JAZZ PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR
My Excelsior, You Fathead! book part titled “The Great Burgeoning” begins with the chapter titled Night People and All That Jazz. “All that jazz” is an expression meaning, in a sense, all similar kinds of stuff. But it also refers, in the chapter, to the many relationships Jean Shepherd had to jazz in those days. Besides the probable influence of jazz on Shepherd’s improvisatory monologs, I discuss the connections Shep had to the jazz world as far as I knew about them while writing the book.
As I noted, jazz was an especially important part of life in New York City when Shepherd arrived in 1955. He had played jazz records on his previous programs and would play more in his early New York radio days. His 1956 full-length record Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown with Jazz Music consists of Jazz pieces and his improvised short bits of monolog. [images from http://www.flicklives.com]
In 1957 he recorded his improvisation of “The Clown” with the Charles Mingus group and he was emcee for several important jazz concerts including the late-night one at Loew’s Sheridan staring Billie Holiday on June 15.
More connections to the jazz world continue to emerge. Program notes and ads in the New York Times showed “Jazz Under the Stars” at the Wollman Memorial Theatre in Central Park for fifteen consecutive days, from July 28 through August 11, 1957, with such stars as Billie Holiday, Chris Connor, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Dinah Washington, Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck, and Maynard Ferguson, with commentary by Jean Shepherd and Al “Jazzbo” Collins. A Times article on September 27, 1958 described the midnight premier at Loew’s Sheridan of Alonzo Levister’s jazz opera, Blues in the Subway, and other jazz performances, with Shepherd as master of ceremonies.
Two short sets of articles by Shepherd have been discovered from this period, reconfirming the strong jazz connection Shepherd had in the 1950s. Audio magazine was mainly devoted to electronics and wiring diagrams, but Shepherd wrote four jazz articles for them in 1956. In the jazz magazine, Metronome, five previously unknown humor pieces by Shepherd from 1960 and two comments about him appeared. Shepherd was described as the magazine’s “humor editor,” and for their 1959 yearbook issue, they described him as a “philosopher, a gifted impromptu monologist, a social satirist, an iconoclast, a comic, a jazz soloist whose words were his instruments,” and named him “Jazz Personality of the Year.” And the first issue of the magazine Jazz Today, October 1956, commented that “In essence Jean is a jazzman in his own right, the only difference being that he improvises not on a musical instrument, but verbally; not on chords and melodic lines, but on thoughts, ideas, patterns of social behavior as they have affected his personal experience….” Wow, in those days the guy was ubiquitous and on top of the jazz world!
I’ve suggested that we youngsters didn’t have the sophisticated taste to appreciate the more complex jazz of Parker, Miles Davis, and their peers, and that the shorter, forty-five-minute broadcasts did not comfortably accommodate a more laid-back style and jazzier jazz. While Shepherd was gathering to himself that younger, less hip audience, before completely switching to the shorter shows, he did a few extended fictional riffs referred to as “Listen Baby” routines, in which we hear his voice as he talks to his wife or, more probably, his significant other. Although he would no longer be playing the hipper jazz, the unannounced background music to these “Listen Baby” segments and to some other of his riffs during this period were, indeed, of that hip jazz. I suggest that he chose for these particular riffs, that form of jazz—such an important part of himself—in order to sneak it in for maybe the last times before focusing almost exclusively on Dixie and other more easily understood styles. I include myself among those who did not and do not understand the Parker/Davis/Hawkins/Gillespie forms of jazz. I’ve tried listening and I’ve read books about it, but I still don’t get it. I consider my inherent limitations to blame.
I made this chart a few years ago to visualize for myself–and then for all other interested parties–just how Shepherd’s broadcasts over time, changed from a modern jazz presentation, to a more easily appreciated kind of music to accommodate a less sophisticated sensibility.
With all that, a recently rebroadcast tape adds more enigma to the subject of why Shepherd abandoned this strong involvement in the jazz world after he gained so many more young listeners earlier in the evenings. In this program, inspired by a “Harlem Day” tribute on WOR, Shepherd speaks about how important jazz is to Harlem and reminisces about his professional involvement in the jazz world of the late 1950s:
A few years ago I was deeply involved in jazz—and in fact in my private life I still am. You never get rid of it. I mean, once you’ve been bitten, man, it’s just—no way! And I used to work in jazz a great deal. As some of you may remember, I did a lot of concerts in Central Park. [Underline emphasis by me. He names many major performers he worked with and mentions the Loew’s Theater late-night concert featuring Billie Holiday.] (November 23, 1971)
This program is an incomplete revelation to Sherlock Gene for several reasons. More than a decade after Shepherd’s intense public involvement in jazz, he takes the opportunity of “Harlem Day” to seriously break his standard broadcast format in order to express this. He admits that he retains his strong interest in jazz; he does not explain why his interest has diminished to just private but not public manifestations; he plays not just snippets but complete jazz recordings, naming the performers and commenting on the pieces, just like a knowledgeable disc jockey: Duke Ellington’s “Rainy Nights;” Fats Waller; Duke Ellington doing “Take the ’A’ Train;” Billie Holiday singing “Easy Living.” Upon ending, he substitutes a recording of Fletcher Henderson jazz for his “Bahn Frei” theme music—a breach of implied contract with his listeners which until now he rarely transgressed in twenty-one years of programs. Seldom have I been aware of his most private concerns so obviously intruding upon his public persona. All unexplained but very serious business in the world of Jean Shepherd.