Welcome to the first installment of Sights Unheard, a column by Robert Ham highlighting the best music-centric TV shows of all time. This week, we kick things off by looking at Night Music.
Like all music junkies living in small towns in 1990 without a driver’s license, my ability to hear new sounds was limited to the media of the time: the mix tapes my older, more enlightened brother would make for me, terrestrial radio and the idiot box.
Luckily, this was an era where television stuffed as many music-based shows as possible into its broadcasting schedules in an effort to keep up with the cultural juggernaut known as MTV. My options were surprisingly varied; as a music-hungry youth, I wanted to absorb as much of it as my brain and body could handle.
So it was that one lazy summer afternoon when I had exhausted all the other entertainment at my disposal and decided to sprawl on our brownish living room carpet for a bit of channel surfing that I stumbled upon a revelation: a show called Night Music.
I expected the worst considering the host was schmaltz sax player David Sanborn, but sat upright when he introduced my favorite band of the moment, the Pixies, who tore through visceral performances of “Tame” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven.” But what came next hit me like a train.
It was a gang of African-American men and women, all dressed in bright, multi-colored robes. The rhythm section locked into a loose swing beat, and everyone was chanting, “You’ve got to face the music/you’ve got to listen to the cosmos song.” All well and good, but then their lanky sax player ripped into a solo that sounded like a cat undergoing electroshock therapy. I recognized it as jazz, but my Miles Davis and Duke Ellington cassettes did not prepare me for this.
The band was, of course, Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and here they were on a free TV station, picked up via antenna, blowing my college rock-loving mind on a weekend afternoon. And Night Music just went on from there, as if moving from cosmic jazz to performances by neo-folkster Syd Straw, dancehall reggae singer Sister Carol and R&B legend Al Green was the most normal thing in the world.
To the folks behind the show, this is what made sense. They were catholic in their musical taste and wanted to make radical connections that no one would see coming in the guise of a late night variety show.
Now, 25 years after its first appearance on NBC’s schedule, Night Music is still the standard-bearer for presentations of eclectic live performances and unusual jam sessions. Its 40 episodes presaged multi-varied TV programs like Later…With Jools Holland (the former Squeeze keyboardist was actually a co-host on Night Music’s first season) and the off-kilter collaborations Perry Farrell tried to foment at early Lollapaloozas.
Yet the reason that a show like Night Music only survived for two seasons while Later… rages on into its 44th is that the former took far more chances than the latter. The core group of producers and music supervisors—Sanborn, Holland, David Saltz, Hal Willner, and Joe Boyd—wanted simply to highlight the artists that they enjoyed. As Sanborn told Nashville Scene’s Andrew Clayman in a piece on the show last year, “We’d go down our wish list of musicians and try to put together what we thought was an interesting show—an interesting mix of people.”
That said, when the show first premiered on NBC in 1989 (it was originally called Sunday Night both due to the day of the week it aired and likely in deference to its executive producer Lorne Michaels), it was obvious it didn’t quite have its legs under them yet. The musical acts leaned toward adult contemporary fare—early episodes featured saccharine acts like James Taylor, Boz Scaggs, Al Jarreau and Dianne Reeves—and they uncomfortably shoehorned in comedy bits and standup routines.
As the first season continued, Sanborn and co. settled into a nice groove and started to push against the boundaries, if a little gently. They devoted one midseason episode entirely to gospel with performances from Take 6 and the Dixie Hummingbirds. Lou Reed and John Cale, supporting their Songs For Drella album, shared the stage with a young Harry Connick, Jr. And for a few glorious minutes, tenor sax master Sonny Rollins backed Leonard Cohen on a heartbreaking version of the latter’s “Who By Fire.”
By season two, so much about the show shifted. It moved into syndication, requiring a name change to Night Music. Gone were any attempts at comedy and co-host Holland. But most importantly, with the network strictures off the show’s back, Sanborn and the music supervisors decided to open their doors to an even wider variety of sounds and performers. Heck, just look at the lineup for their first episode of the new series: Stevie Ray Vaughan, jazz musician Pharaoh Sanders, former Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee and cult musician/Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
There was also a greater emphasis on collaboration in the last run of episodes; each hour would end with the various performers ganging up to do a song together. This was something that happened in season one, but with the wide range of styles represented, it brought about so many truly inspired moments that it’s hard to highlight just one. Could it be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and Bongwater doing a version of Roky Erickson’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet”? Or was it Sonic Youth sinking their fangs into the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with backing vocals from Indigo Girls and Sanborn doing his best Steve Mackay impression?
Who am I kidding though? The best example of what made Night Music so special was in the episode that saw country pioneer Conway Twitty singing his song “When You’re Cool” and sharing the stage with the giant eyeballs and skull of The Residents. If you can find a more dissonant combination of musical figures, well, you’re likely already an acolyte of this strange and wonderful program.
As you might imagine, the show proved to be too far ahead of its time. That it managed 40 episodes on network television is one of those minor miracles you’ll be hearing a lot about in this column. Though it faded to silence in 1990, it is still being talked about on message boards and Facebook groups as breathlessly as I have been here. And for most, the message is the same: it’s too bad the show didn’t get attempted now, because the Internet age could’ve helped find it an audience. Are you listening, Netflix?
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.