Commentary © James A. Harrod, Copyright Protected; All Rights Reserved
STARS OF JAZZ premiered on local Los Angeles television, channel 7 KABC, on June 25, 1956. It was a half hour show that aired at 10:30 PM on Monday nights following Lawrence Welk's New Faces, also an American Broadcasting Company program.
Several employees at ABC including producers, writers, and technical staff were jazz fans and had been petitioning the station’s executive in charge of programming, Selig J. Seligman, to develop and present a show devoted to jazz. He finally relented and in the spring of 1956 gave Peter Robinson and Jimmie Baker, the producers who would shepherd the show, a green light to proceed. He told them there was no budget for the show but they could have dead studio time and a bare bones staff, no frills. They would have to stick to musician scale, write their own material, scrap together their stage sets, and they could produce four shows.
This article from the December 1958 issue of Metronome magazine provides the background on the genesis of Stars of Jazz.
“Stars of Jazz can't possibly last," a rival Hollywood TV station program director told me just two years ago. "It's a beautifully produced show, but it'll be forced off the air in a few weeks. Jazz just hasn't a broad enough appeal to sustain a regular television program."
By combining art with artifice and enthusiasm with energy ABC-TV program director Pete Robinson and producer Jimmie Baker confounded the experts. One month later Stars of Jazz got a sponsor. Twelve months later Stars of Jazz won the local Emmy award. Twenty four months later Stars of Jazz attained network status.
"We started Stars of Jazz, in June 1956, on four week's trial," Baker recalls. "At the end of three weeks, there was no sponsor. We were desperate.
"Then Pete (Robinson) had an idea. He got hold of 200 copies of Woody Woodward's Jazz Americana book. On the following week's program, narrator Bobby Troup casually offered the books 'for free' to the first 200 writing in. In two days we had almost 8,000 letters. The KABC salesman took the mailbag to Budweiser who bought the show."
Popular, personable Jimmie Baker was in show business as a tap dancer, at the age of 12.
"And I had my first dance band in high school," he proudly remembers.
Jimmie started his musical career as a drummer. However, he soon gave up being active percussion-wise to front his own bands at the universities of Tulsa, Arkansas and Oklahoma State. Drafted in 1942, he led The Men of the Air throughout the United States and Europe.
After the war a new civilian Jimmie Baker Orchestra came into being and was book solidly, by MCA, for two years. The eight brass, five saxes, four rhythm, two vocalist aggregation was a top money maker on one nighters.
The style of the band?
"It was a cross between Boyd Raeburn and Stan Kenton," Jimmie says.
Jimmie broke up the band in 1949 to go into radio and television with the American Broadcasting Company. It was there that he met fellow jazz enthusiast Pete Robinson. Musician-comedian-writer and, later, program director Robinson had played bass at college and in the army. Plans were laid for a jazz show, but it took Robinson and Baker six years to make Stars of Jazz a reality.
Well known TV director Norman Abbott set the basic format.
"It was Norman's idea to shoot it as we do — with the low key lighting," Jimmie Baker informed me.
Most difficult task, at the outset, was to determine the best narrator for the show.
"We auditioned nearly every one in jazz here," Baker advised. "We then brought a few people back again — like Shelly Manne, Dick Bock, Howard Rumsey and Bobby Troup. The final choice, as you know, was Bobby Troup."
Initial criticism notwithstanding, it's generally conceeded now that Troup was the ideal choice. Bobby combines efficiency with charm and enthusiasm, is a relaxed, ingratiating personality has been a big factor in the continued commercial success of the show.
"All the technical staff have a musical background, including the cameramen," Baker proudly explains. "The cameramen have complete freedom in posing their shots.
"Then, too, the sound is, of course, of primary importance," Baker declares. "We have the greatest with Chuck Lewis in charge."
Tom Burroughs the assistant director and Gene Lukowski the technical director are both pianists. Hap Weyman is the current director. Executive director Pete Robinson and his, one-time comedian partner Bob Arbogast do the writing. Baker books all the talent and co-ordinates the whole show.
With his past bandleading experience, Jimmie Baker is expert in his handling of musicians. Dave Brubeck claimed that he'd never been on such a relaxed TV program. There's never a marker and never a full dress rehearsal.
"It would be a complete bomb if it was rehearsed like some network shows," Baker opines. "And, luckily, the sponsors never interfere or tell us what to do."
Stars of Jazz, as the first regular jazz TV program, has presented almost every name in jazz and gained unanimous approbation as a highly artistic production that is both educational and entertaining.
Of course, there have been some areas of criticism. For fairly obvious commercial and programming reasons every show features a singer. There are so very few jazz vocalists. Thus, many of the singers used have not been, in any sense, in the jazz vein. And just a few haven't been good singers in any vein.
Robinson and Baker continue to have their problems.
"I still don't have anything like an adequate budget," Jimmie told me," and there's nothing at all for sets. I just have to scrounge around the lot for what I can find.
At a suggestion of praise for the production, Robinson and Baker modestly affirm: "The main credit must go to the musicians."
However, Hollywood musicians and jazz enthusiasts are justly proud of these two gentlemen who, with their untiring efforts and talents, continue to present jazz regularly on TV in an intelligent, impressive and imaginative manner. Long may they reign!
© 1958, Metronome Magazine
Bobby Troup quickly settled into the ultimate hip relaxed host, the perfect emcee to introduce musicians and make them comfortable in front of the camera. Bobby spoke their language, he was a musician as well who led his own trio at a variety of nightclubs in Hollywood. Initial criticism pointed out his reliance on the teleprompter as his eyes swiveled from left to right on camera. Bobby soon overcame this and with an occasional ad lib delivered the script from memory.
This blog was going to provide details of all one hundred thirty shows that aired from June of 1956 through December of 1958. The research and work required to produce each post on this platform soon convinced me that the best way to document this series would be in a more permanent medium, a published book. My history of Stars of Jazz will be published in March or April from McFarland & Company, Inc. Thank you for viewing this blog over the years and find out the complete story behind the series in my book.
Commentary © James A. Harrod, Copyright Protected; All Rights Reserved