Music Commentary: Jazz, Ed Sullivan, and Television

By Stephen Provizer

These performances on The Ed Sullivan Show occurred almost exclusively between 1957 and 1964, and that’s not happenstance. They coincide with the only slice of time when different styles of jazz ever got a significant airing on television.

Sarah Vaughan performing “Poor Butterfly” in 1957 on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran from 1948 to 1971, has now become a nostalgic cultural touchstone. The program represents an era when Elvis and the Beatles riveted our attention, before three television channels exploded into what has become a fractured media world. As part of the 22nd edition of Jazz Appreciation month, the “Ed Sullivan Show Youtube channel” is streaming 14 performances by jazz musicians that originally aired on the Sullivan show. Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald are some of the featured artists.

These Sullivan performances occurred almost exclusively between 1957 and 1964, and that’s not happenstance. They coincide with the only slice of time when different styles of jazz ever got a significant airing on television. It was the era of The Sound of Jazz, Frankly Jazz, Stars of Jazz, Timex All-Star Jazz Show,and The Subject is Jazz. Events like trumpeter Clifford Brown appearing on the Soupy Sales program were not fantasies; they actually happened.

Jazz continued to have a redoubt on TV: late night talk shows. Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Joey Bishop all featured large jazz ensembles and often booked jazz performers. These appearances could be seen as a bow to sophistication, a grown-up’s hedge, if you will, against the onslaught of rock and roll. It also meant that any kind of musical guest could be booked, from operatic soprano to musical saw  — and the accompaniment would always be solid. There was a transitional musical period on TV starting in the ’90’s marked by hybrid music on shows like Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and Arsenio Hall. I consider the 2015 passing of trumpeter Clark Terry, a stalwart of the Tonight Show Orchestra, as a symbolic marker of the end of the 60-year relationship between big band jazz and mainstream television.

One of the featured Ed Sullivan musical performances is a chronological outlier. The 1971 performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which turned out to be the final musical segment on the Sullivan show, was the result of a concerted effort to bring jazz back on TV by a group called the Jazz and People’s Movement (JPM), founded by Kirk. Scores of JPM participants would show up at the taping of the Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin talk shows, blowing whistles, holding up signs denouncing their exclusion from broadcasts. It had some effect: Kirk negotiated to appear on the Sullivan Show with Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus, and Roy Haynes. The group was supposed to play “Ma Cherie Amour,” but Kirk proclaimed “True Black music will be heard tonight!” and the group broke into a six-minute medley of three compositions, the centerpiece of which was Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song.”

Sullivan himself was stiff as a board, which, in our age of media unctuous smoothness, seems refreshing. He was a well-traveled newspaperman who’d done some radio, and was a high-profile syndicated New York entertainment columnist. Ad agencies were the bridge between corporations and media; they were the driving force behind TV content until cable came of age. In 1948, Sullivan was approached by an executive named Marlo Lewis at the Blaine Thompson Advertising agency with a concept for a TV show. The idea was that Sullivan would host a variety show with something for everyone; essentially, vaudeville on television.

Virtually every type of entertainment appeared on the Sullivan Show — classical music, opera, popular music, songwriters, comedians, ballet dancers, dramatic monologists, and circus acts. A high quality group of musicians, drawn from members of the CBS orchestra, backed the acts (including pianist Hank Jones and Chris Griffin, former lead trumpet for the Harry James and Benny Goodman bands).


Sullivan was quick tempered and slow to forgive. He had several famous run-ins with obstreperous guests like the Doors and the Rolling Stones. He did have one racially charged incident with Bo Diddley. Overall though, he championed Black acts and stood up to anyone who challenged that effort, including the fact that he shook hands with Nat King Cole on national TV.

The people who acquired rights to The Ed Sullivan Show from the Sullivan family are Andrew and Josh Solt (SOFA Entertainment Inc.). Andrew Solt, CEO of SOFA, replied to my question about why they went through the laborious and expensive process of acquiring the rights to the Ed Sullivan material: “Making films and TV specials we often found ourselves knocking on the Sullivan door to access remarkable performances.… One day after licensing some Elvis footage from his historic 1956 shows, a chat took place about new ways to present the library to the public. That brief discussion with Ed Sullivan’s family eventually led to an offer to acquire the library…. It was a big risk at the time, but we felt the cultural significance and depth of the 1000+ hour archive made it compelling.… We felt its potential growth could be substantial. It’s a unique cultural asset.”

The bet seems to be paying off and SOFA productions is going big — partnering with major digital player Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) in the hopes of making the Ed Sullivan Show “a global brand.” Elvis, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Beach Boys, and The Jackson 5 are likelier to make that happen than the jazz lineup, but jazz is along for the ride.

Jazz listeners looking back in the rearview mirror at these historical artifacts might well wonder why jazz on television went gently into that good night. To me, the exit doesn’t quite add up. Data shows that jazz listeners are fairly well heeled, well educated, and racially mixed. Doesn’t that constitute a “desirable” demographic? Every once in a while, Public Television takes a shot at airing jazz, and in 2017 Quincy Jones launched Qwest TV, featuring a lot of jazz. According to the Qwest financial statement, they are “an indirectly wholly-owned subsidiary of Lumen Technologies, Inc.” (a Fortune 500 company). I’m not sure what that legalese actually means, but clearly deep pockets are a media-music entrepreneur’s best friend.

Let’s hope that the success of these Sullivan performances will stir new energy and bring some other players to the TV table. That we can now see Louis, Sarah, Basie, Ella, and the rest is great, but it would be a most welcome reverberation of this project to be given opportunities to tune into some of the creative and intense jazz activity going on right now.


According to the press release, the Ed Sullivan Show YouTube Channel has surpassed 250 million views. Boomers have spoken and viewership stats show clearly that jazz was indeed “along for the ride.”

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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  1. Daniel Gewertz on April 16, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    What a wonderful essay. Excellent research. What a story about Sullivan show and Roland Kirk. When worlds collide! Looking at music sales in recent years, it’s hard to see a TV comeback on the horizon, except in very small outlets. As I recall, Gary Burton was nominated for a Grammy several years ago for an album that only sold 2,000 copies. I recently saw, by the way, a fantastic video online of Oscar Peterson playing, and educating and tale-telling on a relaxed Dick Cavett show, probably from the ’70s. Peterson was amazing TV presence in a long-form setting.

  2. Steve Provizer on April 17, 2022 at 9:58 am

    Thanks, Dan. Yes, Cavett finally did get some jazz people on his show. There’s an historical precedent for under-counting jazz sales which, given the hegemony and opacity of streaming servers, might well be continuing.

  3. Allen Michie on April 18, 2022 at 10:00 am

    Sometimes I still light a candle in church in mourning memory of “Night Music,” hosted by David Sanborn and produced by Hal Wilner. Where else could you see Syd Straw, beat producer Arthur Baker, Al Green, reggaeton star Sister Carol, and SUN RA all on the same show? And then toss in Sanborn for a jam session together at the end. (You have to see Al Green looking completely baffled, banging away on cowbell with the Sun Ra Arkestra for lack of anything better to do.)

  4. stu vandermark on April 23, 2022 at 6:40 pm


    Thank you so much for the thoughtful and constructively provocative commentary. It brought back many fine memories. However, I am much less optimistic than you regarding the possibilities of jazz (whatever form) returning to the television screen on a regular basis. My lack of optimism no doubt is at least partially rooted in my age. I’m guessing that I’m a few years older than you, Steve. I remember the Ed Sullivan show, but I never saw the Beatles on that show because I was in college at the time and was too busy to watch TV (except occasionally for an escapist Friday night horror movie). My pessimism is prompted by several factors, but mostly two.

    First, you are correct to point out that the Ed Sullivan Show was vaudeville-rooted (as were many variety shows of the 1950s [e.g., Ken Murray, Jerry Lester, Sid Caesar]), but it also was a cleverly-designed variety show intended to cause people to sit through mostly (to typical watchers) boring stuff until something attractive caught their eye. In that way sponsors were happy because people stuck with each program at least until something good happened. Because a wide variety of people watched the show, it was mostly impossible to predict when something you’d like would materialize. So I’d hang around for Basie while someone else would sit patiently for the acrobats. The only time the programming would be predictable is when there was a pop music star headlining. That would be delayed so that you would have to sit through the whole show to see the headliner. Of course, eventually I learned that I could tune in during the last fifteen minutes of the show to catch Bill Haley or Chuck Berry. In other words, we are lucky to have those wonderful jazz artist clips because Ed Sullivan had basically anything imaginable on his show (just to be sure to hit every target). I’m guessing opera fans are even luckier than jazz fans. I seem to remember more opera than jazz. The last version of a variety show with such diversity is the Carol Burnett Show. I’m under the impression that variety shows are pretty much dead. But maybe there was something after Burnett’s show. I guess I’m saying that perhaps you give too much weight to the Ed Sullivan Show.

    In focusing on the Ed Sullivan jazz clips, you pretty much missed the importance of your comments about jazz elsewhere on television in the 1950 and 1960s. You are correct. There was a bunch of jazz on television during that period, and that fact has nothing to do with superb marketing or viewership demographics. So, my first point is that jazz (as you hint at) was on television all over the place. Not because of any bolstering from Ed Sullivan or clever marketing. It’s just that jazz–to be cruel about it–hadn’t died yet. Going back at least to the 19th century waltz craze (and perhaps to baroque period dances), the most popular music was the music that the general public danced to. In the 20th century James Reese Europe and the Castles cause a nation-wide ragtime-driven dance craze, opening the door to happy feet everywhere inspired by two-beat, swing, and even bebop music. Bebop was the last jazz music to inspire people to get out on the dance floor and do their thing. No dance. No general interest in the music. The fusion guys may have tried to fix the problem. But various forms of rock-pop music prevailed. Even today’s pseudo-beboppers fail to bring out the dancers.

    But there’s an equally important reason that jazz (and other art forms) cannot be witnessed frequently on television: the failure of FCC oversight. We live in a time when any form of government regulation is suspect. For example, when was the last time anti-trust laws were invoked? Perhaps it was when Bell Telephone was broken up. Today we have a handful of internet companies controlling everything we see and do online. Have you ever read the contract you agree to when you agree to use Google, Microsoft resources, or any entertainment feeds? These companies own your first-born, and nobody with any clout is doing anything about it. The dissipation of all forms of government regulation began in the 20th century, and there is no more troubling example than the FCC. When at mid-century it became apparent that television information would be broadcast in local population centers and over national networks, the FCC was charged with making sure that images and sounds broadcast over the networks would be done with the purpose of “public service.” Even at its web site ( today, the Commission tells us that “Station licensees, as the trustees of the public’s airwaves, must use the broadcast medium to serve the public interest.”

    In other words, the purpose of television was not primarily to make money for sponsors, but to make the lives of citizens richer through education, cultural experiences, and practical information. Because of FCC regulation, it was understood by executives at the networks that television’s function was the public good. Therefore, every network invested a good deal of money into news broadcasts. But there also was support for a broader cultural context for the news type shows. Out of that FCC prodding came such cultural shows as the Seven Lively Arts series. The title gives you some idea of what the shows were about. One of the shows in that regular series was the best televised jazz show of all time, The Sound of Jazz. If there were no Seven Lively Arts, there would be no Sound of Jazz. If there were no on-the-ball FCC, there would be no Seven Lively Arts. One highly-regarded cultural series was the weekly show, Omnibus. It was broadcast at 5 p.m. for an hour and a half every Sunday. It offered audiences a broad span of cultural experiences (ergo, “Omnibus”). In October 1953 Omnibus devoted it entire show to an abbreviated (i.e., 73 minutes) version of King Lear. Not PBS type soaps with British accents under the ironic banner of Masterpiece Theater. But a production directed by theater legend Peter Brooks and starring Orson Welles with help from Michael MacLiammor, Natasha Parry, and other theater icons. Just in case that was not enough, they had Virgil Thomson compose and conduct the music for the production (all of it live, by the way). Of some significance is the fact that the show’s sponsors held off their commercials until the end of the production so that audiences could witness the entire performance without interruptions. It’s the kind of thing you tend not to see on PBS or anywhere else very often. But, obviously, devoting an entire show to Shakespeare is not a very “omnibus” Omnibus.

    But, wait, there is an “Omnibus” punch line coming. At the end of the show host Alistair Cooke informs us about what to expect in next week’s show: the screening of Arne Sucksdorff’s 20-minute long Oscar-winning (1947) Symphony of a City, a demonstration of multi-track recording by Les Paul and Mary Ford, an interview with Frank Lloyd Wright using a model of the H.C. Price Company Tower to help explain “organic architecture,” and a half-hour dramatization by Arnold Schulman of Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Gold Dress starring Mildred Dunnock. This is a single example, but it is apparent that we are living on another planet. For further clarification, you might take a close look at Good Night and Good Luck (2005), brilliant film that documents what happens when studio executives find out that the FCC has no teeth.

    • Steve Provizer on April 24, 2022 at 10:38 am

      Stu-Thanks for your comments. I agree with you, first of all, that opera was more frequent than jazz on Sullivan-and plate spinners probably topped them both.

      And yes, jazz as a cultural force was stronger in the 50’s-60’s and it makes sense that it was more highly visible. However, given that it still retains vitality, it would seem reasonable that it have some kind of presence in an era when seemingly every niche taste-from bug eating to bounty hunting gets space on the tube.

      For years, I was invested in bringing attention to the FCC’s exodus from the public airwaves. The demise of the Fairness Doctrine has not led to good results. However, the FCC was never an advocate of cultural programming, per se and TV stations almost universally paid lip service to the need to “serve the public interest” by putting on Sunday morning talk or religious shows and (my estimate) 0.0008 of this programming was on the Omnibus level .

      I will end by saying that I’m an advocate for more jazz programming, but not sanguine about its coming to pass.

      • Tom Connoly on April 26, 2022 at 12:25 pm

        The conventional explanation for the demise of culturally diverse offerings on TV as well as the end of live drama series like Playhouse 90 and The U.S. Steel Hour is that once television sets were cheap and bought by the millions, sponsors weren’t interested in paying for quality programs. It must be more complicated. Radio had challenging programs; NBC had a symphony orchestra for Toscanini. Then there is the question of the news divisions — by the late 70s they were expected to make money. We have lived in an exclusively cash and carry world for more than half a century. Remember “Pottersville” in It’s a Wonderful Life? That is part of Reagan’s pernicious legacy.

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