Born: October 23, 1925 | Died: January 23, 2005 Primary Instrument: Drums
Johnny Carson and Jazz
The late and great Steve Allen, originator of the “Tonight Show” format, was well known as a jazz fan, friend to jazz musicians and a pretty decent jazz pianist. Few remember that Allen really went out on the television limb in the mid-fifties by booking folks like Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and many others.
Johnny Carson, who died at the age of 79, will be remembered as the quintessential talk show host, comic and interviewer, but Carson also continued Steve Allen’s legacy of using the power of television to further the cause of jazz. An amateur drummer since childhood, Carson was more than a fan. He supported the music and the musicians publicly and privately.
As one rather spectacular example, it was Johnny Carson who helped jazz drummer Buddy Rich become a star again, at a time when a 50-year-old Buddy Rich and big bands were considered old hat. Carson opened up his program to Buddy and Buddy’s new big band, beginning around 1966, and helped garner an entire new audience of all ages for “Buddy Rich: caustic comic and world’s greatest drummer.”
In 1956 Buddy was breaking in his solo act at Larry Potter's Supper Club on Ventura Blvd in the San Fernando Valley (LA).
The famed Pete Fountain and NBC staff drummer, Jack Sperling took Johnny Carson to the club, this was before his Tonight Show days and Carson was still a game show host. Of course, there were a bunch of drummers in the crowd. One night, the entire percussion section of the San Francisco Symphony drove down to see his act.
Rich always credited Johnny Carson for reviving his career, and as thanks, awarded Johnny with a brand new set of drums. Carson loved Buddy Rich as a person and worshipped him as a player. When I was in the midst, along with the Rich Estate, of writing and producing a video tribute to the great drummer, there was nothing Carson wouldn’t do for us.
“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was, of course, an entertainment program. Hard core jazz fans, naturally, didn’t think it should be that way. Years ago, the jazz purists saying that Carson’s conception of jazz was Dixielanders Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, entertaining players who were booked frequently. But what my purist colleagues didn’t know, was that booked along side a Pete Fountain or Al Hirt would be someone like jazz singer Joe Williams (booked over 50 times), or Sarah Vaughan (booked over 20 times).
The other argument, in line with television’s always-at-a-distance relationship to jazz, was that a program like Carson’s only booked the most “popular” jazz players, i.e., Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, etc. Where were the likes of the more creative players like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard and the Modern Jazz Quartet? For the record, let it be said that each and every one of these players made at least one “Tonight Show” appearance. Dizzy Gillespie was on at least a dozen times. Wynton Marsalis made his first television appearances at Johnny Carson’s insistence. You can look it up. Gene Krupa was on two times that we know of, and rumors continue to abound that Gene and Buddy actually had their famed drum battle on the “Tonight Show.”
Gene Krupa made an ultra-rare Tonight Show appearance where Gene plays a big band arrangement of his small-group feature Caravan, is interviewed by the one and only Johnny Carson and has a drum battle with Carson.
Carson’s show was the last to feature what was called a “big band” as the house orchestra, with jazz as its common language. While players like Carl “Doc” Severinson and Tommy Newsome played the stooge on camera, the record will show that they were and are top, jazz-oriented players who staffed “The Tonight Show” orchestra with the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, from Ed Shaughnessy and Grady Tate to Pete Condoli and Ernie Watts. Whether they were backing a comic, a vocal duo or Buddy Rich, the always swung. They’re still on the road and still swinging under “Doc’s” leadership.
The Rat Pack
Although he wasn't considered a Rat Pack member, Johnny Carson was definitely associated with all of the Rat Pack stars. Frank, Dean and Sammy were all repeated guests on The Tonight Show, and Dean's variety show was produced at NBC, very close to Johnny's Tonight Show studio. One classic Tonight Show episode features a mischievous Dean as a guest along with Bob Hope and comedian George Gobel.
Johnny was also a guest on Dean's show, and was roasted on The Dean Martin Roasts. And Joey Bishop, who competed with Johnny at one point with his own late night talk show, was also a frequent guest host for Johnny. Frank guest hosted for Johnny one time as well.
But the closest association of Johnny with The Rat Pack was when he filled in for an ailing Joey Bishop at a charity benefit in St. Louis for an organization called Dismas House, a halfway house for ex-convicts. The event, which took place on June 20th, 1965, was filmed and later released on video, featuring Johnny emceeing, and joining in during the musical finale. . .with some surprisingly good singing.
I doubt whether Johnny Carson ever thought he would be credited with these considerable contributions. But the record speaks for itself, and the careers of many jazz people would be considerably less were it not for him. The jazz world will miss him.
The late-night legend spent most of his time at home alone in his office working, reading newspapers, and writing, his awards and mementos scattered about, his beloved drums close by, and taped jazz always in the background.
What was a day in the professional life of Johnny Carson? The morning was given to reading half a dozen newspapers and magazines, looking for grist for the mill of that evening’s monologue.
He was a man of habit. And at 1 p.m., the family cook, Lisette, gave him lunch in a brown paper bag. Then, into the garage and his Mercedes sports car for the 40-minute drive to beautiful downtown Burbank and the NBC factory. No chauffeurs, no entourage.
Five minutes after he arrived, he sat down with Fred De Cordova, “The Tonight Show’s producer and his good friend, to talk about that evening’s guests. And at 5:10 p.m., his sidekick, Ed McMahon, showed up.
Postscript: After reading this article, arranger John LaBarbara commented, “Few people really knew how good a friend Johnny Carson was to jazz and to jazz musicians.”
“Tonight Show” drummer Ed Shaughnessy took a copy of this piece to Doc Severinson, while they were both on a “Tonight Show” band gig in Spokane Washington on Thursday, January 27th. Shortly after, Doc and Ed got a call from the David Letterman people, saying they were flying Doc, Ed and Tommy Newsome out to New York city to participate in a tribute to Johnny Carson that aired on the Letterman program last everning, January 31st.