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JAZZ

Convention Sounds A Battle Cry For Unity

October 25, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

NEW YORK — The recent sixth annual Jazz Times Magazine Convention was akin to a physical checkup--except that each of the 600 registered participants was at once a doctor and a patient. By the end of the convention, they had learned a great deal about one another's economic and artistic health.

The theme this year, detailed in an opening session by Jazz Times publisher Ira Sabin, was "Jazz and the Media: Past, Present and Future." Musicians, radio and TV programmers, managers, producers, record company executives, promotion men and women took part in lively, sometimes contentious panel discussions held here at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Billy Taylor, the keynote speaker, had some cogent comments on the relations between jazz and the media, particularly TV and radio. As a pianist, activist and TV personality (on CBS' "Sunday Morning" for almost six years), he has seen the problem from many sides.

"Those of us in the field," he said, "know what is important, but this convention is about getting the message beyond the field--whether it's the print media, the electronic media, whatever; it's about getting people to experience the kinds of things that get us excited--the passion of a particular style or group or artist.

"I've been fortunate that on 'Sunday Morning' my jazz subjects are given the same care and attention as any political or social presentation--thanks to the man who created the show, Shad Northshield, who happens to be a jazz fan. On too many other shows, jazz segments are emasculated and it's assumed they are of limited concern. We have known that millions of people are interested, and Sunday morning is not the likeliest time for this."

Taylor pointed out that jazz has had a roller-coaster life in both radio and TV. "Radio brought jazz into the mainstream of American consciousness in the 1920s and '30s; there were many live programs by people like Fats Waller and Art Tatum, as well as regular shows by Ellington and the other great bands. But as radio grew into a giant industry, everyone found ways to get around the FCC stipulation that programs must be in the public interest. Most jazz was relegated to less desirable times.

"When TV came along, people were saying 'How many ways can you photograph a jazz combo in a smoke-filled room?' Yet in the early years there were some excellent regular TV series on major stations, even on NBC and CBS. But TV too became economically powerful, and again jazz was pushed aside."

Frank Radice, the executive producer of "Showbiz Today" for Cable News Network, said: "The jazz community needs to build a publicity machine. At CNN, I get calls every 15 minutes from some rock 'n' roll publicist or record company; they send us such a barrage of information that I can't get away from them. That's the way it's got to work for jazz." (He did not mention that most jazz artists cannot afford a high-powered public relations representative.)

Two other points were made during a "Jazz on TV" panel. First, the "jazz-isn't-visual" theory can be dealt with, as so many pop artists already deal with it, by intelligently incorporating such elements as dancing into a presentation. Second, there should be jazz videos--developed, Taylor pointed out, along their own lines," as opposed to copying Michael Jackson's bag." Videos devoted to pure jazz are still all but nonexistent. As Radice observed: "I cannot afford to send out my camera crews to make them, so if an artist comes to me with a pre-taped video, I can combine it with an interview and give jazz some real exposure."

A panel discussion on "Jazz in Print Today" was enlivened by the presence of Dick Sudhalter, who has had parallel careers as a cornetist, author and journalist. In a bitingly critical analysis, he observed: "It's alarming that we've had a great number of books about jazz, with no coherent literary standard. (Albert Murray's) recent book on Count Basie, for example, didn't begin to penetrate its subject; the author did not deliver his mandate by getting beneath the surface of this pivotal figure in jazz history. The Buck Clayton biography was similarly superficial; his co-author seemed unwilling to push him onto a discussion of any depth."

Gary Giddins, jazz writer for the Village Voice, demurred: "The Basie book is masterful; the author had no mandate. Basie wanted to present himself as he felt he should be seen, and the writer obliged him."

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