These performances on The Ed Sullivan Show occurred almost exclusively between 1957 and 1964, and that’s not happenstance. They coincide with the only slice of time when different styles of jazz ever got a significant airing on television.
The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran from 1948 to 1971, has now become a nostalgic cultural touchstone. The program represents an era when Elvis and the Beatles riveted our attention, before three television channels exploded into what has become a fractured media world. As part of the 22nd edition of Jazz Appreciation month, the “Ed Sullivan Show Youtube channel” is streaming 14 performances by jazz musicians that originally aired on the Sullivan show. Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald are some of the featured artists.
These Sullivan performances occurred almost exclusively between 1957 and 1964, and that’s not happenstance. They coincide with the only slice of time when different styles of jazz ever got a significant airing on television. It was the era of The Sound of Jazz, Frankly Jazz, Stars of Jazz, Timex All-Star Jazz Show, and The Subject is Jazz. Events like trumpeter Clifford Brown appearing on the Soupy Sales program were not fantasies; they actually happened.
Jazz continued to have a redoubt on TV: late night talk shows. Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Joey Bishop all featured large jazz ensembles and often booked jazz performers. These appearances could be seen as a bow to sophistication, a grown-up’s hedge, if you will, against the onslaught of rock and roll. It also meant that any kind of musical guest could be booked, from operatic soprano to musical saw — and the accompaniment would always be solid. There was a transitional musical period on TV starting in the ’90’s marked by hybrid music on shows like Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and Arsenio Hall. I consider the 2015 passing of trumpeter Clark Terry, a stalwart of the Tonight Show Orchestra, as a symbolic marker of the end of the 60-year relationship between big band jazz and mainstream television.
One of the featured Ed Sullivan musical performances is a chronological outlier. The 1971 performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which turned out to be the final musical segment on the Sullivan show, was the result of a concerted effort to bring jazz back on TV by a group called the Jazz and People’s Movement (JPM), founded by Kirk. Scores of JPM participants would show up at the taping of the Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin talk shows, blowing whistles, holding up signs denouncing their exclusion from broadcasts. It had some effect: Kirk negotiated to appear on the Sullivan Show with Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus, and Roy Haynes. The group was supposed to play “Ma Cherie Amour,” but Kirk proclaimed “True Black music will be heard tonight!” and the group broke into a six-minute medley of three compositions, the centerpiece of which was Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song.”
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