Associated Press

Weekly Jazz Series Combines Live Performance, Interviews, Archival Material

04/02/2006 Tara Burghart Associated Press

CHICAGO - Ramsey Lewis wrote the tune, he's played it dozens of times, yet a huge grin still spreads across his face as he sits down at the piano to play a blues-tinged version with Robert Cray and Keb' Mo'.

On other days, Lewis backs jazz singers Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling, guitarists Pat Metheney and Jim Hall, or - in an episode of his new PBS show featuring winners of the 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award - Tony Bennett, Chick Corea and the late Ray Barretto.

The artists are guests on "Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis," a weekly program debuting on public television stations nationwide in April (check local listings). The series premieres Friday on Chicago's public television station, WTTW-TV.

The show's creators say it is the first time jazz has been featured on a weekly basis on network television in 40 years. They hope their format will lure not just jazz aficionados, but people who perhaps have found jazz too intimidating to seek out in a club or record store.

"Our intention is to not only attract the hardcore jazz fan, but we're doing it in such a way that it will also be easy to take for those who are not necessarily steeped in the ways of jazz," said Lewis, a Grammy award-winning composer and pianist who hosts a syndicated radio program with the same name as the TV show.

Each of the debut season's 13 episodes begins with Lewis introducing that week's theme_ everything from "Brazilian Jazz" to "The American Songbook" - followed by a short video segment using archival footage to provide historical perspective.

The guests then join Lewis for an interview, although with the easygoing, assured Lewis, it's more like a conversation. The artists perform individually, then together, before Lewis joins them on piano to close out the 30-minute show.

All but one of the shows was recorded in WTTW's studio in Chicago, Lewis' hometown and where he hosts his radio show. The set features dramatic lighting and an abundance of light-colored wood; an audience of about 50 was invited for each show.

While the editing is not as jumpy as something a viewer would see on MTV, there are plenty of quick cuts, close-ups and dissolves, and it's filmed with numerous high-definition cameras - all elements executive producer and creator Larry Rosen said he thought important for attracting viewers used to seeing music performances on television.

But those, he points out, often involve lip synching, while on "Legends of Jazz" the performances are all live and feature combinations of artists who in many cases have never performed together before.

As for the show's format, Rosen said he was looking for a combination of elements: a mini-version of Ken Burns' documentaries for the historical segments, the types of intimate, craft-centered discussions held on Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio," and one-of-a-kind live performances.

"I think that we have been able to come up with great content in terms of conversation and information," Lewis said. "We're trying not to be a documentary, but have a more powerful conversation, and then an, 'Oh, by the way, will you play?' sort of thing," Lewis said in an interview in his dressing room before taping the episode entitled "Roots: The Blues."

Its guests are Cray and 'Mo, and its theme is how jazz and blues had similar origins but diverged into two genres, and how the two distinctly American forms of music have influenced each other over the years.

During their interview with Lewis, 'Mo jokes about how his first solo album, an R&B project, sold "dozens" of copies and relates how he ended up playing blues legend Robert Johnson in a 1997 film. Cray and 'Mo discuss the relation they see between jazz and the blues.

"In order to play jazz, you have to be able to play the blues," Cray tells Lewis.

"Blues informs you emotionally. Jazz is more intellectual," 'Mo adds.

Rosen said a key to the show's success is host Lewis, because his comfort in front of the camera combined with his knowledge of jazz sets his guests at ease, drawing out entertaining stories and personalities that Rosen believes will hook viewers.

Rosen said he's already planning the series' second season, although he won't reveal which artists are on his wish list. He said he believes the show will be a success, even if network television has shied away from jazz in the past few decades.

"I think (jazz) has a mass market appeal - it all depends on how you present it. If you choose a narrow format, with someone playing a solo in some abstract way that goes on for 30 minutes, yeah, that's not ready for prime-time," he said.

"But here, we have a careful balance. None of the songs last more than 3 1/2 minutes. Melodic things are played, not avant-garde," Rosen said. "It's palatable in format yet true to the musical form itself."

ON THE NET

Legends of Jazz: http://www.legendsofjazz.net

Ramsey Lewis: http://www.ramseylewis.com