The Troy Street Observer

May 5, 1958: Jazz Scene Debuts on Local TV

On May 5, 1958, jazz came to the small screen as The Jazz Scene launched on the commercial station WHDH-TV.

Photo of John McLellan
John McLellan at the WHDH microphone

Hard as it is to believe, jazz was a regular feature on network television in the late fifties. In 1958, Garry Moore and Steve Allen each hosted the Timex All Star Jazz Show, Benny Goodman headlined a special called Swing into Spring, Billy Taylor hosted one series, The Subject Is Jazz, and Bobby Troup had another, Stars of Jazz.

All of these programs were hoping to duplicate the success enjoyed by The Sound of Jazz, broadcast by CBS in December 1957. Shot in black-and-white, with no elaborate sets, whirling dancers, or celebrity hosts, the show simply presented the musicians, in casual dress and settings, blowing. The artistic directors, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliet, kept the focus on the musicians and their music. It was jazz at its spontaneous best, and none of the shows that followed could match it.

One person who adopted the Hentoff formula was Boston deejay John McLellan. Already involved with televising jazz on WGBH, McLellan in January 1958 used a half-hour of broadcast time on WHDH to stage a jam session with local musicians including Don Alessi, Paul Neves, and Herb Pomeroy. No one called it a pilot, but that’s what it was, and in May, McLellan commenced a regular 30-minute program on WHDH, The Jazz Scene.

On the first Monday of each month, WHDH turned the set and crew of their Dateline program over to McLellan. This was commercial, not public, television, and it was broadcast in color when black-and-white was still the norm. A low bow, all these years later, to the program director who put this show on the air! Lennie Johnson was the first guest, talking and playing through the history of the jazz trumpet.

Benny Goodman was the theme of the second show, and Joe Viola led a group playing in the Goodman style. Week three, Bob Freedman and Bill Berry got creative, composing and arranging a new tune on the fly. Then McLellan branched out, with early guests including Miles Davis and Jimmy Rushing. WHDH upped the program to twice per month.

McLellan mixed it up on his show. One week would feature Coleman Hawkins or Charles Mingus, the next would pair folk and jazz musicians in a jam session. One week Louis Armstrong and Herman Chittison recreated music they had recorded in Paris in 1934 and hadn’t played since. And there was an abundance of exposure for local musicians: Lou Magnano, Jaki Byard, Alan Dawson, Champ Jones, Charlie Mariano, Ray Santisi and Manny Wise were among the guests on The Jazz Scene.

The Jazz Scene had a good run, but after three-and-a-half years, McLellan wanted to move on, and he ended the show in December 1961.

Sadly, there is no surviving videotape from this pioneering program. That being the case, we’ll make do with “Wild Man Blues,” the number that opened The Sound of Jazz in 1957. The entire program can be viewed on YouTube.

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