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and Arsenio Hall. I regard the 2015 passing of trumpeter Clark Terry, a mainstay of the Tonight Show Orchestra, as a symbolic marker of the end of the 60-year relationship between big band jazz and mainstream television.

One of the featured Ed Sullivan musical performances is a chronological outlier. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1971 performance, which turned out to be the last musical segment of the Sullivan show, was the result of a concerted effort to bring jazz back to television by a group called Jazz and People’s Movement (JPM ), founded by Church. Dozens of JPM attendees showed up at the taping of talk shows by Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, whistling, holding up signs denouncing their exclusion from the shows. This had some effect: Kirk negotiated to appear on the Sullivan Show with Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes. The band was supposed to play “Ma Cherie Amour”, but Kirk proclaimed “Real black music will be heard tonight!” and the band burst into a six-minute medley of three compositions, the centerpiece of which was Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song”.

Sullivan himself was stiff as a board, which in our age of media-smooth sweetness seems refreshing. He was a well-traveled, radio journalist and top syndicated entertainment columnist in New York City. Advertising agencies were the bridge between business and the media; they were the driving force behind television content until cable came of age. In 1948, Sullivan was approached by an executive named Marlo Lewis at the Blaine Thompson advertising agency with a concept for a television show. The idea was that Sullivan would host a variety show with something for everyone; essentially, vaudeville on TV.

Virtually every type of entertainment has appeared on the Sullivan Show — classical music, opera, popular music, songwriters, actors, ballet dancers, dramatic monologues and circus acts. A top-notch group of musicians, made up of members of the CBS Orchestra, backed the acts (including pianist Hank Jones and Chris Griffin, former lead trumpet player in the bands Harry James and Benny Goodman).

Sullivan was short-tempered and slow to forgive. He had several famous skirmishes with rambunctious guests like the Doors and the Rolling Stones. He had a racist incident with Bo Diddly. Overall though, he stood up for black acts and stood up to anyone who took issue with that effort — and his shaking hands with Nat King Cole on national television.

Persons who have acquired rights to The Ed Sullivan Show of the Sullivan family are Andrew and Josh Solt (SOFA Entertainment Inc.). Andrew Solt, CEO of SOFA, answered my question about why they went through the laborious and expensive process of acquiring the rights to Ed Sullivan’s material: …One day after licensing some footage of Elvis from his historic 1956 broadcasts, a discussion took place on new ways of presenting the library to the public. This brief discussion with Ed Sullivan’s family eventually led to an offer to acquire the library… It was a big risk at the time, but we felt that the cultural significance and depth of the archives of more of 1000 hours made it compelling… We felt that its growth potential could be substantial. It is a unique cultural asset…”

The bet seems to be paying off and SOFA productions is gaining momentum by partnering with major digital player Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) in the hope of making Ed Sullivan Show “a global brand.” Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and the Jackson 5 are more likely to achieve this than jazz programming, but jazz is in the game.

Jazz listeners looking in the rearview mirror at these historical artifacts might well wonder why jazz on television has quietly entered this good night. For me, the output doesn’t quite match. The data shows that jazz listeners are fairly well-off, well-educated, and racially mixed. Isn’t that a “desirable” demographic? From time to time, public television tries to broadcast jazz and in 2017 Quincy Jones launched QwestTV, with lots of jazz. According to Qwest’s financial statements, they are “an indirect wholly-owned subsidiary of Lumen Technologies, Inc” (a Fortune 500 company). I’m not sure what this legalese actually means, but it’s clear that deep pockets are a media and music entrepreneur’s best friend.

Hopefully the success of these performances from Sullivan will spark new energy and bring other players to the TV table. That we can now see Louis, Sarah, Basie and the rest is great, but it would be a welcome reverberation to this project to have the ability to connect to some of the creative and intense jazz activity going on right now .

Steve Provisor writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a jazz musician and blogger here.

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