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For one night only: Jazz 625 on the BBC

The BBC's one-night-only revival of its landmark 1960s programme Jazz 625 comes at a great time for the genre, which has once again found a place in popular culture, according to the leader of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded exploration of jazz at the BBC.

“I think the motivation to bring back Jazz 625 comes from the fact that we are in a really exciting time for the music at the moment,” Says Dr Nicolas Pillai (Birmingham City University), who remade an episode of the programme in a modern digital TV studio as a practice-as-research output of his AHRC Research Leadership Fellowship.

“There is a big groundswell of interest right now that is led by some incredible young musicians, like Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings and Theon Cross.

“Jazz, once again, has the kind of crossover appeal it had in the 1960s.

Back then it wasn't seen as the kind of culturally elevated, concert hall music that it has been more recently. People like Dave Brubeck were big, big popular artists then who sold a lot of records.”

The new version of the programmeJazz 625 Live: For One Night Only will be broadcast live from the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on BBC Four at 9pm on 3 May 2019.

All images courtesy of the BBC.

The original programme was part of a package of high-end arts broadcasting intended to launch the BBC's second channel in 1964, and its name reflects the technical upgrade from a 405-line broadcast signal to the 625 lines of UHF.

The series ran for two years, and the 84 half-hour programmes remain some of the finest filmed performances by some of the genre's major stars, from Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck.

“There's something timely about the BBC's return to jazz at a time when popular music and jazz are once again having a conversation,” says Dr Pillai.

“In addition, I think this is a time when the BBC is trying to redefine what it is as a public service broadcaster and one of the ways that they can do this is by looking back at past successes. Jazz 625 is a brilliant example of the broadcaster as a champion of culture.”

But while Jazz 625 provided an opportunity for some of the best improvisational musicians to share their often incredible performances with a mass audience, it also drew criticism from those who felt it forced the genre to conform to the restrictions of mass culture.

However, Dr Pillai's research suggests that these seemingly binary positions were in fact an oversimplification of what was taking place. “One of the reasons the Jazz 625 was so successful was because of its sophisticated approached to putting jazz on TV,” he says.

“I'd go a far as to say that there is a level of improvisation within the technical crew on Jazz 625 that mirrors, and responds to, the improvisation of the musicians.

“I have interviewed many of the people involved in making the programme and the level of expertise, of craft, is quite astonishing.

“I'm not just talking about directors. I'm talking about camera operators, set designers, the whole crew. All of those roles contributed to what happened on screen. There was so much happening behind the camera that influenced what was happening in front of the camera.

“There was an unprecedented level of attention to getting jazz 'right'.”

According to the interviews conducted by Dr Pillai, when soundman Len Shorey was recording a performance by the Woody Herman Orchestra the musicians were so astonished by the quality that they remarked that even their albums didn't sound as good.

“The BBC TV guys were somehow surpassing the quality of commercial music studios,” says Dr Pillai.

Jazz 625 also helped jazz find its place at a time of changing tastes, when pop and beat music was becoming more and more popular. Not only did it memorialise many performances by the genre's greatest stars, it also brought jazz to a huge audience in the way that radio couldn't, and broadened its appeal in the process.

“Quite accidentally the programme also influenced subsequent generations of artists, because the recordings became a kind of archival learning resource,” says Dr Pillai.

“People like Courtney Pine talk about watching old shows in the 1980s and studying how musicians that he would have otherwise only heard on record actually held their instruments and played them.

“Now these performances are on YouTube they are easily available for another generation. It will be fascinating to see what effect this new incarnation of the programme has.

“It would be great to see Jazz 625 commissioned as a regular feature on the BBC's schedules and I’ve come to see as an experiment in broadcasting and an exploration of what jazz means at a particular time.

“Friday’s BBC4 programme is the next chapter – and a chance to see what jazz means today.”

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