A Jazz Party to Remember
Linda Fowler – May 8, 2008
He was one of the metropolitan area’s most popular radio personalities in the post-World War II era, when AM shows dominated the airwaves.
But Art Ford’s success behind the microphone didn’t begin and end with radio jobs in the country’s biggest market. When TV came into fashion in the ’50s, he shifted his act to the small screen without breaking stride and hosted his fair share of shows.
A scene from “Art Ford’s Jazz Party”: from left, Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, Tyree Glenn on trombone aand Sonny Greer on drums
Over time, Ford grew into enough of a celebrity that his name popped up in the gossip columns of the day. He appeared in movies, had his own column in “Movie Life” magazine and even promoted a music festival here and there.
Fifty years ago today, the TV program that Ford will forever be associated with was broadcast locally out of an upstairs studio in Newark’s Mosque Theater, now Symphony Hall. The first show aired May 8, 1958, on WNTA-TV (Channel 13), the second night of the fledgling independent station’s operation.
But “Art Ford’s Jazz Party” wasn’t just another one of early TV’s many entertainment offerings. It was one that showcased jazz in an open, free-spirited atmosphere, much the way a nightclub would. Aired without benefit of rehearsals or set lists, “Jazz Party” established a standard that experts say has rarely, if ever, been matched.
“A wonderful collection of musicians played that show,” said Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark and an acquaintance of Ford’s. “From a technical point of view, it wasn’t brilliantly executed. But for an off-the-cuff thing, it was remarkable. There’s really never been anything else like it on TV.”
The list of “Jazz Party” performers reads like a “Who’s Who” of jazz from Dixieland to swing to mainstream, along with a sprinkling of “modern” players. Giants appeared, as did emerging stars and the obscure. There were blues and folk artists also thrown in the mix.
Ford was proud of the lineups, which, unlike other early TV shows, were integrated. That may have ultimately doomed the show, said Morgenstern, in an opinion that was shared by Nat Hentoff, another jazz historian.
“I never go into a show with any concern about what’s going to happen,” Ford once said. “I can always get the best jazz men in the business. That’s why I’m completely relaxed.”
Other than bassist and Newark native Vinnie Burke, who died in 2002, no artist appeared on the “Jazz Party” more than vibraphonist Harry Sheppard, who lives in Houston today and remains active. He just turned 80 and is one of a rapidly vanishing group of “Jazz Party” musicians.
The artists were so relaxed because each had a chance to sample a mixture of orange juice and vodka that appeared on the set just before air time and stayed throughout the evening, Sheppard recalled.
“The show’s name had it right,” he said. “It was a party.”
Other “Jazz Party” artists still living include guitartist Les Paul; singer Abbey Lincoln; pianist Dick Hyman; pianist Marty Napolean; guitarist Kenny Burrell; trombonist Urbie Green; vibraphonist Teddy Charles; bassist Bill Crow; pianist Billy Taylor, and drummer/vibraphonist Barry Miles.
Those reached by phone who remembered the show spoke well of Ford, had nothing but praise for the eclectic blend of musicians it featured and said it was nice to get the work even though it didn’t enhance their careers the way TV does nowadays.
Charles, 80, recalled the joy he experienced getting to play with an idol of his, pianist Alec Templeton, whom he listened to on the radio growing up in rural Massachusetts in the 1940s when Templeton had his own program.
Miles, a prodigy who appeared on the “Jazz Party” when he was a mere 11, said he was in awe of the older, more seasoned musicians, but that they accepted him as an equal.
“Everyone was encouraging and friendly,” remembered Miles, who lives outside Cape May. “No one was going, ‘Oh, there’s a kid here.'”
Playing with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Crow, 80, remembered folk artist Josh White Jr. filling in for his father one night and needing the jazz musicians to teach him how to tune his guitar.
In Morgenstern’s view, the show’s most memorable moments came when Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophonists and jazz titans, paired up in a jam one night, and when Buck Clayton and Charlie Shavers went trumpet to trumpet on another show.
A critical success
The program, which aired from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on Thursdays, was an instant hit with the critics. Downbeat called it “a happy, relaxed, unpretentious ball.” The New York Herald Tribune said it was “as close to unadulterated jazz as one can get.”
“In a bare studio with no fancy lighting, no production frills, no calculated pursuit of effect, they (Ford and program manager Ted Cott) have allowed a group of the finest jazz artists just to play their music,” wrote Jack Gould of the New York Times, the day after the first show. “Some of the instrumentalists took off their coats, others smoked, strangers wandered around the studio, and ties were loosened. Only the music counted, and it was sublime.”
The show was pretty much the brainchild of Ford, who was familiar to the jazz community from his tenure on the radio, where he featured musicians in live, on-air performances. Ford made his name at WNEW, arguably the nation’s leading pop-music station before rock ‘n’ roll took hold.
He was the first host of the station’s overnight show, the “Milkman’s Matinee,” a job he held for a dozen years until 1954. He later succeeded Martin Block as host of “Make-Believe Ballroom,” often cited as the pre-eminent radio program of its time.
When he was let go from WNEW in 1958, Ford was replaced by the now-legendary William B. Williams. The firing led to his switch to WNTA (for National Telefilm Associates) and triggered his most quotable line.
“I am happiest when the garde is avant,” Ford told a newspaper upon his departure. “The garde is no longer avant at WNEW.”
Ford was one of WNTA’s marquee names, both on TV and its sister AM and FM stations. “Jazz Party” aired on each in one of broadcast’s earliest simulcasts, perhaps the first.
Unlike some of TV’s other pioneering programs that struggled with financial backing, “Jazz Party” enjoyed the support of such deep-pocket sponsors as Westinghouse and Parliament cigarettes. That allowed Ford to pay the musicians a respectable fee, which kept them coming back.
In his 2006 biography “Someone To Watch Over Me: The Life and Music of Ben Webster,” author Frank Buchmann-Moller said the saxophonist was paid $59.50 for his May 15 “Jazz Party” performance, the equivalent of more than $400 today.
Ford left much of the “Jazz Party’s” legwork to Nancy Miller Elliott, who later became a well-known jazz photographer. Now deceased, she booked the artists and arranged rides for those needing to get to Newark. She also took pictures on the set that have survived, as have some of the show’s kinescopes and recordings.
Also on hand was a small congregation of local musicians who did a little backup playing, if called on, and often joined in the jam session that concluded the show, if there was time. Their presence kept the Newark-area musicians’ union content.
Presiding over it all, perched atop a stool off to the side of the band, was Ford, as much a fan relishing the best seat in the house as he was emcee. He was more often heard than seen, and even that wasn’t much. In his smooth, mellow tone, Ford might introduce a musician or talk with one if he liked a song or solo, or maybe make a request.
End of an era
Despite its popularity and acclaim, “Jazz Party” didn’t last into 1959, and its ending was lamented by the jazz publications and newspapers alike. Ford’s only child, also Arthur, said his father expressed frustration the station didn’t do more to keep it going.
According to a list of shows compiled by Bob Weir, a jazz researcher and author from Wales, the final broadcast was on Christmas Day 1958. A tribute to New Orleans jazz filmed there the previous August, it was the one show in the series that did not originate in Newark.
Almost as the “Jazz Party” began winding down, so, too, did Ford’s announcing career. WNTA wasn’t long for the world, either, getting sold in 1961 and eventually becoming public television’s WNET.
Though he stayed busy in local radio, music promotion and show business consulting into the ’80s, Ford never again reveled in the limelight quite the way he did on those freewheeling Thursday nights in Newark.
He died two years ago in relative obscurity at age 85, with barely a mention in major media outlets. There are scholars of 20th century American radio and early TV who are aware of Ford and his work but do not know he passed away.
In his waning years, Ford mentioned producing and hosting “Jazz Party” from time to time, leaving little doubt in his son’s mind that he regarded it the most satisfying of all of his TV and radio jobs.
“From the way my dad spoke, you’d think ‘Jazz Party’ had lasted 15 years and that he was only on WNEW a year, rather than the other way around,” Arthur Ford said.
Sterling is a recipient of a 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for outstanding musical coverage. He may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-4088.