By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Legends of Jazz: the Jazz Masters"
9 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11
The producers of "Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" claim that their hourlong special — airing tonight and heralding a new half-hour series, "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis," starting in January — is the first jazz show on network television in 40 years.
The last one was the syndicated "Jazz Scene U.S.A.," hosted by Chicago's own soul-jazz master, the late Oscar Brown Jr. This new incarnation follows a similar interviews-and-performances format, and while it's wonderful and important to have a jazz showcase back on the public airwaves, this first "Legends of Jazz" outing looks as if its primary audience will be people old enough to remember "Jazz Scene U.S.A."
"Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" airs on PBS — and it's very PBS. It's reserved, stately and moving at the pace of peanut butter. Chicago-based jazz figurehead Ramsey Lewis hosts (and also will host the 13-episode series), leading soft-toned conversations with the guests, and is so genteel and pleasant as to almost disappear.
The special spotlights five pillars in the jazz community, each of them a current or previous recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts' Jazz Masters award: vocalist Nancy Wilson, saxophone player James Moody, singer Jon Hendricks, Latin jazz player Paquito D'Rivera and Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein. Each is the primary focus of conversation breaks between stellar performances from Wilson (an amazing reading of "God Bless the Child"), Moody, Hendricks and Rivera, and each of those conversations, while containing the occasional amusing story or fascinating tidbit (Moody's recollections are pretty interesting), still feels like having dinner with grandparents.
And that particular generational perspective is a valid point here, chiefly because after nearly an hour of remembering the good old days, "Legends of Jazz" tries to end on a positive, life-affirming note for jazz music by trotting out — squeeze Grandma's hand here — an actual young person! Who sings a jazz standard! And likes it! Renee Olstead sings "Taking a Chance on Love," and yes, she's an amazing talent — a high school sophomore, star of the CBS sitcom "Still Standing," and a sinusy voice like Diane Schuur's.
But a young girl singing old songs is hardly the salvation of jazz. A prop for its nostalgia, maybe, but if, as Moody says, shows like this will help "keep jazz alive," "Legends" should try to include today's more energetic expressions of jazz (try the Necks, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, heck, even Jamie Cullum). Otherwise, the youth they say is so important to the music's future will forever view jazz as a musty old PBS relic.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.