Sharp suits, thin ties and the coolest musicians on Earth: Jazz 625 is back!

It was a piece of black and white magic, a perfect fusion of sound and music boasting Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington – and lots of smoke. Can the landmark TV show now bewitch a new generation of fans?

The camera holds its close-up on the pianist’s hands, his long fingers adding delicate inner voicings to the familiar melody of Come Rain or Come Shine. Then, very slowly, the camera tracks along the player’s arms and up his body until it reaches his head, which is lowered far enough to be virtually parallel with the keyboard. Nothing is intrusive, nothing is hurried, everything is keyed to the mood of rapt intensity. Captured in black and white because that’s all there was, the shot perfectly complements this music, the jazz of the 1960s. It’s a rare example of television finding a visual language to match a sound.

Bill Evans was that pianist, and Jazz 625 was the programme. The hour of music he recorded for the BBC in London on that day in 1965 survives as a priceless document of one of the most influential jazz musicians of his era, a man whose singular vision played a key role in Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. And the series of which his trio’s performance was a part remains one of the few examples of televison and jazz coming together to create something that brought the best out of both.

Jazz 625 was devised as part of a package of programmes chosen to launch the BBC’s second channel in 1964. The enigmatic title was chosen to reflect the upgrade from the 405-line VHF signal to the 625 lines of UHF offered by the new channel - the high-definition TV of the time. Jazz was among the subjects thought to be culturally appropriate for such a venture, and Jazz 625 – like the parallel strands of Theatre 625 and Cinema 625 - was designed to express a higher purpose. As Nicolas Pillai wrote in his book Jazz As Visual Language: “Its spare, modernist visuals were emblematic of a reinvigorated, progressive BBC.”

Singular vision … Bill Evans in the BBC studio.
Singular vision … Bill Evans in the BBC studio. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

The series ran on BBC2 for two years, during which 83 half-hour programmes were devoted to the work of some of the music’s major figures. They included Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet (each of whom, like Evans, recorded enough for two programmes), Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Coleman Hawkins, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, as well as British musicians such as Tubby Hayes and Cleo Laine. To watch them now is to confirm that here was a way of broadcasting jazz without condescending to the audience or patronising the musicians. The 50-odd shows that have survived form a record not just of how the musicians sounded but of how they looked and behaved, and how they were appreciated by listeners whose opportunities to hear top American jazz artists were still severely restricted.

“The fact that it was on every week made it a regular feature of life, which was good for jazz,” says Val Wilmer, the writer and photographer who was present at many of the shows’ rehearsals. “It was a sign that the music was important.”

It still is, particularly since the emergence of a vibrant new London-based young jazz scene over the last couple of years. And on 3 May, as part of this year’s Cheltenham jazz festival, there will be a special homage to Jazz 625 in the form of a 90-minute programme broadcast live in black and white on BBC4, shot in a studio with an audience, a house band and guest musicians, interviews, and clips from the original series. The producer, Jez Nelson, promises that it will not be a pastiche but an attempt to honour the spirit of the original show.

New blood … Shirley Tetteh represents a British jazz revival.
New blood … Shirley Tetteh represents a British jazz revival. Photograph: Gomezde Villaboa

A look at the personnel of the live band – led by the adventurous young pianist and composer Robert Mitchell and including the guitarist Shirley Tetteh, a key figure of the new London scene – banishes any fear of a wallow in nostalgia. The guests will include two celebrated Americans, the saxophonist Joshua Redman and the singer Gregory Porter, while a specially shot sequence features the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts on drums in a quartet including the bassist Dave Green, his boyhood friend, who appeared on the programme in the days when black and white was not an aesthetic choice.

The programme will be fronted by Andi Oliver, once a singer with the jazz-influenced post-punk group Rip Rig & Panic and now the presenter of TV food shows. Her approach is likely to form a contrast with that of the original presenters, Steve Race and Humphrey Lyttelton, two men in suits and ties whose background as musicians and broadcasters reassured viewers who might have been frightened off by more modern forms of jazz.

Race, the original presenter, had studied at the Royal Academy of Music and formed a jazz band while serving with the RAF in the second world war. He composed a bebop-style theme tune to go along with a montage of portraits for the opening sequence of Jazz 625’s early episodes and introduced the performers in an affable but slightly schoolmasterish manner. “If you think of classical music as quiet and jazz as rowdy,” he told the audience while introducing the Modern Jazz Quartet, “then prepare for a pleasant surprise. The group you’re going to hear tonight has taken jazz and made it for the first time reflective, quiet and worth listening to with every fibre in the body.”

Taking a break … Duke Ellington and Orchestra at BBC TV Centre in 1966.
Taking a break … Duke Ellington and Orchestra at BBC TV Centre in 1966. Photograph: Val Wilmer

With Beatlemania at its height, he was willing to take a swipe at rock’n’roll while introducing the MJQ’s guest, the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida: “I don’t think any instrument has received quite such maltreatment in recent years, or perhaps ever, as the guitar – a once noble instrument now appropriated by almost any teenager who can learn three chords.”

Race was replaced by Lyttelton, an Old Etonian trumpeter and popular bandleader happy to adopt a less formal approach. When Humph wanted to have a dig at current trends, he did it with wit, calling Evans’s bassist, Chuck Israels, “a superb technician who handles the double bass as easily as if it were a guitar – which makes a nice change from guitarists who handle the guitar as if it were a submachine gun.”

Lyttelton’s arrival was accompanied by smarter graphics and an evolving visual style that seemed to take its cue from the black and white images of such noted jazz photographers as Herman Leonard and Francis Wolff. The musicians were grouped and framed to suggest the intimacy of a jazz club, with effective use of chiaroscuro lighting. No drinks were on view, although some of the musicians and many of the audience smoked during the performances (a cigar for the veteran stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe for his British bassist, Brian Brocklehurst).

Watch the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet on Jazz 625

The response of the musicians to the listeners’ decorous applause varied from Gillespie’s camp effusiveness - “I am eternally grateful for your boundless enthusiasm” – to Evans’s wintry smile and barely perceptible nod to an audience including Dad’s Army actor John Le Mesurier, a noted jazz fan, in the front row.

Today, one of the pleasures of watching the recordings on YouTube is the chance to see not just major figures from an era when most of the giants of jazz still walked among us but musicians whose reputations have grown in the meantime. One is the saxophonist John Gilmore, best known for his work with Sun Ra and seen here during a brief stint with the Jazz Messengers. Another is the pianist Kenny Barron, glimpsed as a youngster with Gillespie’s quintet and now an elder statesman.

The earliest programmes were recorded at the BBC’s own Television Centre and Television theatre – formerly the Shepherds Bush Empire – and the Marquee Club in Soho, where chairs were set up in rows on a floor that, on an ordinary night, would find fans crowding the stage to hear the Yardbirds or dancing to a trad band.

On target … Cannonball Adderley in 1964 with his quintet, featuring Joe Zawinul on piano.
On target … Cannonball Adderley in 1964 with his quintet, featuring Joe Zawinul on piano. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

The production values were consistently high - the sound was well balanced and the staging avoided the look of a proscenium-arch theatre – and the producer, Terry Henebery, who had come from BBC Radio’s Jazz Club, established a style that allowed the viewers to see as well as hear what the musicians were doing. Fast cutting and trick angles were not part of the show’s visual syntax, and the director always knew which of the musicians was taking a solo. Devices such as dissolves and cross-fades were used in sympathy with the flow of the music. If it was conservative by today’s standards, then it showed respect for the music and the people who were making and listening to it.

It was also as accurate a guide to the cool visual style of modern jazz as a Blue Note album cover: the majority of musicians favoured dark Italian suits with three-button jackets, white shirts and thin ties, with Thelonious Monk’s astrakhan hat a cherishable outlier. “That’s one of the things I liked about those guys,” Charlie Watts, always a snappy modernist dresser himself, says in an interview that will be part of the programme. “They looked so great when they played.” And still do.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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