JJ 06/89: Tenors on telly

Steve Voce on a Ben Webster documentary, yearning for more Jazz 625 and enjoying Dave Gelly on Getz. Part of the column It Don't Mean A Thing, first published in Jazz Journal, June 1989


The 90-minute programme on Ben Webster presented by Channel 4 was one of the best in the genre. It made excellent use of previous feature material and also of more obscure material from American television. Chelsea Bridge came from a 15-minute 1961 programme which also featured Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, Jo Jones and Ahmed Jamal.

The mandatory shot of the bridge was a bit superfluous, for Billy Strayhorn had the more romantic Waterloo Bridge in mind when he wrote the piece and simply confused the names. This seems to be a fault in the American psyche, vide the geezer that transported London Bridge across the Atlantic to Arizona thinking that he had bought Tower Bridge.

John Jeremy’s portrait was quite unforgettable and, although Ben spent much time over here in his later years, one hadn’t realised what a melancholy and solitary chap he had become. Joe Zawinul’s account of the time when he shared an apartment with Ben and had Hawk as a neighbour was particularly revealing.

In celebration of BBC2 Andy Sheppard introduced a short compilation from Jazz 625s plus a lengthy extract from an Ellington programme which was not from the series. However the welcome three numbers from Duke were probably produced by Terry Henebery, who remains the best and most dedicated television producer jazz ever had. His Jazz 625 was unique in the excellence of its treatment of the music. Sound balances, camera work and content have never been bettered since and Terry’s brave eschewing of smart angles and concentration simply on presenting the jazz as it was are an example to his current successors.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the whole series again? While there were some, like the Parker tribute with Stitt and Co., which didn’t reach the heights of others, there are still many unrepeated classics, notably the Tubby Hayes big-band set which included his unmatchable Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most along with other numbers by one of our best ever big bands.

Another nice essay with familiar music but predictably sensitive assessment and comments was Dave Gelly’s five-part series on Stan Getz for Radio Three. As I write the same channel is presenting the Mulligan Concert Band in a two-hour concert. This is predictably outstanding, with an interesting bonus in the return to the scene of Seldon Powell as tenor soloist with Mulligan’s young (or youngish) men.