In the creative arts, greatness does not lie in the impressiveness of one's tool box. Greatness, instead, is an affair of the heart -- and the soul.
Today, our materialistic and technology obsessed culture too often thinks greatness can be purchased . . . or, at least, manufactured if enough technological and computer wizardry is applied to the matter at hand.
A remarkable program that aired on CBS television 52 years ago this week belies that foolishness. The Sound of Jazz was broadcast in fuzzy black and white, using bulky equipment much less sophisticated than your kid's Flip video camera. Yet, more than a half century on, it is still regarded as one of the greatest musical programs ever -- a defining achievement of a very young medium that very much (still) was making stuff up as it went.
The program, part of CBS' Seven Lively Arts series of programs, featured probably the greatest collection of jazz and blues artists ever gotten into a TV studio. It saw the last ever collaboration of two old friends -- Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young -- who had grown far apart and, as a matter of fact, would both be dead inside of two years.
But on Dec. 8, 1957, magic happened one last time, bygones were bygones for just a moment, and the power of that moment -- a moment that went out live coast to coast on a Sunday afternoon -- brought a control room full of jazz mavens and TV engineers to tears. And the power of that moment, captured on a fuzzy, grainy kinescope, can take one's breath away over the span of decades and societal transformations.
Watch closely. Greatness isn't as common as people would have you believe.
NAT HENTOFF, the great jazz critic and one of the advisers who assembled the program, remembered it this way for National Public Radio:
Billie Holiday didn't actually write songs. She thought of a melody, and she hummed it, and then her piano player or somebody else would orchestrate it — or arrange it, rather. And as for lyrics, she would write those, but then she'd consult with somebody like Arthur Herzog, who was the co-writer on "Strange Fruit," and he would sort of shape it into a more singable form.
So the theme of the lyrics of "Fine and Mellow" was infidelity, and Billie knew a lot about that. I don't know how you put this. She had a poor choice of men, and that was one of the reasons, I think, that she could sing this song and a lot of other songs that had to do with dreams and aspirations and fantasies and romance when they turned bad. She was an expert at that.
What made this the climax of the show was this: She and Lester Young — she had given him his nickname, Prez, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show.
Lester was not feeling well. He was supposed to be in the big-band sequence, but he couldn't make it. I told him, "Look, in the Billie section," which was a small group. She was sitting on a stool surrounded by just a few musicians. I said, "You know, you don't have to just sit down and play."
When it came to his solo, in the middle of "Fine and Mellow," Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard.
Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, Herridge, the producer, had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving. I think for all the times she sang this song, on records and in night clubs, this was the performance that I think meant the most to her, and it came through on "The Sound of Jazz."
It is an important distinction, and it's one that actually might say a lot about who we are . . . and who we used to be.
And if one is tempted toward the position that the free market -- commercial interests -- in every case is the best way of fostering cultural and societal excellence . . . think again. And think on this, from the Dec. 23, 1957 edition of Time:
"The blues to me," said hard-luck Singer Billie Holiday sipping a cup of coffee, "are like being very sad, very sick—and again, like going to church and being very happy. We've got to do right by the blues on TV, because the blues deserve the best." At air time, Billie sat on top of a bare stool and cuddled up to an old jazz-cult favorite, Fine and Mellow ("My man don't love me, he shakes me awful mean"), and did just dandy by the blues. And, for the balance of CBS's one-hour The Sound of Jazz, the art got what it has so long deserved: a TV showcase uncluttered by the fuss and furbelows that burden most musical telecasts. In the murky, smoke-choked studio, more than two dozen of the best jazz vocalists and sidemen worked through eight of the best jazz numbers with the kind of love, wonder, almost mystical absorption they usually summon up in the most free-wheeling jam sessions.GREATNESS IS NOT a popularity contest. It is what it is, and profit is wholly unconcerned with quality, but instead with whatever folks will buy . . . for whatever reason.
Soon after the show, however. Seven Lively Arts's producers heard a long, sad note from CBS. In spite of some artistic successes after a faulty start, Arts had wooed no sponsors in five weeks. So CBS decreed that on Feb. 16—after only ten of its projected 22 shows, and a loss of $1,250,000—Arts will close shop. Executive Producer John Houseman blamed the lack of sponsors partly on the critics, added: "But if you fail when you're doing something that's fun and good, it doesn't matter."
We are called -- by a Savior, no less, who was murdered by popular demand -- to better than that. Enjoy the rest of the show.