Some years ago, the legendary talent scout John Hammond went to Chicago to take part in a public television special staged in his honor. He was surrounded by many of the artists in whose careers he had played a seminal role; he talked with them and about them.
Because that program, which has been rerun several times, was a unique tribute overflowing with live talent, it is difficult to understand the raison d’etre for “John Hammond: From Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen,” to be seen tonight at 10:15 on KCET Channel 28 as part of the “American Masters” series.
The earlier show was 90 minutes long; the new one is half an hour shorter. Whereas giants such as Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, George Benson and Bob Dylan performed entire songs, live and in person, in Hammond’s presence, this posthumous show (he died in 1987) finds the artists often in truncated early film clips; typically, Billie Holiday begins to sing one number and after eight bars the emcee, Ossie Davis, interrupts with a voice-over.
Hammond is seen in color footage apparently shot not long before his death, and in snippets from a black-and-white interview in 1958 with the very unhip Gilbert Seldes. Comments about Hammond’s role as a radical reformer and integrationist visionary are offered by Nat Hentoff, Milt Hinton, George Wein and others. Peter Seeger talks for a minute about the blacklisting days. Count Basie and Aretha Franklin are shown in short black-and-white segments. The cliche clips so familiar in jazz documentaries--shots of jitterbugs, Harlem street scenes--are shown yet again.
There is valuable music and a measure of historic information here, but much of it smacks of deja vu. (How many more times are we going to see that one and only Bessie Smith film?) Those who did not see the earlier program may well find this sequel fascinating, though its better passages might well have been telescoped into the form of an addendum to the original.