Jazz 625 - Fig 1

Rediscovering Jazz 625

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Jazz 625 kick-started a golden age of music television in the 1960s. It returns to BBC4 on Friday.

There’s a reason The Fast Show’s jazz club sketch has stuck in the popular memory: its recreation of 1960s ambience and camera movement perfectly parodied one of the most important music television programmes that the BBC ever produced, Jazz 625 (1964-1966). Hot on the heels of the two-decade long Musicians’ Union ban being lifted, producer Terry Henebery’s series presented the best of contemporary jazz musicians in stripped-down studio or club settings, shot sympathetically with a superb sound balance. The programme was part of the new BBC2 channel’s first week offer, broadcast in the crisp new 625-line UHF frequency.

Across two years, 84 episodes were broadcast. Contrary to legend, much of the series has survived in the archives due to the practice of telerecording onto 35mm film. Later series produced by Henebery, such as Jazz Goes to College (1966-1967), Jazz at the Maltings (1968-1969) and Jazz Scene at Ronnie Scott’s (1969-1970), fared less well – wiped because they were recorded onto valuable, re-useable 2inch videotape.

Jazz 625 - Fig 2 Audience ticket for the OB recording of The Victor Feldman Trio at The New Marquee Club, Wardour Street (rec. 14 February 1965, tx. 2 June 1965). Property of John Weston.

My current research has emphasized the technical contribution of BBC TV crews to the success of the BBC’s 1960s jazz programmes. Without belittling the musicianship happening in front of the cameras, the work that went on behind them was equally important to the impact of Jazz 625. In conversation with me, Henebery noted that director Yvonne Littlewood set the visual template for Jazz 625 with the first Duke Ellington episode (tx. 21 April 1964). The careful work of sound supervisors such as Len Shorey and Graham Haines ensured a sound balance which often surpassed that achieved in commercial recording studios. The BBC Written Archive contains many letters from jazz musicians expressing their gratitude to Henebery’s team for their professionalism and expertise.

Jazz 625 - Fig 3 Jazz 625, Duke Ellington in Concert (rec. 21 February 1964, tx. 21 April 1964), Image: BBC.

Last year, Adam Barker (BBC4) and Jez Nelson (Somethin’ Else Productions) hit upon the idea of bringing Jazz 625 back to our screens. Unlike previous celebrations of the programme, which simply recycled archive footage, this project aims to demonstrate that Jazz 625 was a landmark in music television broadcasting. By combining VT documentary inserts with live performance from stars playing at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Jazz 625: For One Night Only acts as a definitive statement on the programme’s importance to jazz culture and to the history of the BBC as a champion of cultural excellence.

Jazz 625: For One Night Only will be broadcast on Friday 3 May at 9pm, BBC4.

Dr Nicolas Pillai (Birmingham City University) is the research consultant for BBC4’s Jazz 625: For One Night Only. He is co-editor of Jazz Research Journal and the author of Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image. His current research project Jazz on BBC-TV 1960-1969 has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

To find out more about 1960s jazz television, visit the Jazz on BBC-TV 1960-1969 project website: www.jazzontelly.org

Thanks to television historian Louis Barfe for generous advice on telerecording practices.