Jazz And The Tonight Show
Jimmy Fallon was charming, humble and of course funny in his debut as host of the Tonight Show. I love Fallon and think he’s the best move made in late night TV in decades. I never cared for Jay Leno’s vibe, but I’ll be watching Jimmy with enthusiasm, perhaps for decades to come. There’s no better gig in show business, and I think Fallon’s going to kill it.
The historic night reminded me of something eye-opening from Robin D.G. Kelley’s 2009 biography of Thelonious Monk. The great jazz pianist appeared on The Tonight Show on June 10, 1955 when Steve Allen was host. Kelly points out that Allen educated America about jazz through innovative booking and long, intelligent interviews.
Steve Allen’s stamp of approval carried enormous weight in America’s popular culture. A pianist, prolific composer and columnist for Down Beat magazine, Allen was once dubbed “the greatest friend jazz had in television” by Leonard Feather. The list of musicians who appeared on the show during Allen’s two-and-a-half-year reign is impressive: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Lester Young, to name but a few.
This, despite pushback from some about featuring African-Americans with respect and deference on national television. Instead Steve Allen read mail from racists on the air as a way of telling segregationist America to wake up.
The Tonight Show can’t ever again be the singular focal point of the nation’s attention like it was in the three-network 1950s or the 70s TV of my youth. But its music bookings are still one of the biggest gets in show business, and bands and artists covet them for obvious reasons. Meanwhile the show’s bookers have a lot of power to expose and champion greatness. How do they use that privilege?