Touch That Dial

If you watched network television during the first few months of this year, you probably saw “Sparks,” the Apple commercial featuring a silhouetted Wynton Marsalis Quartet. And you no doubt did a double take—or if you’re like me, paused and rewound your digital cable to watch the 30-second spot again.

With sharp contrast and shifting blue hues, “Sparks” conveys all the cool of a Reid Miles album cover design. But it’s also a burst of kinetic energy: Marsalis struts, his band crackles and a handful of neohipsters move in time (with iPods at the ready, of course).

The ad has met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Mediaweek magazine called it one of the best spots of January. A month later, a message-board user at live.watchmactv.com named Jen Chan offered an even stronger endorsement: “i dun even like jazz and i like this song a whole lot, it makes me wanna dance to the commercial every time” [sic].

Why should such a fleeting performance pack so much power? It’s not just the artistry of Marsalis, though he does his usual impeccable job. The commercial, directed by music video auteur Mark Romanek, employs the framing, editing and production of Apple’s signature visual style. Instead of stalking trash-strewn streets, like Eminem in an iPod commercial from last year, Marsalis and his band inhabit an indeterminate space; it’s more an atmosphere than a setting. And that atmosphere is upbeat and inclusive, judging by the nameless dancer who joins Marsalis mid-chorus. As Arthur Knight once observed of the iconic jazz film Jammin’ the Blues, the segment “attempts to transform its viewers from outsiders to insiders, from voyeurs and eavesdroppers to acknowledged audience members and possible participants.” Add “consumers” to that last phrase, and we’re set.

Advertising, sadly, has been jazz’s only route to mainstream television exposure for ages. Especially in the last 25 years or so—since the world started hearing about America’s Classical Music—we’ve seen our (mostly fallen) heroes dragooned into pitches for sedans, credit cards and virtually any other product making a promise of luxury. (Even down-market luxury: A few years ago, K-Mart plugged its Martha Stewart Everyday line with John Coltrane’s recording of “My Favorite Things.”) What’s unusual about the Marsalis spot is that, along with the iPod, it’s ultimately selling the music. “Sparks” is an iTunes exclusive available for download, and it’s been getting more widespread attention than any Marsalis release in many a moon.

Selling the music, in quite another sense, is the explicit mission of Legends of Jazz, the PBS series hosted by pianist Ramsey Lewis that debuted in April. Proudly billed as “the first weekly network television jazz show in 40 years,” it conveys the achingly earnest tone of an evangelical enterprise; Lewis and his business partner, Larry Rosen, the former record executive who created and produces the show, both describe their baby as outreach.

Legends of Jazz may, in fact, have some success with the 40- to 60-year-old demographic it beseeches; refreshingly for jazz, the pace is brisk and production values are high. But with a compact half-hour format, the show allows for only so much musical depth. The complexity and subtlety that distinguish jazz at the highest level—well, that may just be too much to expect on TV these days, even from viewer-supported PBS.

Consider the plight of BET Jazz, the cable channel that has long functioned in the same capacity as, say, an alcoholic uncle: Its programming elicited sadness, mortification and pity, but at the end of the day, it was part of the family. On March 1, the channel reinvented itself as “BET J,” shuffling jazz into a rotation that now also includes R&B, neosoul and Caribbean music, along with euphemistically titled “lifestyle” components. “The ‘J’ in our new network name is now more indicative of the complete musical and cultural ‘Journey’ rather than only jazz,” explained Paxton Baker, executive vice president and general manager of BET Digital Networks, in a press release. He’s right, it’s a journey; for jazz fans, it’s an all-too-familiar march toward further marginalization. BET J, available on DIRECTV through its first satellite-TV carriage agreement, has been advertised and marketed with the tagline “Cool Like That,” which evokes a Top 20 crossover hit from 1993. If the Digable Planets reference seems a tad stale, console yourself with the fact that the network didn’t fall for a more honest slogan. “BET J: We Kicked the ‘Azz’ Out of Jazz,” perhaps. Or “Mediocrity: It’s Not Just for Jazz Anymore.”

The irony is that televised jazz should, in fact, show signs of interaction with the outside world. There’s no reason a jazz program has to adhere to the veneration of legends, an activity that edifies all involved but also gives off an odor of insularity. Jazz has always been a porous art, open to all manner of cultural noise; what would it take for a televised representation with the same expressive flexibility?

A miracle, I suppose.

Herbie Hancock took a stab at it on this year’s Grammy Awards telecast, but as on his album Possibilities (Hear/Vector), he was backing a singer on pop terms. (Thanks mainly to the singer, a glamorous and grown-up Christina Aguilera, it was a lot better than last year’s mash-up of the Foo Fighters and Chick Corea.) Late-night talk show bands are universally stocked with jazz musicians, but they’re usually reduced to glibness.

Probably the last instance of the kind of freewheeling but focused programming I have in mind was Night Music, an NBC experiment that aired all too briefly at the dawn of the ’90s. Produced by Hal Willner and gracefully hosted by alto saxophonist David Sanborn, it featured incredible and often inspired collisions; probably its most famous was Sonny Rollins with folk-rock troubadour Leonard Cohen and background vocals by Was (Not Was). Maybe it wasn’t Robert Herridge’s The Sound of Jazz or Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual. But it carved out its own space and just as effectively served the spirit of the age.

A show along those lines is well beyond the scope of Legends of Jazz and certainly outside the reach of BET J. But there’s still hope, sort of. As anyone who has surfed European satellite stations can tell you, there are hundreds of hours of gripping festival, concert and club footage yet unseen on U.S. airwaves, primarily for licensing reasons. I hesitate to call for any plan requiring the involvement of lawyers, but if someone could negotiate that morass—and if the artists could take the long view in terms of royalties and permissions—good things might come to life. And then the outreach would take care of itself. After all, there could be no better way to win new audiences than to show them the very best of what we’ve got.

Originally published in May 2006

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