Five iconic jazz moments on British TV

From Duke Ellington to Doctor Who… Ahead of the BFI’s A Ton of Jazz season, Nicolas Pillai explores how British television has documented the sound of surprise.

Find out more about the BFI’s A Ton of Jazz season

Dr Nicolas Pillai

Buddy Rich playing on a 1987 ITV special

The BFI season A Ton of Jazz: America’s Coolest Generation on British TV offers a rich insight into the presence of jazz on British TV screens. The key series is Jazz 625 (BBC2, 1964-1966), a dynamic showcase for jazz in performance produced by Terry Henebery (a later example of Henebery’s work can be seen at the BFI’s Buddy Rich event). In the 1960s, after a long Musicians’ Union ban on US players, programmes like Jazz 625 and its follow-ups, Jazz Goes to College, Jazz at the Maltings and Jazz Scene at Ronnie Scott’s allowed British audiences to see their heroes for the first time. The season’s curator Dick Fiddy has taken care to present examples of jazz in other forms of programming, such as appearances in variety and on talk shows. In the list below, I’ve selected an alternate history of jazz on British television, a reminder that jazz has always meant different things to different audiences.

Celebration (ABC Midlands, 10 April 1966)

Duke Ellington is met by crowds in Coventry’s Broadgate Square

Duke Ellington is met by crowds in Coventry’s Broadgate Square
Credit: ABC Midlands

When Duke Ellington premiered his first Sacred Concert in the new Coventry Cathedral, ABC’s cameras captured the rehearsal and concert. Broadcast as part of the Easter religious programming, this 55-minute one-off depicted Ellington in a very different manner to his previous appearances on British TV, which had focused on his jazz celebrity. Here, Ellington’s musical expression of spiritual faith was juxtaposed with the modernist architecture and art of Basil Spence’s extraordinary cathedral. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done, Ellington told TV Times. And the most important. It’s a personal statement. It’s a personal statement about belief.

Jazz in Wonderland (ITV, 29 May 1966)

Jazz pianist and composer Stan Tracey at the recording of Alice in Jazzland

Jazz pianist and composer Stan Tracey at the recording of Alice in Jazzland
Credit: ITV

Produced by Mike Hodges as part of the Tempo arts documentary strand, this half-hour shows us Stan Tracey leading a 15-piece studio orchestra through the recording of his album Alice in Jazzland. Fresh from his success with Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, Tracey had turned to Lewis Carroll for inspiration. A hand-held camera captures Tracey’s generous approach to composition and the group dynamic, as well as the larking around of the ensemble and the crucial organising presence of Jackie Tracey, Stan’s wife. An essential, moving portrait of one of our finest musicians.

The Beiderbecke Affair (ITV, 10 February 1985)

Barbara Flynn and James Bolam in The Beiderbecke Affair

Barbara Flynn and James Bolam in The Beiderbecke Affair
Credit: ITV

No surprise that the most joyful example of jazz on British TV drama comes from the pen of Alan Plater. On a hillside in the Yorkshire Dales, Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn) are skiving from the school where they work. Having solved a delightful shaggy-dog mystery together, the two lovers stand and behold the majesty of the landscape. Cue romantic music (a swinging version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, performed by jazz royalty including Kenny Baker, Stan Sulzmann and Allan Ganley) as they pretend to run down the hill in slow motion, giggling.

Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis (BBC1, 23 November 1988)

Courtney Pine signs an autograph for his newest fan in Silver Nemesis

Courtney Pine signs an autograph for his newest fan in Silver Nemesis
Credit: BBC

On the occasion of Doctor Who’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Sylvester McCoy settled back into a deckchair at a Courtney Pine gig. This was another kind of landmark, with Pine’s band the largest grouping of black faces that had ever appeared on the show. It’s a moment that goes back to the show’s roots in education, as we see council-estate kid Ace (Sophie Aldred) drinking it in and proclaiming, I could listen to them all afternoon! At the vanguard of British jazz, Pine was the perfect choice to introduce the music to a young audience. Let’s hope that incoming Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, is a jazz fan.

The Fast Show (BBC, 1994-1997)

The most perfect expression of jazz as nothingness – a series of sketches that every jazz musician of a certain age still finds intensely hilarious. John Thomson’s ultra-louche Louis Balfour is the master of the complicit cutaway to camera, cutting his convoluted musicological descriptions with glib one-word pronouncements. Even the camera movements are funny in these sketches, perfectly parodying the form of music TV. Whether you freak out to ‘Desolate Shore’ or just plain dig Jackson Jeffrey Jackson, the Jazz Club sketches are bound to come up in every pub-table conversation about jazz on the telly. Mmmm… nice.


Dr Nicolas Pillai (School of Media, Birmingham City University) is the author of Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image. He is currently leading a research project entitled ‘Jazz on BBC-TV 1960-1969’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. If you were involved in the production of jazz television, or if you attended any of the recording sessions, please contact him


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