The Jacksonville Jazz Festival
Regular readers probably know by now that I have a soft spot in my heart for music production. I’ve worked on a number of films and TV shows that were tied to musical performances and it’s always been an enjoyable experience for me. One of those ongoing experiences was post for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival PBS specials in the 80s and 90s. Although I was living in Jacksonville at the start of this annual event, I really didn’t get involved with the shows until a few years after I’d left town.
The yearly Jacksonville Jazz Festival is a cultural highlight for the city of Jacksonville, Florida. Launched in 1980, the first two years were hosted in the neighboring fishing town of Mayport, home of a large US Navy base. It quickly shifted to downtown Jacksonville’s Metropolitan Park by the St. Johns River, which cuts through the heart of the city.
Recording jazz in the “backyard”
WJCT, the local PBS and NPR affiliate, had been covering the annual event for PBS since the second year of the festival. By 1983, the festival and the station were tightly intertwined. In that year, the park was renovated with a new WJCT facility adjacent to it. Having the building next to the park provided a unique opportunity to install direct audio and video cable runs between the station facility and the covered pavilion performance stage at the park. To inaugurate both, WJCT covered the festival with an eight-hour live broadcast.
From 1981 until 1994 (with the exception of 1983), WJCT produced each year’s festival as a one-hour TV special for PBS distribution. This was a fall event, which was posted over the subsequent months and aired early the next year. My involvement started with the 1984 show, helping to post eight of the eleven TV specials during those years. I worked closely with the station’s VP of Programming, Richard V. Brown, and Creative Services Director, Bill Weather.
Production and post arrangements varied from year to year. Bill Weather was the show’s producer/director for the live event recordings most of those eleven years. (Other directors included Dan Kossoff, David Atwood, and Patrick Kelly.) Weather and I traded off working as the creative editor, so in some years I was the online editor and in others, both editor and online editor. During that decade of shows, post was either at Century III (where I worked) or at our friendly crosstown rival, The Post Group at The Disney-MGM Studios.
Turning the festival into a TV show
Richard V. Brown was the show’s executive producer and also handled the artist arrangements for the show and the festival. Performers received fees for both the live event appearance and the TV show (if they were featured in it), so budgets often dictated who was presented in the telecast. A legendary, but expensive performer like Ray Charles or Miles Davis might headline the festival, yet not appear in the TV special. However, this wasn’t always dictated by money, since top names already brought with them a level of overexposure in the media. And so, the featured artists each year covered a wide spectrum of traditional and contemporary jazz styles, often introducing lesser known artists to a wider TV audience. New Orleans, fusion, Latin, blues, and even some rock performers were included in this eclectic mix.
The artist line-up for each special was decided before the event. Most shows highlighted four acts of about 10 to 15 minutes each. The songs to be included from each artist were selected from the live set, which tended to run for about an hour. The first editorial step (handled by Brown and Weather) was to select which songs to use from each performer, as well as any internal song edits needed to ensure that the final show length fit PBS guidelines.
Recording the live experience
Production and post grew in sophistication over time. Once the WJCT building was completely ready, multiple cameras could be controlled and switched from the regular production control room. No mobile unit required. This usually included up to seven cameras for the event. A line cut was recorded to 1″ videotape, along with several of the cameras as extra iso recordings to be used in post.
The station’s own production equipment was augmented with other gear, including stage lighting, camera dolly, and camera boom. With such an important local event, the station crew was also expanded thanks to local production professionals from the town, including a few top directors and cinematographers working the stage and running cameras; and volunteers working tirelessly to truly make each year memorable.
When it came to sound, the new WJCT facility also included its own 24-track audio recorder. Stage mic signals could be split in order to simultaneously feed the “front of the house” mixing board, the stage monitors, and run back into the building to the multitrack recorder. These 2″ analog audio masters also recorded “time of day” timecode, thus could be synced with the video line cut and iso recordings in post.
Editing is more than just editing
Although my role was post, I was able to attend several of the live festivals, even if I was only the online editor. I sat in the control room and functioned a bit like an assistant director, noting potential editorial issues. But I also made sure that I had coverage of all the members of the band. One performer might take a solo, but I also needed options for other camera angles. As with most live jazz and rock performances, the band members might trade off solos, so it was important to keep an eye on where the focus of the performance could switch to next. Since the director had his hands full just focusing on the real-time action, I would often lean over and ask for a little different coverage from one of the other cameras not currently punched up.
None of the crew was intimately familiar with the live performances of these acts, so it was all about having a sixth sense for the music. However, there was one surprising exception. That was the year that Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band headlined. As you probably know this was the house band for The David Letterman Show, but they also had a limited live touring schedule.
For their set, Shaffer sent in a coordinator with a printout of their entire set rundown. Shaffer and the band had choreographed the whole set, so he was able to give the director a “heads up” for each part of the performance. In addition, Shaffer is the consummate band leader. His set included a jam with his band and several other jazz artists from earlier in the day. Each had a cameo solo. This sort of ad hoc, live jam can often become a big mess; but this one went off as if they’d rehearsed it. Shaffer literally put this together in quick conversations with the other artists during the course of that day.
3/4″ and a legal pad of notes
Once everything was in the can, post could start – initially with content selection. Then camera cuts could be cleaned up using the iso angles. This “offline edit” was largely done by reviewing the 3/4″ U-matic tapes, which had been recorded for the line cut and three of the iso angles using a quad-split generator with a timecode overlay. This gave the editor a multicam view, but from a single tape source. Unfortunately, listing camera cut changes to specific angles required a lot of meticulous, handwritten timecode notes. (Early days had four monitors and a timecode generator display stacked as closely as possible, with an independent camera recording to 3/4″tape.)
Based on these notes, the show master could then be edited in a linear, online session using the 1″ originals and mastering to 1″ or D2. If the line cut of the live recording was solid, then any given song might only have new edits for about 10-25% of the song. Edits might mean a cut to a different angle or maybe the same angle, but just a bit sooner. In addition to the live camera angles, we also had extra ENG footage, including audience shots, party boats anchored in the river nearby, and even some helicopter aerials of the wider event grounds, the pavilion stage, and the audience.
In a typical year, I would finish the camera clean-up edits and trims unsupervised, then Brown and Weather would arrive for the supervised part of the online edit. Here we would build the visual style for the show open and transitions between songs and bands. Plus final credits. This was at the dawn of digital post, so most show opens involved a lot of layering.
It’s all about the mix
The Jacksonville Jazz Festival PBS specials were, of course, about the music. Getting the best possible mix was a very important consideration. In the earliest years, the live recording and remix methodology was evolving, but generally run under the auspices of the WJCT audio engineers. This shifted to our Century III staff audio engineer, Jerry Studenka. He handled the mix for the shows for several years in the late 80s.
To the best of my recollection, the 24-track tapes were recorded at 15ips with Dolby SR noise reduction. This enabled an hourlong set to be recorded on a single reel of tape. Audio mixes/remixes were recorded onto two tracks of that same 24-track tape. In later years, working out of the Century III facility on the lot at Universal, we used Sony 24-track digital audio recorders. The staff would first bounce the analog master reels to digital tape ahead of the audio mix session. Then the audio engineer would mix from one digital recorder to the other. Century III and The Post Group were equipped with Solid State Logic consoles in their main audio rooms, which provided a comfort factor for any experienced music mixer.
The performances were recorded live and mixed on-the-fly during each set as the first pass. Then in the post session, they were polished or remixed in part with punch-ins or even fully remixed depending on what everyone felt gave the best result. But the mixes were all based on the actual live recordings – no overdubs added later.
Every year, each performer was afforded the opportunity to bring in their own recording engineer or representative for the show’s mix. Only two artists ever took Brown up on that – Paul Shaffer and Spyro Gyra. Larry Swist came down for Spyro Gyra, who appeared at numerous festivals and was featured in several of the specials. Swist, who later became a well-respected studio designer, was the recording engineer for the band’s albums. Shaffer sent Will Lee (the band’s vocalist/bassist) as his rep to the mixing session. Spyro Gyra and Shaffer’s band happened to be on the same show that year. By the time Lee arrived, Studenka and Swist already had a good mix, so Lee was able to quickly sign off.
Swist had an easy-going, “no drama” personality. Everyone had such a good experience working with him that for each year thereafter, Swist was brought in for all of the sessions. He coordinated both the live recording to multitrack during the event and then remixed all the music for the show during post.
These remixes weren’t as straightforward as they might seem. All sound post was handled on tape, not with any sort of DAW. It was a linear process, just like the picture edits. First of all, there were internal edits within the songs. Therefore, all outboard processing and console and fader settings had to match at the edit point, so that the edit was undetectable. Second, the transitions between songs or from one artist to the next had to be bridged. This was generally done by overlapping additional crowd applause across the change to hide the performance edit, which again required audio matching.
The Jacksonville Jazz Festival of 1994 (aired 1995) was the last of the PBS specials, due in part to the cost of production and TV rights. Eventually WJCT turned over production of the festival itself to the City of Jacksonville. The results for that time speak for themselves. The collective effort produced not only great festival experiences, but also memorable television. Unfortunately, some of the production folks involved, like Richard V. Brown, Larry Swist, and Jerry Studenka are no longer with us. And likewise, neither are some of the featured performers. But together, they left a worthwhile legacy that is still carried on by the City of Jacksonville to this day.
©2022 Oliver Peters