‘Celebration’ Doesn’t Let Jazz Speak for Itself


“A Celebration of America’s Music” arrives bearing a label that is both misleading and ironic: the first network jazz special in 25 years.

CBS, for one, ran a jazz special in the mid-'70s, “The Cool and Groovy, Hot and Heavy, All Star Jazz Show,” that was loaded with major jazz talent. The real problem with “A Celebration of America’s Music,” however, relates not so much to its questionable assertion of rarity as it does to the way in which it has been produced.

Typically, the show is front-loaded with artists and celebrities whose association with jazz is minimal. Bill Cosby, who both understands and loves the music, was a perfect choice to emcee the program.

But what connection do Jon Secada, Sinbad and k.d. lang have with jazz? Not much. Yet there they are: Secada singing with Tito Puente, Sinbad doing a comedy routine, and lang singing “Black Coffee” (presumably considered a jazz classic by the producers).


Which is not to say that the show is lacking ample jazz talent. It is, in fact, loaded. But virtually every potentially rewarding performance is either saddled with oppressive production or squeezed into painfully truncated time segments.

A promising opening featuring tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman playing “Caravan” is blown away by a group of utterly superfluous dancers doing a routine that should never have made it past the rehearsal studio.

The dancers are missing from Wynton Marsalis’ bright salute to Louis Armstrong--one of the show’s better numbers. But an appearance by the “Tribute to Miles Davis” group, with Wallace Roney, trumpet; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; and Tony Williams, drums, is so short that each player barely manages to solo for a phrase or two before having to step aside.

Yet overly generous space is allocated to a much-deserved, but too-long salute to Quincy Jones, as well as to a melodramatic rendering of “ ‘Round Midnight” by singer Nnenna Freelon.


It’s probably just as well that the show is titled “A Celebration of America’s Music,” without a specific mention of jazz, even though it was produced in association with the 10th anniversary of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz--one of the music’s most vital supporters.

But it’s unfortunate that ABC couldn’t allow the music to speak for itself, without benefit of assistance from celebrities who--regardless of their other talents--have no business taking up valuable space in a program in which artists such as Hancock, Carter, Marsalis, Puente, Joe Williams, Pat Metheny, Marcus Roberts, Clark Terry and others are given far too little time to display their world-class wares.

* “A Celebration of America’s Music” airs tonight at 10 on ABC.