James L. Lyons

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b. 18 November 1916, USA, d. 10 April 1994. One of the greatest of jazz’s promoters and impresarios, Lyons was first employed in 1941 as a publicity agent for a dance hall venue offering Stan Kenton’s…
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b. 18 November 1916, USA, d. 10 April 1994. One of the greatest of jazz’s promoters and impresarios, Lyons was first employed in 1941 as a publicity agent for a dance hall venue offering Stan Kenton’s ‘Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra’. Already a jazz enthusiast, and impressed by Kenton’s craft, he took a job as a disc jockey in California, where he persuaded the management to give Kenton a live spot. This helped bring the band leader to the public’s attention, and Lyons too was well served by his success, graduating to NBC where he worked as a presenter and producer, notably on New York’s The Jubilee Show for Armed Forces Radio. Post-war, Lyons returned to his native California, hosting the NBC show Discapades, where he proved a major influence on the jazz scene’s transition from dixieland to bebop (the Gerry Mulligan / Chet Baker group famously paying tribute in ‘Line For Lyons’).

Lyons also played a crucial role in bringing to light the talents of Dave Brubeck and his octet, when everybody else was turning a deaf ear. However, Lyons greatest triumph still lay ahead of him. In 1958 he programmed the first line-up of the Monterey Jazz Festival, boasting the discovery of vibraharpist and drummer Cal Tjader in addition to new work from Duke Ellington. Other artists included Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie. Lyons remained the captain of the Monterey event up until the early 90s, when he was forced to retire after being criticised for his conservative and intransigent booking policies. Whilst this was perhaps true, the sniping should not rob him of his status as a vital component in the emergence of the west coast jazz scene.