CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

A Look Back at TV’s Stars of Jazz

Author remembers a trailblazing treasure of the 1950s small screen

L to R: Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Claude Williamson, and Chuck Flores during a Stars of Jazz rehearsal break. © Dave Boyd
L to R: Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Claude Williamson, and Chuck Flores during a Stars of Jazz rehearsal break. (photo: © Dave Boyd)

One of the most innovative educational television series presenting jazz did not debut, as one might guess, on PBS or its precursor, National Educational Television. Rather, it emanated from KABC, a commercial station broadcasting in Los Angeles. Stars of Jazz was a weekly 30-minute series that ran for 130 episodes from June of 1956 through December of 1958. Artists appearing on the show ran the gamut of jazz’s history, from Dixieland and swing through bebop and modern. The first episode featured the Stan Getz Quartet opposite Kid Ory and his Creole Jazz Band. The second featured Erroll Garner’s trio and singer Faith Winthrop, and the show would follow that basic single-combo-plus-vocalist format for the rest of its run. In the eighth episode, Billie Holiday was the vocalist.

Virtually the entire crew working Stars of Jazz were jazz fans. Peter Robinson, KABC’s program director, had put in time as a jazz disc jockey; Jimmie Baker, the show’s producer, had fronted his own touring band, Jimmie Baker and His Collegians, for several years. Together, Baker and Robinson had broadcast radio remotes from the major ballrooms in Los Angeles featuring big bands in the early ’50s. That experience provided the motivation for them to approach the station manager, Selig J. Seligman, to do a live TV series devoted to the presentation of jazz artists. Seligman was not a jazz fan and turned them down repeatedly. They enlisted other jazz zealots on KABC’s staff, including Stars of Jazz’s initial director Norman Abbott, to support their cause. Seligman finally relented and gave them a green light to produce four shows. They had to use studio downtime, scrape together stage sets, and pay minimum AFM musician scale, all with no budget. If they did not attract a sponsor by the fourth show, it would be canceled.

The production team quickly assembled a framework for the series. Monday night at 10:30 was selected because there was dead time in the studio following the weekly broadcast of Welk’s New Faces (a spinoff of The Lawrence Welk Show) and the cameramen who worked that program would be available. Also, L.A. jazz clubs observed Mondays as their off nights. Baker persuaded club owners to foot the bill for AFM scale wages in return for on-air promotion of their clubs.

Abbott’s low-key lighting approach to Stars of Jazz was a perfect solution to the bare-bones ultimatum from Seligman. Vince Cilurzo, a lighting technician at KABC, had recently patented a projection system that produced varied shapes of light on surfaces. Cutting patterns out of heavy aluminum or tin sheets with a knife, he would then place the resulting screen in front of a Fresnel lens, changing the light focus to get a harder or softer look to the abstract pattern that was projected on a blank scrim and experimenting with the angle and light placement to elongate or stretch the effect. Essentially, Cilurzo pioneered the use of kooks—short for kookalorises, basically screens used to cast shadows—on TV, and they became the hallmark of the program. (The abstract lighting also provided the perfect backdrop for still photographers who attended the shows, most notably Ray Avery.)

L.A. viewing choices on a Monday night in 1957 (Stars of Jazz at upper right)
L.A. viewing choices on a Monday night in 1957 (Stars of Jazz at upper right). (photo: Courtesy of James A. Harrod)

One major hurdle facing the producers was finding the perfect host. All agreed that the presenter had to be knowledgeable about jazz. This led them to interview some obvious choices, among them critic Leonard Feather, record company executives Les Koenig and Dick Bock, and disc jockeys Sleepy Stein, Gene Norman, and Don Clark. None quite fit what they were seeking. The next group invited to audition were jazz musicians; out of a dozen selected for interviews, pianist and singer Bobby Troup made the final cut. His previous TV experience (he’d been a regular on the Musical Chairs program for two-and-a-half years), clean-cut looks, easygoing temperament, self-effacing personality, and quick wit made him an excellent match for the guests.

Bob Arbogast’s scripts included brief biographical details of the artists appearing on each show. Explanations of the type of jazz being offered were delivered in layman’s terms to enhance viewers’ appreciation and understanding. The producers introduced unusual ways to demonstrate the various elements of jazz. The pulse or beat of the music was visually presented using an oscilloscope with the waveform superimposed over each musician’s instrument; when the camera focused on a bass player, the undulating waveform aligned vertically with the strings of the bass. Several shows also featured experimental films by Charles and Ray Eames to visualize in form and motion the sound of jazz.

The cover of Stars of Jazz: A Complete History of the Innovative Television Series, 1956-1958 (McFarland) by James A. Harrod
The cover of Stars of Jazz: A Complete History of the Innovative Television Series, 1956-1958 (McFarland) by James A. Harrod

Stars of Jazz garnered a handful of awards, including an Emmy and a DownBeat award, along with great critical praise from those in the media who were fortunate enough to be able to view the series. So why does it hold a relatively obscure place in the annals of jazz on TV? There are several reasons. First, from its June 1956 premiere until April 1958, it remained a local-only broadcast on L.A.’s Channel 7. Second, when it was finally granted full coast-to-coast broadcast on ABC, only 29 episodes were recorded for distribution before the network heads in New York canceled the show. Those episodes had been bounced around various different time slots and days of broadcast, factors ensuring its demise. Poor ratings were the excuse, along with failure to secure a sponsor.

Last and most important, many of the programs simply vanished. All the episodes of Stars of Jazz were filmed as black-and-white kinescopes, with a 16mm or 35mm film camera set up in front of a TV monitor to record the show. Years after the series ended, Jimmie Baker learned that ABC was discarding the kinescopes. By the time he discovered this, 65 percent of the episodes had already been lost, including appearances by Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Buddy DeFranco, Barney Kessel, Cannonball Adderley, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Lennie Niehaus, Shorty Rogers, Cal Tjader, Oscar Peterson, Warne Marsh, Herbie Mann, Paul Bley, June Christy, Julie London, Anita O’Day, Chris Connor, Abbey Lincoln, Irene Kral, and Carmen McRae.

Baker was able to rescue the remaining kinescopes, including Billie Holiday’s appearance, and placed them with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, where they reside today. Many episodes have been restored by the university and are regularly screened as part of UCLA’s outreach to showcase its holdings.