Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, Season One
Just to know that Legends of Jazz was the first national-network weekly TV series to focus on America’s homegrown music in 40 years was depressing, if not understandable. Not to take anything away from PBS, where the series debuted in June 2006, but landing NBC, ABC or CBS would really have been something to crow about. That the series aired on PBS may speak to jazz’s current popular rep of being a sort of musical math test; nevertheless, the non-jazz fan is precisely who host Ramsey Lewis and producer Larry Rosen set their sights on.
Season one of the series, now available as a weighty boxed set, for the most part delivered its promise to showcase diverse performers in peak form, from legends Dave Brubeck and Clark Terry, contemporary greats Roy Hargrove and Jane Monheit, and jazz-rock-pop masters David Sanborn and Lee Ritenour. Shows are broken into themes, such as The Altos, American Songbook and Contemporary Jazz. After a brief historical overview of the theme, there are interviews with the artists, performances and a final jam session where all gather to improvise with Lewis on the series’ theme song. Lewis’ interview questions are often too open-ended for thoughtful answers, but there are moments of humor and insight. During The Golden Horns episode, mega-seller Chris Botti praises his record label for letting him create the music he wants, saying to him, “And when the record is finished, come back and we’ll have a glass of wine and I’ll go promote it.” Hargrove slowly turns to Botti and asks, “What record company is that?”
The Legends of Jazz boxed set provides options-a-plenty. You can watch the entire 12-episode season in its entirety on four DVDs, all produced in High Definition with 5.1 Surround Sound. You can select only the performances and skip the interviews, or you can read interview highlights in the 224-page coffee table book. You can also just listen to all 49 performances—which are unfailingly joyful and swinging, melancholy, thoughtful, robust, intelligent and just plain grand, on four CDs. In addition to the artists already mentioned, there is Ray Barretto, Tony Bennett, Chick Corea, Robert Cray, Joey DeFancesco, George Duke, Kurt Elling, Benny Golson, Al Jarreau, Ivan Lins, Marcus Miller, Keb’ Mo’, Oscar Castro-Neves, Eddie Palmieri, John Pizzarelli, Chris Potter, Lonnie Smith, Marcus Strickland, Billy Taylor, Dave Valentin and Phil Woods.