Joanie Harmon has always loved music and writing, and her award-winning blog about jazz, Making Life Swing, is a way for her to fulfill those two passions. By day, she’s the director of communications at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, but in her spare time, she writes about the contributions that jazz musicians, composers and arrangers have made to television.
“While much has been written about the use of jazz in film scores, very little has examined its impact on music for the small screen,” she said. Through her blog, Harmon seeks to depict jazz as an expression of diversity and creative struggle.
For her article “Gene Cipriano: Hired ‘Gunn’ Looks Back at Some Very Good Years,” Harmon interviewed Cipriano, a jazz musician who has performed music for many television shows and movies, including “Peter Gunn,” “The Simpsons” and “Some Like It Hot.” Her interview recently won the Los Angeles Press Club’s first-place award for an entertainment blog not tied to an organization, with the judges describing it as “a delightful surprise” and “a fascinating read.”
Harmon spoke with us about her creative process, her connections to the Los Angeles jazz community and her thoughts on the genre’s place in American culture.
How did you start writing the Making Life Swing blog?
I got started when I went with some friends to these festivals put on by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, which was founded and directed by Ken Poston. I had taken a fascinating UCLA Extension class on the relationship between midcentury visual arts and jazz, which was taught by him. After one of the festivals, I was watching shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant,” and I noticed that Patrick Williams, one of the jazz performers I had just seen at the festival, was credited with composing the music for those series. That got me thinking, “Wow, there are all these connections to television,” which was a big employer of some of the most skilled jazz improvisers. I started making connections with musicians through Mr. Poston and some of the other people whom I met at these festivals. I wanted to bring forth the long, historical relationship between jazz and television, and to elevate the people who had contributed to very well-known programs but had received minimal recognition.
Who did you first interview and how was that experience?
It was a little scary going into it for the first time. My first interview was with Alan Kaplan, a Los Angeles–based trombone player who worked for the Buddy Rich Band and has been featured in countless movies. He was so willing to share and happy to teach. It was wonderful. One of the great things about jazz musicians is that they’re always excited to teach, whether it’s teaching other musicians to play better or if it’s a non-musical person who is just interested in their stories.
How do you see yourself contributing to the conversation around jazz?
I’m Filipina, and the vast majority of books I’ve read on jazz are written by older white men who have some personal link to the jazz world. It’s a bit of a boys club. Not to get on a soapbox about gender, but typically when you think of jazz and women, you think of the pretty girl singer in front of the band, not of instrumentalists. That’s slowly changing, but at these events, I’m usually one of very few women present.
Why do you think your blog has resonated with people?
These are stories that haven’t been told about something that’s very familiar to us all. We take music on television for granted, especially for older shows, where it’s an integral part of the experience. We can identify with that, and also with the struggle and commitment of these musicians. It’s such a competitive field, and it’s so hard to make a living, but they’re doing it so they can produce this art. Educational institutions can play a big role in giving musicians space to work. UCLA has some incredible, renowned musicians, including Terence Blanchard, Arturo O’Farrill, Barbara Morrison and others on our faculty.
What are your future plans for Making Life Swing?
Right now, it’s a labor of love. I enjoy seeing the connections and explaining the importance of jazz to American culture, so I just want to get it out there. I also think that we’re in a moment in which jazz is particularly interesting due to the period of race consciousness that we’re in right now. Jazz is one of the few arenas in the United States where people of all races have the chance to equally participate with their gifts and talents. That’s not to say that the history of jazz and race is always peaceful and perfect. But, from my perspective, jazz is one of the few arenas where Americans of all races have collaborated to make something beautiful, lasting and global. Jazz is more popular in Scandinavia and Japan than it is in the U.S. Maybe that will change, and I’d like to be a part of that change.