Visual Culture

The contrivance of the casual: Billie Holiday in ‘The Sound of Jazz’


by Nicolas Pillai

Tim Wall and Paul Long note that The Sound of Jazz (1957) was one of a series of CBS-TV arts programmes themed around Gilbert Seldes’ notion of The Seven Lively Arts. The sophisticated visual design of the programme provided candid access to musicians in performance, framing jazz history and performance within the broader cultural contexts of photography and the concert hall:

It was shot using what were then high-definition cameras reproducing the shallow depth of field and key-lit imagery that had become established in jazz photography and setting up a narrative diegesis which explored the role of the blues across the history of jazz in a similar vein to how the 1924 [Paul Whiteman] Aeolian Hall and 1944 Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts had presented the history of jazz on the concert stage.[1]

The sensitivity with which the programme was conceived can be attributed to the expertise of those involved in its production. Noted jazz writers Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff served as music consultants, while its producer Robert Herridge had previously created the experimental arts series Camera Three for CBS in 1953.

In interview, Herridge averred, ‘We want to offer jazz for itself, as an experience in sound. We want to steer clear of the gimmicks and camera techniques that have burdened its presentation in the past’.[2] Noting the challenge of marrying jazz, ‘an art that works through the ear’, with TV, ‘a medium that works primarily through the eye’, Herridge promised viewers ‘the feeling that they’re sitting right inside the group – right between Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins’.[3] In reminiscences of the shooting, Hentoff and Balliett repeat significant details: the novelty of the spare set; Holiday discarding her $500 gown for slacks; the freedom of the musicians to smoke, wear hats and move around the ‘big, bare two-storey studio at Ninth Avenue and Fifty-sixth Street’.[4] Yet both writers balance their accounts of this unfettered production with praise for the technicians involved. Balliett attributes the ‘brilliant visual side of the show’ and the ‘excitement of the camera-work’ to director Jack Smight and his team of five camera operators.[5] Hentoff describes ‘cameramen who could improvise […], who were free to respond to the music and so considered themselves a creating part of the show’.[6] The success of the programme, described by Balliett and Hentoff respectively as ‘never […] equalled’ and ‘the truest jazz program ever on television’,[7] lay in a delicate balance between documentary observation, improvisational practice (of both musicians and crew) and the artful contrivance of the casual.

For these reasons, The Sound of Jazz typifies tendencies toward realism and myth in representations of jazz onscreen. This is apparent in accounts of the performance of ‘Fine and Mellow’ showcasing Billie Holiday and Lester Young, which often omit the contribution of Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge. Balliett singles out ‘Billie Holiday’s expression as she listens to her old friend [Young], an expression somewhere between laughter and tears’.[8] In a similarly speculative mood, Humphrey Lyttelton pondered, ‘as she nodded or shook her head at every turn of his solo, was it in sadness or regret, as it appeared to be?’[9] These recollections attempt to understand, contain and so possess the perceived tragedies and intimacies of Holiday and Young’s lives. Fascination with the Holiday–Young relationship excludes the significant fact that more screen time during the ‘Fine and Mellow’ performance is given over to Holiday’s reaction to Ben Webster’s playing. The expressivity of her numerous close-ups, then, provokes a desire to read beyond the music, gauging a larger autobiographical meaning. Desire is projected onto the shots of musicians playing, not present within them, a process akin to that which film theorist Béla Balázs used to describe the effect of movie close-ups: ‘They are picture-like and yet they seem outside space; such is the psychological effect of facial expression’.[10]

Jazz is an adaptive process, in constant dialogue with the culture that encompasses it. In my book, the workings of myth are not treated as effacements of history but as contributing elements to the narratives told about, and generated by, jazz. Indeed, as Steve Tromans has argued, myth is built into the creative processes which musicians deploy to make jazz.[11] The audiovisual representation of jazz is not ‘a second-order language’ as Peter Townsend attests.[12] It is not oppositional or reductive. It is a primary articulation of jazz’s cultural contribution, forming one basis for how we appreciate and understand music.

Nicolas Pillai is a research fellow in the School of Media at Birmingham City University, UK. He has published widely on jazz in film and television and is the co-editor of New Jazz Conceptions: History, Theory, Practice (Routledge, 2017). Jazz as a Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image, is published by I.B.Tauris and available to order here


[1] Wall, Tim and Long, Paul, ‘Sight and Sound in Concert? The Interrelationship between Music and Television,’ in Bennett, Andy and Waksman, Steve (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Popular Music (Los Angeles: SAGE Reference, 2015), p. 465.

[2] Herridge, Robert quoted in Anon., ‘Jazz Featured Tomorrow in “Lively Arts” TV Series’, The Oxnard Press-Courier (7 December 1957), p. 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Balliett, Whitney, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (London: Granta, 2001), pp. 638–639; Hentoff, Nat, The Jazz Life (London: Panther, 1964), pp. 149–150.

[5] Balliett, Collected Works, p. 638.

[6] Hentoff, Nat, ‘Huckleberry Dracula, Jazz, and Public TV’, The Village Voice (31 July 1978), p. 30.

[7] Balliett, Collected Works, p. 638; Hentoff, ‘Huckleberry Dracula’, p. 30.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lyttelton, Humphrey, It Just Occurred to Me… (London: Robson Books, 2006), p. 147.

[10] Balázs, Béla, ‘The Face of Man’ in Mast, Gerald and Cohen, Marshall (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 292.

[11] Tromans, Steve, ‘Myth, Progress, and Motion in Jazz Practice with the Standard Repertoire’, Epistrophy 1 (2015). Available at (accessed 27 October 2015).

[12] Townsend, Peter, Jazz in American Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), p. 167.


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