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Jazz greats get their moment in new PBS series

Sunday, June 12, 2005 By Jim Beckerman

Another name for jazz?

Try "America's classical music." Try "the greatest U.S. contribution to world culture."

Try "unpopular."

"There's this predetermined concept: If it doesn't sell, it's gotta be jazz," says producer Larry Rosen of Park Ridge.

Jazz, he says, currently accounts for about 2.9 percent of record sales.

"You take somebody like Norah Jones," he says. "When she was selling no records, she was considered a jazz artist. When she was selling 8 million records, she became a pop artist. Same record."

No wonder there hasn't been a continuously running TV series devoted to jazz (the Ken Burns PBS "Jazz" documentary was more like a miniseries) in more than 40 years.

Rosen, founder of GRP records, has put more than $1 million of his own cash on the line to try to change that.

"Legends of Jazz," a weekly half-hour series hosted by Grammy-winning pianist Ramsey Lewis ("In With the In Crowd") is set to debut on PBS in January. Meanwhile, PBS is offering an hour-long foretaste. "Legends of Jazz: The Jazz Masters" will air for most of the country Thursday; in the New York area it will be seen at 10 p.m. July 4 on WNJN Channel 50 and WNJB 58, and at 1 p.m. July 10 on WNET Channel 13.

The special, sponsored by Verizon, features five recipients of the National Endowment of the Arts' NEA Jazz Masters award: vocalists Nancy Wilson and Jon Hendricks, sax man James Moody, Latin jazz star Paquito D'Rivera and jazz festival entrepreneur George Wein.

"These are the people who won awards, America's highest award for a jazz musician," Rosen says.

To give this inaugural program a forward spin, acclaimed 15-year-old vocalist Renee Olstead has also been brought aboard to represent jazz in the future tense.

"Jazz is alive and well, and there are people doing extraordinary things today," Rosen says.

Future episodes, built around themes like "the golden horns," "Latin jazz," "contemporary jazz" and "the killer Bs" (about Hammond B3 organ players), will feature talk and music from the likes of David Sanborn, Phil Woods, Eddie Palmieri and Lonnie Smith, not to mention many of the lesser-known up-and-comers who are keeping the music fresh.

"Music on television is sort of an oddity in the first place," Rosen says. "Usually it's either a big concert, like the Rolling Stones shot with 30 cameras in a big concert, or it's like MTV, where the artist goes into a studio with a choreographer and lip-syncs his hit."

What Rosen is doing is something else - something that hasn't really been done on TV since the 1950s and '60s, when the "Nat King Cole Show" or "Jazz Casual" brought jazz into the living room on a regular basis.

Though, Rosen adds, with incomparably better technology.

"We're shooting in high definition, 5.1 Surround Sound," he says. "Because of the technology today and the high definition, you get to see the artists and what they're like, you see their hands on the keyboard, their sticks on the cymbal, the expression on their face, in a way that couldn't have happened 30 years ago."

It was pianist Lewis who in some ways got the ball rolling.

Lewis, who had been hosting his own jazz radio show in his native Chicago, had approached his old friend Rosen about creating a new record company. Rosen, himself a onetime jazz drummer for Henry Mancini and other bandleaders, had other thoughts.

"I said the most compelling thing right now is television," Rosen says. "I said, if you look at shows like 'American Idol,' these unknowns are getting exposure and selling a million units. Television is the key thing."

Rosen persuaded him to shift his attention from recording to broadcasting and computer streaming. Along with Lee Rosenberg, Rosen and Lewis have formed a production company, LRSmedia, which will focus on HDTV, radio, Internet and live performance tours. With "Legends of Jazz," they are throwing their hat into the media ring.

"I personally believe there's an audience that's starving for this stuff," Rosen says.

A Bronx native who grew up in Dumont (Dumont High class of 1958), Rosen has built his reputation on knowing what's good - and just as important, knowing what's accessible to a mass audience. The trick, he says, is to reconcile the two.

"It's like a gut thing," he says. "You don't go to school for this. My job is to find the balancing point. If it goes too far in one direction, it becomes smooth jazz. If it goes too far in the other direction, it becomes too abstract and loses its audience. The idea is to keep it in the realm that the average guy could love."