Thursday, April 13, 2006

'Legends of Jazz' refrain: Bring back a beautiful genre

"If you're just cruising through channels, and you're not a jazz lover, and you stay there for a minute, we're going to grab you," promises host Ramsey Lewis.

Jazz has been missing from weekly network television for 40 years. A new PBS series is bringing it back.
On Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, premiering this month (check local station schedules for broadcast times), the affable pianist hopes to help restore the genre to mainstream popularity.

Lewis has hosted a widely syndicated radio show of the same name for the past five years, attracting 5 million to 8 million listeners each weekend.

The 13-week series features half-hour themed segments with Lewis interviewing a wide range of stellar musicians who play before a live studio audience. The show is produced by Chicago public television station WTTW11 and LRSmedia, which is a partnership of Lewis and music industry veterans Lee Rosenberg and Larry Rosen. It is shot in multi-camera high-definition TV with Dolby Surround audio.

Lewis is confident the music will win people over if it's made easily accessible.

"The format is not Jazz 101, and its not a documentary," Lewis says. "The conversation's enlightening and sometimes humorous. And the look is so beautiful if you're just cruising through channels, and you're not a jazz lover, and you stay there for a minute, we're going to grab you."

For jazz fans, it's a chance to see once-in-a-lifetime collaborations such as Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor on "The Piano Masters" segment or Phil Woods and David Sanborn on "The Altos"

A blend of veteran and rising stars are on the shows. "The Golden Horns" features trumpeters Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove and Chris Botti; "The Jazz Singers" has Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling.

The show was the brainchild of Lewis and Rosen, who along with pianist Dave Grusin in 1982 founded GRP Recordings. Lewis approached Rosen three years ago about finding ways to expand on his radio audience. Rosen said a TV show that was visually competitive with the likes of MTV could work.

Jazz was America's pop music for the first half of the 20th century, but with the ascendance of rock and roll in the mid-'60s, major advertisers began chasing the burgeoning youth market, and TV shows such as Oscar Brown Jr.'s Jazz Scene USA and Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual lost sponsorships almost overnight. The consolidation of the radio and record industries into a few large corporations with their emphasis on quick-profit hits further squeezed jazz.

But Lewis says the success of his radio show, as well as the proliferation of high school jazz bands and competitions and college degree programs, proves there is a large underserved market. Rosen says TV is the key to reaching them and expanding on that audience.

"You see what happened with Ken Burns' Jazz," Rosen says, referring to the 19-hour PBS documentary that aired in 2001. "Even though it was a historical piece, it generated excitement. When the record companies put out compilations with the Ken Burns brand on it, all of a sudden they sold way beyond what those compilations ever sold before.

"And then you have American Idol, where you have people who would probably never have been signed to record companies get all this exposure and go out and sell a million units."

The Legends of Jazz brand also will be used to sell CDs and DVDs; a website, www.legendsofjazz.net, promotes the discs and programming. This fall, Lewis will lead a multi-city Legends of Jazz tour.

By Steve Jones, USA TODAY

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