Saturday, April 4, 2015

Art Ford

[I had a blast researching and writing this piece on Art Ford, which appeared in my Patrick Murtha's Diary blog in 2012. I have now fixed all the links, and wow, they took some fixing - Michael Orthofer's perennnial complaints about changed links at his Complete Review website are right on the money. There has been one significant Art Ford development since I posted this, which I'll add as an update.]




Wikipedia says that Art Ford's Jazz Party (1958) was the last show produced by the DuMont Television Network, and was only shown on DuMont's New York affiliate, WABD Channel 5, which later became independent station WNEW (the call letter switch occurred on September 1, 1958), and more recently, Fox affiliate WNYW.

List of programs broadcast by the DuMont Television Network

List of former DuMont Television Network affiliates

WNYW

But that information was contradicted by other sources, which said that Art Ford's Jazz Party was broadcast in New York on WNTA (National Television Associates) Channel 13, which later became WNET, New York's VHF public television station. So what's the real story?

Well, there is a confusion of programs here. Art Ford was a busy man.

In 1957, DuMont acquired the long-time New York radio station WNEW-AM 1130, whose history goes back to 1922 under various call letters, and the about-to-be-launched WNEW-FM 102.7.

WBBR

WWFS

 

Art Ford had been with WNEW-AM for a long time, hosting the shows The Milkman's Matinee (1942-1954), Ford at Four (1954-1957), and Make Believe Ballroom (1957-1958). Ford was let go in April 1958, because his "affection for jazz, European artists and non-mainstream music had not been to management’s liking." Ford retorted, “I am happiest when the garde is avant, and the garde at WNEW is no longer avant.”

Art Ford and the Night Visitor

 

Billboard reported on May 5, 1958, that despite the "flurry of statements over who fired whom," Ford was "expected to continue his live music Greenwich Village Party on WABD, DuMont's local TV channel which incidentally is the parent firm of WNEW." Wait a second, what's Greenwich Village Party?

NTA May Syndie Taped TV Shows

Art Ford's Greenwich Village Party is the DuMont show that was broadcast on WABD; Wikipedia is perhaps understandably confusing it with Art Ford's Jazz Party. The Village Voice had reported on July 17, 1957:

Art Ford to do a Weekly TV Program on the Village

Art Ford to do a Weekly TV Program on the Village

A weekly television show based in the mind of its producer on the real Greenwich Village is to be unveiled over WABD-Dumont, Channel 5, around September 1. The producer is radio's Art Ford, 34-year-old m.c. of the "Make-Believe Ballroom" and "Milkman's Matinee." His new project is to be entitled "Art Ford's Greenwich Village Party." 

The program will focus on Village music -- folk, jazz, bongo, and classical -- on Village art and artists, and on then off-Broadway theatre and night-club entertainment. "It will not try to encompass the whole Village," Ford last week told the Voice, "but what it does encompass will be as accurate and real as we can make it, not a stereotyped caricature of Greenwich Village." 

His plan is to open each week in a simulated Village studio-apartment where a party will be in progress attended by real Villagers -- entertainers and just plain people -- invited for the occasion. Spontaneity will be sought for by not informing the guests when "live" cameras are putting them on the air.

The same Billboard article previously quoted, noted that the new Art Ford's Jazz Party was slated to debut that week (May 8, 1958), on WNTA, which was "mulling the idea of 'tape syndication'...The NTA set-up has long been geared for a breakthru in the still-untapped field of 'tape,' as compared to 'film,' syndication of TV shows."  Further information on WNTA and the NTA Film Network, which briefly vied to succeed DuMont as the "fourth television network," can be found on these pages:

NTA Film Network

overlooked US television networks: NTA Film Network (flourished 1956-61)

I also don't know when the last airing of Art Ford's Greenwich Village Party on WABD occurred, but I strongly doubt that the two series overlapped for any length of time, if at all.

Here is footage from Greenwich Village Party, intercut with a 1991 interview with Ford. The show has a terrific vibe; you'll certainly never have another chance to hear Cy Coleman play "Muskrat Ramble" on a hand-held toy piano. I love the end credit "Transportation for Art Ford's guests provided by IRT IND BMT" (New York subway lines).




God, I really want to hang out in a swanky Village loft wearing my suit and tie, sipping cocktails, and listening to jazz. It's interesting that, as Ford points out, Greenwich Village Party provided the template for Hugh Hefner's show Playboy's Penthouse, which ran in syndication from 1959 to 1961, as well as its 1969-1970 reprise Playboy After Dark.

Here are a couple of informative pieces on Art Ford's Jazz Party, which ran only until December 25, 1958, so about eight months.
 
Art Ford's Jazz Party

In an era where television was good to jazz music in general and particularly to Modern Jazz, it offered a unique mix of musicians from nearly all streams of the music - from New Orleans through Swing, plus some Modernists. Recorded sessions were reportedly conducted without rehearsals or set-lists and featured rare glimpses of both legends and obscure stylists.

A 'Jazz Party' to Remember 

Ford was proud of the lineups, which, unlike other early TV shows, were integrated. That may have ultimately doomed the show, said Morgenstern, in an opinion that was shared by Nat Hentoff, another jazz historian. 

"I never go into a show with any concern about what's going to happen," Ford once said. "I can always get the best jazz men in the business. That's why I'm completely relaxed."... 

The program, which aired from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on Thursdays, was an instant hit with the critics. Downbeat called it "a happy, relaxed, unpretentious ball." The New York Herald Tribune said it was "as close to unadulterated jazz as one can get." 

"In a bare studio with no fancy lighting, no production frills, no calculated pursuit of effect, they (Ford and program manager Ted Cott) have allowed a group of the finest jazz artists just to play their music," wrote Jack Gould of the New York Times, the day after the first show. "Some of the instrumentalists took off their coats, others smoked, strangers wandered around the studio, and ties were loosened. Only the music counted, and it was sublime."... 

Ford was one of WNTA's marquee names, both on TV and its sister AM and FM stations. "Jazz Party" aired on each in one of broadcast's earliest simulcasts, perhaps the first... 

According to a list of shows compiled by Bob Weir, a jazz researcher and author from Wales, the final broadcast was on Christmas Day 1958. A tribute to New Orleans jazz filmed there the previous August, it was the one show in the series that did not originate in Newark. 

Almost as the "Jazz Party" began winding down, so, too, did Ford's announcing career. WNTA wasn't long for the world, either, getting sold in 1961 and eventually becoming public television's WNET. 

Though he stayed busy in local radio, music promotion and show business consulting into the '80s, Ford never again reveled in the limelight quite the way he did on those freewheeling Thursday nights in Newark. 

He died two years ago [2006] in relative obscurity at age 85, with barely a mention in major media outlets. There are scholars of 20th century American radio and early TV who are aware of Ford and his work but do not know he passed away. 

In his waning years, Ford mentioned producing and hosting "Jazz Party" from time to time, leaving little doubt in his son's mind that he regarded it the most satisfying of all of his TV and radio jobs.

Here is jazz researcher Bob Weir's comprehensive guide to who played and what they played on each broadcast of Jazz Party:

Art Ford's Jazz Party 1958

There is an interesting Art Ford film noir connection.

Over time, Ford grew into enough of a celebrity that his name popped up in the gossip columns of the day. He appeared in movies, had his own column in "Movie Life" magazine and even promoted a music festival here and there. 

In 1957, Ford wrote and directed the extremely obscure it-could-be-a-noir Johnny Gunman, starring Martin E. Brooks, Ann Donaldson, Anatol Winogradoff, Woodrow Parfrey, and Johnny Seven, shooting at least partly on location in Greenwich Village. I have no idea whether this film still exists. It's not even clear to me if it was actually released - I can't find a poster.

UPDATE: Johnny Gunman has not only been rediscovered, it's out on DVD! - from Vinegar Syndrome, paired with an equally obscure film, The Candidate (1964), starring Ted Knight and Mamie Van Doren (how did I not know about this one?). I haven't gotten hold of the disk yet, but man, it is high on my purchase list.

2 comments:

  1. WNTA was for several years the anchor station for the NTA Film Network, which functioned as both network and syndicator in the years immediately after the collapse of the DuMont and Paramount Television networks in 1955. NTA to some extent stepped right into the void, particularly in the larger cities, left by the failure of the two tv networks that didn't also have radio networks to sustain them...and NTA was at least as flexible as the older networks had been as a syndicator simultaneously, competing with the likes of Ziv TV (the at its height with such series as SEA HUNT and HIGHWAY PATROL) in that market. Ive written up NTA http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/search?q=nta+film+network and the Paramount Television Network (as opposed to such later Paramount projects as UPN and, currently, the CW network) on my blog.

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    1. Todd, thanks for this additional information, which is new to me. I made an edit to the blog post and linked to your write-up on NTA.

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