Why Jazz on TV?

Last spring, while binge-watching the 1970s series, “Lou Grant,” I realized that the credit, “Music composed and conducted by Patrick Williams” referred to the same Patrick Williams who had performed at one of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s biannual festivals that year. My Google search led me to the artist’s website, which informed me that not only had Mr. Williams provided the theme music and score to the seminal series about journalists in Los Angeles, but had likewise created tuneful settings for many more of the great shows of my childhood, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Columbo,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Many West Coast jazz musicians of the 1950s-60s ended up working in film and television, having in their wheelhouse the skills and talent needed to compose, arrange, conduct, and most of all, play innovative new forms of music. Their residency in clubs like the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, Shelly’s Manne Hole, Zardi’s in Hollywood, and The Haig on Wilshire Boulevard gave them a natural showcase where film and TV personnel could hear their music and select these artists to write scores, arrange music, and even portray actual musicians, performing onscreen.

“Making Life Swing” is an attempt to collect the stories of those who are actively performing, writing, and even teaching the next generation of jazz artists. I am seeking to share various perspectives here, including the insights of collectors, fans, and family members of the artists. These stories seek to portray the people and processes that are an integral part of telling stories on television. In addition, they will also pay tribute to a genre of music that oddly is more appreciated more just about anywhere in the world except for the United States where it was born.

I borrowed “Making Life Swing” from an essay by Ralph Ellison, who before writing “Invisible Man” was a promising trumpet player and jazz critic. It’s a bit out of context, but these lines resonate, particularly today:

“Without the presence of Negro American style, our jokes, tall tales, even our sports would be lacking in the sudden turns, shocks and swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing. It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as “soul.” An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.”

I would like to propose that jazz, perhaps more than other genres of music, strives to make sense of that “creative struggle” as the one truly American art form where contributions were largely measured by what one brought to the table – or bandstand – rather than by skin color, background, or social class. If only everything else were held to such a standard – who knows how far we could all go?

As “Lou Grant” progressed through its five seasons from 1977 to 1982, the opening theme became more sophisticatedly layered. In my mind, it embodied the increasing complexity of reporting the news during a turbulent time in our history, a time full of social and political shifts that we still struggle to understand today.

While Ellison was specifically addressing race relations in his essay, one can apply these lines to the dualities of living as a practitioner of jazz. The transient work environment, grueling hours, and inadequate compensation still seem to be no match for the talent, dedication, and passion that is evident in the stories I present here. Within those stories will also be the incongruities of everyday life, personal relationships, moral dilemmas, and shimmering triumphs. These elements are all part of what makes a good story whether on the page or on the screen, and the stories gathered here represent a small but eloquent part of that process.


©MMXVII Joanie Harmon

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