- Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, Season One, Vol. One, and: Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, Season One, Vol. Two, and: Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, Showcase
The production of Legends of Jazz was trumpeted with great fanfare when it was announced. And when the completed product was ready to air on PBS, the media publicity machine was churned out to full crank with articles in all major media ( jazz journals, major metropolitan newspapers). The end result is now with us. Under consideration are the ﬁrst two volumes of the ﬁrst season, eight episodes of the full run of thirteen plus a showcase collection that contains "highlight performances." Each package comes with a DVD of four individual episodes as well as an accompanying CD that excerpts the musical performances of those episodes. Was the hype worth it? On the basis of these DVDs, the answer is a regrettable no. The end result is unambitious, unadventurous, underwhelming, and, frankly, dull.
Each episode has a theme (alto saxes, Latin jazz, singers, etc.) and a schematic. It opens with a brief, superﬁcial history of the particular theme in question. It usually takes less than a minute and covers only the surface aspects of the topic. It is also quite a slanted viewpoint of the genre. If one were to go by these histories, the only innovation to occur after the bebop revolution was fusion, which evolved into contemporary jazz, which happens to have its own episode. The inclusion of a contemporary jazz episode is questionable since most committed jazz fans ﬁnd that music to be a signiﬁcantly watered down version of the original. We will only mention that one of the producers of the show is Larry Rosen who was the "R" in GRP Records, one of the premier labels hawking contemporary jazz. The innovators of the '60s are barely mentioned. When talking of the evolution of the alto sax, the names of both Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton are not even mentioned, despite the fact that both made major contributions to the alto sax vocabulary. I could list countless examples of this type of egregious omission but will spare the reader. While one could excuse the producers of the show for exhibiting a little bias toward their own product, it should not be at the expense of writing more signiﬁcant contributors to the music out of the mix.
The history is followed by a sequence where host Ramsey Lewis introduces and interviews the guests. Lewis is a genial host but to say that these interviews sound scripted would be an understatement. In most cases, the banter is so stilted, the questions so inane, and the stories so overtold, that spontaneity seems precluded. After the interview, each guest gives a musical performance, usually a three-to ﬁve-minute sequence. After all the guests have performed, they are united for a group jam, another three- to ﬁve-minute segment, and then invited to play the show's theme song along with Ramsey Lewis over the closing credits. And then it is over. To quote the old Peggy Lee song, "is that all there is?"
And therein lies the major problem with this show. At a half hour, it is barely enough time to scratch the surface. The performances barely have enough time to breathe. Most solos are rote, at best. And sometimes the inclusion of a performance is mind-boggling. During the Golden Horns episode, trumpeter Clark Terry (an elder statesman on the horn), winds up performing his most commercially-viable piece, Mumbles, a mock-scat vocal tune that is an inconsequential bit of ﬂuff. He barely plays any trumpet on it at all! Considering this was an episode about the horn, and that a Terry trumpet solo would have been worthy of inclusion, the selection of this...