Vivi in Italia

(Partial entry)

Clearly, what comes next is not about performing. It’s about adapting to Italian ways.

We settled in Genoa, where I had gotten a job teaching English to Italian adults at The British School and found an apartment in the city’s oldest section, Centro Storico (Historic Center), a place full of life and vitality. Open balconies looked out over the tiny Piazza San Luca, where a small church had bell-ringing worship on Sundays, something we late sleepers hadn’t foreseen.

Weekdays, the narrow streets below thronged with shoppers and visitors from morning to evening, people entering an appliance store, the cigarette-tobacco-candy-stamps-postcard shop (“Sale e Tabacchi,” a national government-run enterprise controlling the legal sale of salt, tobacco, and stamps), the narrow-framed place to buy women’s dresses with its “Entrata libera” (free admission) sign, and the man hustling illegal cigarette lighters, calling outAbbiamo la  bella Margherita(“We have the beautiful Margarita”), while scanning the territory to make sure no Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) would spot him and haul him off. All that kept buzzing, humming, and vibrating, except from noon to 3 p.m. during le ore di riposo (hours of rest); plus on Monday mornings, when everything was closed, a fire-eating street performer (who also escaped from chains in front of the very eyes of passers-by) did his act, his exhortations reverberating across the walls of the buildings surrounding him. We loved it. Most importantly, I could walk to The British School in 15 minutes from there.

Centro Storico w name
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our apartment

When Edward Clegg hired me, he said that there was a procedure I had to follow: obtain a permesso di sogiorno (permission to stay) from La Polizia. He didn’t say why. But, as I later learned, his Genoa school, started in 1970, was not yet legally recognized by any local Italian authorities. And never was while I taught there. I had no contract. Payment was in untaxed cash. I went immediately to the Questura, a branch of the national police. Italy has two separate, equal police forces, La Polizia and I Carabinieri. Municipal police are I Vigili Urbani and La Polizia Municipale. And don’t forget the above-named Customs Police. At the Questura, I filled out multiple, much-stamped documents declaring that I was a journalist.

Helga got a genuine job. Clegg suggested that she look into working for the big international shipping and container company SeaLand, a major presence in this biggest port in the nation. Being multi-lingual and already an experienced secretary, Helga was quickly hired. To start in October.

First, we needed to get thoroughly settled. This being Europe, we had to buy a refrigerator and stove, plus pay someone to install light fixtures and a hot water heater. A strain on our finances. We lacked furniture. All we had to start was the removable VW bed, the camping table and chairs, plus a few kitchen utensils, mostly plastic. Camping indoors.

Helga’s brother-in-law, Peter, had told us that he’d be happy to give us furniture abandoned at his moving and storage company warehouse in Vienna. We’d have to import it. With documents. Helga’s future boss at SeaLand gave us tips on how to navigate through intricate Italian customs processes. The documents required, among other things, the name of the recipient, the “capo di famiglia.” Legally, that could not be me. I had no legal status. No evident financial responsibility. A living man not the head of the family? That didn’t belong in that culture. It took a lot of dramatic pleading and some SeaLand recommendations to have a woman’s name listed as capo di famiglia.

After resolving that, Helga set off in the van for Vienna to choose furniture to be transported and acquire other things which her family would donate, such as lamps, dishes, silverware. The one-day-990 km (620 miles) trip would take about 10 hours.

After lunch together in Verona, Helga drove north and I bought a train ticket to Genoa. The train departed Verona at 3:12 p.m. It never got me home. All passengers had to get off in Milano. Uno sciopero having stopped us in our tracks. Not, as it turns out, a rare event. “Sciopero” would be translated as “strike,” except that such strikes often have been unlike American ones. They usually are work stoppages. Sometimes shorter than a day.


When an announcement came over the train loudspeaker upon arrival in Milano, I didn’t understand enough Italian to grasp why everyone, grumbling, was getting off. But a Genoa-bound newly-wed young woman spoke enough English to explain. She said that everyone would get rides home in I Pullman. Weren’t they some kind of trains? Sleeping cars? No. The words mean large inter-city buses. Ours stopped outside every local train station all the way to Genoa. I arrived home at 3 a.m.

It became clear that scioperi were most often held to demonstrate the power and meaning of unions. The reasons could be about working conditions, of course, or just statements to remind the government, which usually was financially invested in the big companies where people worked, that such unions had enough political significance to influence the frequent elections. There was even a regular phone number to call for an automated recording about which strikes were imminent in the next few days. Moreover, during a bank strike in Genoa, one bank stayed open so that no citizen would be completely inconvenienced.

We took on the roles of innocent foreigners, even after we became completely fluent in Italian, learning to smooth the way by seeming not to understand what authorities, such as police, were saying; e.g., driving in Genoa, I took a forbidden left turn, not having seen the sign prohibiting it. A vigilo urbano pulled me over. Some of what he said was not clear. I replied, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Italian.” He waved me off. Annoyed of course. An object lesson. At customs barriers, we’d pass as ignorant Germans, our license plate and seeming language puzzlement breezed us through. We regularly parked illegally half a block away from home at a piazza reserved for commercial vehicles and never got tickets. And one of The British School teachers, a Scot, Paul Fraser, had been driving a 1965 Citroën with an expired English license plate for at least five years without problems. We soon learned that foreigners often were considered welcome guests. Tourism = big business. This was one of many ways we learned how things were done.

In 1973, after a visit to Vienna, Helga discovered that she had left some clothes at her mother’s home and asked to have them mailed to Genoa. A few months later, the Italian postal system, a legend in its time, delivered an official, much-document-stamped card, saying that the package must be retrieved at a customs branch in the main post office. I took the notice there. Not being able to prove that I was Helga, the package was denied me.

At home, then, I wrote a two-page letter, in long-hand English, consistent with the Italian belief that more is better, identifying the writer as Helga, explaining that the clothes were vital to domestic life, especially the night gown, whose absence compromised our marital intimacy. She signed it. At the nearby Sale e Tabachi I bought multiple document stamps and used one of my American X-Stampers (“Photographs—Do Not Bend or Fold”), stamping it multiple times to make the letter as official-looking as possible. The package was handed over without question. Our marital intimacy thrived anew.

Despite such smoothing of the ways, that same year, two years after having filed for permesso di soggiorno at the Questura, I was called in and told that I must leave Italy. I was required to depart within a week. My permesso had expired. Leave? But, I explained, we had a home and my wife had a full-time job! How could that be? The chief superintendent said that he was very sorry. That was the law. Patiently, he added, that it might be possible for me to return sometime and perhaps get another permesso, so long as it was provable that I had left. Perhaps a stamped passport?, he suggested. He regretted that he could not make it clearer. And could not extend the deadline.

Oh, I got it. Two days later, I drove to Lugano, Switzerland (two-and-a-half hours, 136 miles), having done so on previous occasions to shop and havaing my passport stamped at the border. Back home, no one came to arrest me. Then, several weeks thereafter, seeing there was no urgency, I applied for a new permesso and got one.

In early 1974, a letter arrived saying that the Comune di Genova was making a survey of apartments in Centro Storico to make certain that there were no fire hazards, requiring us to allow an inspector to visit. Finding that puzzling, we told friend and neighbor Jerry Reichman, a long-time American resident who earned his living as an Italian/English translator. He thoroughly knew the intricacies of Italian ways. He was very amused. “Oh, that’s actually the city tax office. It’s about yearly city residence taxes. Have you paid them anything?” Huh? We didn’t know we had to. “They’ll come in and look at how you live and ask seemingly friendly questions about what you own, almost as if it were a conversation. That way they can assess how much you should be paying. But they’ll never say that’s the reason for coming.” What about inspecting for fire hazards? “Sure, they’ll make it look like that.”

An inspector played his role. We played ours. When asked if we owned a car, we explained we had borrowed the VW from a German friend. It was never registered in our names. When we’d bought the van in Munich in 1971, we had no known address and weren’t even sure where we’d eventually settle.

About a year later, Italian procedural time, we were summoned to the tax office of the Comune. Legal papers showed that we owed 58,750 lire, about $840. That was a shock, of course. Jerry had coached me, however, to contest the decision. Another performance: as an American journalist, this inhospitality was dismaying. That, as only with a free-lance income, my earnings were intermittent and that was the only work on which I could count. Moreover, we regularly sent money to my dear old mother back in the U.S. (That was true—a check for $25 on holidays and for her birthday.) None of this was verifiable with documents. No one ever asked  about my teaching. Helga’s work was documented, of course. The tax collector then asked what payment we thought would be reasonable. I suggested 30,000 lire. Instead of rejecting the idea or the offer, he gave us appeal papers to sign, saying that the office would contact us about its decision. We were bargaining.

When we preparing to return to the U.S. in August 1975, a letter arrived telling us to pay 41,700 lire no later than October 21st. We followed Italian traditions and ignored it. And left town.

Other Performances

Jazz: Tony Scott, Joe Venuti, Stan Kenton

Tony Scott came to play in Genoa in the summer of 1972. His and Romano Mussolini’s Quartet had a weekend gig at the Estoril Beach Club. (Yes, “Beach,” a word in English. Hip.) I’d read about them in Il Secolo XIX, the daily newspaper.

Tony_Scott_1978 year

Arriving at the club, I had trouble recognizing Scott, but the clarinet gave him away. Photos on my LPs showed him with combed-back black hair, beginning to thin in the 1964 one, with Shinichi Yuize and Hozan Yamamoto, the enduringly famed Music for Zen Meditation. By the time he was visible in person he was totally bald and had a long, scraggly black beard.    

During a break, I introduced myself, telling Scott how much I’d admired him and that I’d often broadcast his LPs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York. He was delighted, of course, especially to encounter an American fan in Italy. We set up a taped interview for following day. He asked to meet at the club at 7 p.m. before warming up for the 8:30 show.

You might legitimately ask what I’d do with the interview. I had no radio show and didn’t anticipate any in the future. Certainly not in Italy. With the current intention of returning to the U.S. it didn’t matter.

But I did return. And hosted a jazz program for RAI.


Tony and I really hit it off. He was very impressed with how much I knew about him (“How’d you get into my life ?”). And my aunt Erminie’s connection to Shinichi Yuize solidified the connection. She managed Yuize’s U.S. career for about 10 years before she passed away in 1969, having given copies of Music for Zen Meditation to potential concert presenters. It turned out to be a regular source of Scott’s income for years. He, meanwhile, had been internationally peripatetic, starting in the early ’60s with rare visits to the U.S.

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In our interview he said that he loved playing with Mussolini (of course) and that the pianist’s name sometimes got them club dates, given that people were curious about the son of the dictator (and violinist). But it was clear that sometimes that name would turn away potential audiences. Certainly there were many jazz fans in Italy; in fact, there was Il Louisiana Jazz Club in Genoa. For such people, Tony’s name meant something. He pointed out that he was actually Italian himself: “I’m Sicilian and proud of it!”—a way of challenging the idea that to be Sicilian in Northern Italy was seen as equal to being an American red-neck. Actually, Tony was Italo-American, born Anthony Sciacca in Morristown, NJ. His parents were Sicilian immigrants.

After we finished the interview, he suggested that we keep in touch, giving me his phone number in Rome, asking for mine. He also said that he’d let me know when he’d play again along my part of the Italian Riviera. Plus an invitation to drop in on him and his family the next time we were in Rome.

Mussolini sounded good. Sometimes, when he moved his head, it looked as if he was jutting out his jaw reminiscent of photos of his father.

The next spring Tony called, saying that he had a gig in San Remo, a famed festival location on the Italian Riviera, west of Genoa. He wanted to hang out and see more of Genoa the day before the gig and to meet Helga. We invited him to stay overnight in the spare bed in our office.

Arriving at our door, he had no instruments with him. “They’re in my van, under the sopraelevata.” That section of highway runs above streets in the port, teeming with trucks loading and unloading merchandise to and from warehouses or to be carted into the narrow alleys of Centro Storico where no trucks or cars could maneuver.

“Gee, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “This neighborhood is not all that safe. I’ve had our van broken into twice.”

“What did they steal?”

“Nothing. It’s totally empty.”

You’d be better off doing what I do. Come on. I’ll show you.”

The inside of his scuffed FIAT van had broken bottles, torn cardboard cartons, a few rags, and crumpled newspapers scattered all over the inside. “No one thinks there could be anything worth stealing there, right?” he asked. “My saxes and clarinet are in their cases underneath that fake floorboard. They couldn’t be any safer.”

“But you could bring them up to our place.”

“Nah, I don’t feel like carrying them. They’ll be all right for the rest of the day and tonight I’m sure. I’ve never had any break-ins in Rome.”

While we were walking in the evening along Via San Luca, running by our Piazza, a few shops were closing, the owners pulling down and locking the iron gates as usual. During the night, by the way, hired patrolling watchmen would stop by, look in and put self-identifying slips of paper under the gates to show that they’d been there. And, as was sometimes true, as part of this evening, babbling men were clustered around a high cardboard box on the paving stones, evidently watching and participating in a card game, in which one man was flipping cards as if trying to fool anyone naïve enough to bet on winning laid-out cash waiting for a lucky winner.

“Look at that!” Tony laughed. “These guys are playing Three Card Monte. That scam is centuries old!”

Meanwhile, the five men around the box kept up a constant dialogue as if they couldn’t hear or understand anything Tony was saying. Since part the game is to make it look as if an innocent bystander has figured out a way to trick the trickster, one man turned to me with a wink to show me how he was going to win. He folded over the edge of one card. Meanwhile another man kept looking up and down the street as if checking to make sure no police were around.

“OK! Watch this!” Tony said. “That guy with the cards is going to unbend the presumed marked card and replace it so fast, you wouldn’t notice!” I didn’t notice. Meanwhile the cast of this performance kept on babbling, as if we were now a part of the show. We watched for a little longer but no real potential victim showed up.

Tony and I drove separately to San Remo. That weekend he also had a gig an hour west in Monte Carlo.

When I arrived at the small beach-front club ahead of the performance, it was clear that Romano Mussolini was not the pianist. No surprise, actually. Tony had told me that he and Mussolini sometimes had separate gigs. Backstage in the tiny dressing room, he ran an electric razor over his bald head.

Meanwhile, recorded music was playing within the club. Not straight-ahead jazz, but rather something that sounded like a saxophone electronically modified to create echoes of itself. Later, I realized that that was John Klemmer using an echoplex, a then-new concept. Tony grabbed his baritone sax and went into the club, playing his own notes to mingle with Klemmer’s. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

The last time we saw each other was in 1974 during a spring trip to Rome. Tony invited us to his house to hang out and, later, to have dinner. I met Tony’s two sweet pre-teen daughters. Nina introduced herself as “Nina Sciacca Scott” and then called over her younger sister Monica. Monica would later have a jazz singing career as Monica Shaka Nina was the inspiration for “Nina’s Dance,” which Tony recorded in 1969 during one of his rare late 1960s visits to the U.S.

Their mother, Pauline, asked Helga and me if we liked Chinese food. Being Chinese, she wanted to cook some for us. What a delight! We had no genuine Chinese restaurant in Genoa, only one where Chinese cooks created something more Italian than Asian. And, except for one good Chinese meal during a visit to Bologna, there were no other Italian options about which we knew. Actually, our Italian friends were shocked that we’d eat Chinese food in what many consider the cuisine capitol of their nation.

I told Pauline that I wanted to learn to cook Chinese but that I hadn’t been able to find many special ingredients in Genoa. So she took us shopping with her to an open market filled with Asians, where we could find many elements I wanted. I loaded up. Then, preparing dinner, she taught me techniques.

Not long after, Helga and I went to the U.S. for a visit. We came back carrying extra luggage, clothing masquerading sauces, fresh ginger, and a great Chinese knife. Plus a few cookbooks. At Zurich airport there were no customs problems. And none driving across the border into Italy.

It took some doing for our Italian friends to try my new-found cooking skills. Not because it was me. But because of the alien ingredients and the strange blending of vegetables with meat or fish and unusual sauces. They were nervous and only on reflection, delighted.

As for Tony, when we left his sweet family and his warm hospitality he gave us his newest LP, one side his, one side Mussolini’s; he was trying to market it during gigs. It sounded great but I had no idea how I’d ever broadcast it. I did so a few years later, though. On Italian radio.

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That fall another famous jazz musician had a gig in Genoa. He, too, was Italo-American. Actually he might have been born in Italy. Joe Venuti was not only a legendary violinist; he was also renowned for varying his stories about where and when he was born. Lecco, Italy (not far from Milan) was one such place. Another was on board a ship heading to the U.S. And Philadelphia was often mentioned. The years? 1896 to 1904. Whatever the exact year was, the real one, he was close to my father’s age.

Louisiana Jazz Club

When he came to town to play at Il Louisiana Jazz Club in January 1975, I had had no jazz show for several years and was not following what was going on in jazz. Most of what I knew about him went back to the Paul Whiteman/Bix Beiderbecke days, although I did have his 1960 Golden Crest LP of Gershwin’s music with pianist Ellis Larkins. There had been a major comeback in his career, stretching back  several years.

I later learned that he had two 1970s recording sessions in Milan with Italian musicians. One session featured three performers with him the same year we met: Paolo Tomelleri on tenor, Tony Parisi playing bass, and drummer Giorgio Vanni. Also present were Nando DeLuca at the piano and Gianni Coscia with his accordion. (I kept written notes.)

Venuti talked about his early days and about how he came up with the idea of playing jazz on the violin. According to his story, he’d been on the last stand in the second violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1921 (“about age 15”) studying with concertmaster Thaddeus Rich and felt that didn’t look like a promising career, causing him to be interested in a popular music career. Was that true? He didn’t seem to remember that Stokowski was the conductor. And to not remember one of the most famous conductors ever seems odd. Note: Venuti’s history would mean that he had been there four years before my father joined the Orchestra in 1925.

Of course, we discussed Venuti and Eddie Lang’s influence on the Stephane Grappelli/Django Reinhardt groups about 10 years thereafter. I pointed out that I regularly heard Grappelli’s recordings on nearby Radio Monte Carlo, but never heard Venuti’s. His only comment was that he thought Grappelli always sounded great.

Other jazz musicians who turned up were Stan Kenton and his orchestra for a one-night stand. I went backstage, proud of being a hip American who knew their music and knew the city. Backstage, I asked some band members if they’d like to see some of the city sights. “Nah. Just tell us where there’s a good restaurant near here,” the bassist said. A classic story. A one-night gig. Who’s got time for tourism?

GS on stage. Not on the radio.


In 1974 I actually performed myself. At Genoa’s British Club. It came about through fellow-American Don Ferguson who had been a teacher with me at The British School. Don knew the Club manager. The two of them thought it might be rather droll to stage a one-evening club performance of Tom Stoppard’s one-act The Real Inspector Hound. The manager drafted a few club members to take supporting roles, while Don and I played the leads, with, of course, acceptable English accents. My role: Moon. Don’s: Birdboot. No director. It was quite informal. The audience included a few fellow-teachers and others from The Overseas School (more about that  later). Certainly, given that Genoa was a major seaport, there had been other native English-speakers in town to swell the scene. All in all, about 20 people sat around us in comfortable chairs and on sofas to witness our endeavor. Were we any good? Possibly. There were no reviews to stir any recollections now.

That was the only time in Italy that I had an acting role.

There was a brief, tentative attempt to be on the radio. Helga and I frequently listened to Radio Monte Carlo, whose multiple signals were both in French and Italian. Mostly we loved the jazz on the French station. I’d had a wild fantasy that I could become a d.j. on the Italian station. And the headquarters, after all, were not very far away, west of the Italian Riviera, 180 or so kilometers, about two hours on an Autostrada. Why not? I was an experienced jazz d.j. with a good library of LPs which had been shipped to us by then.

So, after a phone contact in the summer of 1973 with station director Noel Coutisson, I got an invitation to drop by and bring an audition tape. I slapped it together the best I could, using my LPs and recording my voice on the only recording equipment at home, a cassette deck.

Radio Monte Carlo w name

The station was as elegant as any I’d ever seen, recalling my visit to the broadcasting Oz of WNEW about 15 years before. Coutisson, speaking impeccable English, was very friendly and courteous, asking if I’d want to settle in Monte Carlo, should he think that I’d fit in on his station. The idea of living in that slick, high-rise-dominated city didn’t feel all that attractive, really. It had none of the personality of everything I loved about Italy. I didn’t say so, though. I said that I was more interested in having a show once a week, since a daily drive each way of two-and-half hours would be hard to manage.

I left the tape, and he promised to get back in touch with me. After we parted I stopped in one of the many nearby casinos where I won 40 francs, about $18. (Monte Carlo is geographically and culturally most tied to France.)

Coutisson never contacted me and I never followed up.

In the audience

As for Italian radio, it never went further than listening (until 1979 when I had my own weekly taped jazz show on a Genoa station).  We often enjoyed classical music programs on RAI 3 where that was the feature.

When starting to listen, we also were amused and entertained by RAI 2, which had quite a variety of programs. Most fun were easy-to-understand talent contests and quizzes with live audiences. “Corrida” had amateur singers whose audiences cheered or jeered contestants, then voted for the winners.  In “Le piace il classico” contestants had to answer questions about classical music. Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was the show’s theme music.


Both had prizes in gettoni d’oro (gold tokens). Since Italian law prevented gambling (uh-huh) no government entity, such as radio, could pay in cash. So the prizes (200,000 lire in one case, ca. $250 at the time, worth $1,425 in 2015) were in gold coins equal to that value in gold at the time of the award. The award would not be sent until six months later, when the recipient could sell the gold at the then-current price. Selling to the Bank of Italy was not advised; it didn’t offer good rates compared to private/business buyers. These complications were characteristic of the baroque Italian ways of doing things, given fractured history and separate regional identities, where independence and individuality were prized.


My favorite was a radio play designed, it seemed, to teach English. The first episode of Tarzan mixed a cartoon-like dramatization with sound effects and music, involving occasional interspersing of English phrases in the narration, where the action stopped and a woman narrator said, for example, “Tarzan was the son of an English lord,” followed by a male narrator, “Tarzan era un figlio di un lord inglese.” Then she and he took turns repeating each word several times, adding such enrichments as “son, daughter” (pronounced “dowter”) “figlio, figlia.” Other useful English phrases included “The father of Tarzan was sailing to Africa” “Il padre di Tarzan navigava verso l’Africa,” supplemented by repetitions of “mother-madre” and “a sailor saved the parents of Tarzan” “un marinaio salve i genitori di Tarzan.” Actually, none of these three translations was completely literal, as it turns out. The villain of the piece was growling “Black Michael,” who spoke only Italian. Tarzan narrated in Italian as, well, as if an old man. The show ended with a rock song in English with a young male voice singing “My name is Tarzan.” I could find no source for it online. Years later there was such a song in Disney’s 1999 Tarzan. The naiveté of the whole radio show was such fun.

There were other radio plays and many deliberately back-to-back commercials in clusters, often read by  men and women duos. The cluster concept was very common in state-run broadcasting in much of Europe then.

Il Teatro Comunale was a short walk away from our apartment through the narrow alleys and streets to Via XX Settembre. There, because I was a journalist, press tickets were available for a performance by Genova’s Teatro Comunale Opera Company of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Carlo Bergonzi was the visiting star. I’d always admired his recordings but neither of us was much devoted to live opera, often finding staging and acting stilted and forced. So we couldn’t help laughing at Bergonzi’s hammy movements, despite his fine singing. That didn’t endear us to people sitting nearby. But we loved the music.

Another time we went to a concert there by l’Orchestra Sinfonica di Genova. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was on the program. What we most noticed was how the string sections never bowed in unison. It seemed so Italian to be independent and personal. The sound was OK.

One of the first movies we saw in Genova was Gli insospettabili (The Unsuspected Ones) starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It was actually Sleuth. The dialogue was all dubbed into Italian and we understood virtually none of it. We did enjoy a toothpaste commercial, though, before the feature started. It was for Close Up, pronounced in the voice-over as Cloh-zay Oop.

i soppravissuti

In the next couple of years, more fluent in Italian, we saw two other dubbed films. Hitchcock’s Frenzy, which kept the title. We exited the theatre truly shaken. And I Sopravvissuti (The Survivors) a.k.a. Soylent Green, equally understandable and disturbing.

(more excerpts)

I was fired at The British School when another American teacher and I tried to organize the staff into a collective group to get better pay. I succeeded, however, in keeping many of the people I’d taught as my personal clients.

I also started teaching at The Overseas School where children of American, English, and others took classes. It was only as a substitute but I loved every minute and decided that that was what I wanted to do with my life. When there was a staff opening it was not offered to me but to a young Englishwoman who’d been teaching at The British School. I was told that one main reason for choosing her was because she had a teaching certificate which I didn’t have.

I could have gone on being a substitute, of course. Instead, Helga and I decided to return to the U.S. so I could get a teaching certificate, with plans thereafter to return to our beloved Italy. We did come back. But only as visitors.

We took a passenger freighter to New York, bringing along only essential household goods in the hold. Most of my LPs, for example, were left in storage.

Why New York? Helga’s former boss had said, when we had left for Europe, that there would always be a job for her with him should she want it. She contacted him and he affirmed his offer.

Bites Out of the Apple

Back to New York

I got a teaching job. There was a last-minute opening to teach 5th grade at The Bentley School on Manhattan’s East Side. I was offered a yearly salary of $8,000 (equal to about $36,000 in 2015). Forget New York sustenance.

I was fired five months later.

My experience at The Overseas School had not prepared me for trying to control sometimes spoiled New York City kids from affluent families. Students in Genoa had nowhere else to go. They were on their best behavior. Students in New York private schools had many choices. Competition. Such private schools did everything they could to make sure that the parents got their money’s worth.

I started without any experience in establishing control. On the wrong foot. Moreover, I arrived suffused with European-influenced politeness, devoid of my former New York edge. Certainly that made me appear soft to some kids. Later, though, I was able to frequently take charge. And some students loved me.

My departing letter of reference: “…high ideals…stimulating and challenging…personal integrity.” I had been very creative, innovative, and original. But my imaginative extrapolations from the curriculum got further and further behind the school’s intended schedule.

Moreover, I struck a student. Johnny Callaghan had been one of the most disrespectful and disorderly students in the class. I’d kept him after school more than once, to the dismay of his mother and of school director Katherine Cantwell. The last time he was sequestered, he’d reached over onto my desk and tried to take a pen out of my hand. I slapped his hand. Lightly.

That did it. Gone.

We’d come back to New York so I could get my teaching degree. But during those first five months all my time outside of class was spent preparing the lessons and studying books on how to teach.

Helga’s salary wasn’t enough to sustain us. I needed another job. No time yet to study for a teaching degree.

General Development Corporation was looking for sales people. I applied. The product: land in newly developing communities in Florida. Real properties. In my training class, other candidates were convinced I’d be a success, coming across as outgoing, friendly, fluently verbal. Yeah. I could talk. Never closed a sale.

X Stamper

Next I joined the sales team selling XStampers, a newly emerging self-inking product developed by Shachihata, Inc. at a time when rubber stampers always needed ink pads. My training included a “sure-fire” script. Working my assigned territory, Manhattan businesses north and west of Washington Square, I always felt I could do better improvising on the script. My sales did not flourish.

I got career advice from an unexpected source. A psychic. Via Helga, who’d always given a lot of credence to non-rational experiences, intuition, forms of spirituality, the possibility of the exchange of unspoken thoughts, and so on. To some extent, I shared such beliefs, especially regarding my own intuitions.

Helga had read a New York Times article about this man who’d recently moved to Westchester. Call him Walter Siegmeth. Siegmeth had made it clear that offering psychic readings was his calling and his profession.

Out of curiosity, Helga contacted Siegmeth to make an appointment. Perhaps, if he had insights, those would help us clarify what we were doing with our lives or might do, something we felt we needed to do. Before her visit, she encouraged me to go if her own experience justified the idea. She also planned to deliberately avoid mentioning my name and to say nothing revealing about me. She stuck with her plan and, after her visit, returned impressed.

So I went.

Siegmeth told me that, when he gave readings, they were things that he could sense about people, but that he never intended to project anyone’s future.

While I sat, he paced his living room, twirling what looked like a broken strand of a wire hanger. Among other things, he correctly perceived that I had a serious circulation problem in one of my legs. He didn’t specify what it was. It was postphlebitic syndrome that I’d had for many years. Given that I had never limped or favored that leg, there was no obvious way to intuit that.

Soon he looked puzzled. “You know,” he said, “I cannot tell at all what you do professionally.”

“I’m a salesman,” I told him.

“No. No. You are not a salesman.”

“But, it’s true. That’s what I’m doing these days.”

“I understand. But, even so, you are no salesman.”

He was right there; I was not a success.

“What else have you been doing?” he asked.

“Well, I was a teacher.”

“No. You are also not a teacher.”

I replied, “But I was a teacher and I loved it. ”

“Then why are you not doing it now?”

“I was fired,” was my answer. Upon later reflection, that question made me ask myself why I didn’t keep on trying to be one, if it was so important and meaningful.

“So then, you are not a teacher now. Yes?”


He twirled his wire more. “No. I see you doing something else. Something to do with music.”

Interesting, yes? “I hosted music programs on the radio.”

“Aha!” He said. “Then, why are you not doing that now?’

I explained to him that I felt teaching was more important.

“Forgive me,” he replied, “but I perceive you as belonging with music.” Well, yes. That was my professional past since 1955 and at the core of my being, given my love of music and my family history.

Twirl. “I also see you as some kind of administrator connected with music. Have you ever done that?”


“Yes. Well, I see you writing down a lot of numbers somehow connected with the music. Does that mean anything to you?”

It didn’t. It seemed totally alien.

“You know, it is not my prerogative, nor part of what I do, to tell people how to manage their lives. Perhaps what I see is in your past, of course, but it sounds like that is what you should be doing in any case.”

I left distressed. Not that he was counseling me, or that I needed to take seriously his suggestion. But going back into radio still seemed too insignificant, valueless to society, even if something easy and fun.

A few months later, I went back to WNCN and WQXR. And every day, when I was on the air, I had to write numbers, start times and finish times of music and commercials in the logs and schedules. I used to do that in the 1960s but had forgotten.

A radio performer again.  

Helga and some New York friends had more than once told me that I should return to a radio career. Given Siegmeth’s comments, she had further underscoring.

David Dubal w name

Naturally, I first contacted WNCN’s David Dubal.  He was still the music director. But the word “still” conjures up fascinating events which had occurred while I was in Europe.

For about eight months, WNCN didn’t exist. A rock station took over its frequency. Starr Broadcasting had bought NCN, lock, stock, and frequency in May 1973. Trying to make profits, in 1974 Starr turned it into  WQIV, “Q” for quadrophonic, “IV” Roman numeral “4” for four channels.

Loyal long-time WNCN listeners were up in arms, feeling that New York was being deprived of a major cultural treasure, that WNCN had served different classical music audiences than WQXR, which had always maintained more conservative main-stream programming. Certainly, in my previous days there, WNCN had been different (as you can see above.)

Thus were born the WNCN Listeners Guild and Classical Radio for Connecticut. They raised private funds for a lawsuit against Starr, also taking the issues to the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court. By then Starr was having problems. The SEC levied heavy fines and censured some principals. Plus a potential buyer challenged the FCC license renewal. Starr flickered and faded and accepted a Guild-engineered offer from GAF Broadcasting.

WNCN returned in June 1975 under owner No. 3, a 20-or-so-year history.

Much of the above information comes from Matt Edwards, who was quite involved with the Listeners Guild. He also is behind the maintenance of, where his writing is full of all kinds of interesting information about the station’s history through its final days in 1994. Another source of clarification:

In fall 1976 I was glad to come back as a part-time substitute announcer, thanks to David. It was a compromise; it meant having decently paying work, even if it was insignificant as a meaningful contribution to society.

The programming had undergone a major change. GAF’s station became much more WQXR-like despite the Listeners Guild’s intentions and wishes. Guided by management, David chose well-known, well-loved compositions. Nothing too modern. Nothing too challenging for the listeners. Accessible. Safe. Some Guild members expressed their displeasure. This was no longer like the last NCN. But there was nothing the Guild could do about it.

And, to increase ratings and keep listeners tuned in, there was an avoidance of modern or experimental music.

Plus no vocals were permitted, meaning no opera arias, no Renaissance songs, no sacred works with singing. There were always listeners who’d complain about what they perceived as annoying screeching.

GS & John Gruen names

Unlike at the previous NCN, none of us on-air hosts chose any music for broadcast. The management wanted total control. That had always been the pattern at QXR and such control has been standard for many years in most commercial radio stations and even in many public ones. The station also published a monthly program guide, Keynote, a classy looking magazine which was a successor to the same-named publication started in the 1960s.

However, station manager Bob Richer and program director Matt Biberfeld wanted all announcers to have a lot of freedom in how they hosted programs and for us to think of ourselves not as announcers but as disc jockeys. Personal, personable, relaxed, casual. For classical music radio that was still rather rare. That, at least, was different from QXR, where only George Edwards and Duncan Pirnie would be considered personalities, albeit, by then, rather predictable and conservative-sounding. Like someone’s uncles. FYI: In 1987 QXR fired them both for “not having enough audience appeal” according to the station. Both filed age-discrimination suits.

Also rare for a classical music station, we were expected to frequently mention the call letters, just as most pop music stations did. QXR didn’t do that. And to repeat the letters whenever or wherever possible. The reason: when telephone ratings surveys were taken, the idea was to imprint the name on the listener, or Arbitron ratings where listeners had to write in the call signs of the stations to which they listened. That’s something wide-spread in radio now, e.g., “Here’s the WNCN weather forecast. “The time at WNCN is 6:46.” “On WNCN, that was Rossini’s Overture to La Gazza Ladra.”

Relief announcer Dick Jayson had trouble with repeating station IDs. In the ’70s he was doing the same sort of thing I’d been doing in the 1960s, filling in on many stations. When he came into the control room he exuded a palpable sense of nervousness. I asked him why. He explained that he was always anxious about giving the wrong call letters on the air, so he wrote down the kinds of things mentioned above and pasted a big handwritten sign on the board with “WNCN 104.3” in bold letters. In truth, giving the wrong call letters is no disaster. I’ve done it a few times, given my vast range of radio hosting. Nonetheless, such a mistake still regularly turns up in my nightmares.

When I first joined NCN, Matt Edwards hosted the Morning Concert, Bob Adams, the Afternoon Concert. Those SOP imaginative program names again. Former stage and movie actor Oscar Buhler was the regular staffer during 6 p.m. to midnight’s various programs. Midnight to 6 a.m. there was “Music Through the Night with Fleetwood,” a continuation of what he had been doing at WNBC for numerous years. Other part-timers and relief announcers regularly included Max Cole, Lucien Ricard, Frank Coffee, and Clayelle Dalferes. (There are multiple references to Matt, Bob, and Max in my pages above about the 1960s.)

In late 1976 Bob Richer fired Bob Adams, dissatisfied with his performance. I took over Afternoon Concert. I was back to full-time radio, despite my reservations about that meaning anything important. Well, yes, it seemed where I belonged. And soon, continually immersed in the kind of music which I loved I was once again delighting in sharing it with audiences.

Then, in the fall of 1977, Matt Edwards quit for personal reasons.

Here we go again. Staff changes in broadcasting. Almost as many turnovers as Pepperidge Farm.

Richer came up with what he thought would be a coup. To replace Matt with BAI’s much-enjoyed and quite-famed Larry Josephson, who loved and broadcasted classical music. That is, when Larry felt like it. His program had always been more personal than anything any of us announcers could do on NCN.

The publicity over Larry’s hiring certainly generated interest. And public dismay. Even before Larry arrived. But his advance reputation as a curmudgeon didn’t help. Classical music listeners tend to prefer sunshine and warmth in the morning. Moreover, being from BAI, there must have been lingering anxiety that Josephson would start advocating the overthrow of commercial broadcasting, popular culture, Jimmy Carter, and the American Way of Life, underscored by readings from Karl Marx.

Larry hosted for one week.

As you can see from what I wrote about him re: the 1960s, he was out of his element. He had to present someone else’s choice of music, provide weather forecasts and time checks (as I had suggested he do back in the 1960s…see above), stick to schedules, read commercials, the standard format for most morning radio. Even the word “format” must have been an anathema. And, apparently, he even derided commercials, on the air.

Listeners had proof of their fears. They called the station. They wrote. They telegrammed. They won.

Bob Richer has since acknowledged his mistake.

Next up on Morning Concert, Bob tried me. Public enthusiasm. Calls. Letters. Telegrams? Nah. People who complain are always more numerous than those who compliment. I became the newest morning star. Jim Pinckney was hired to host Afternoon Concert.

Morning Concert had two parts. Six a.m. to 9 a.m. was basically “morning drive,” i.e., where Josephson stumbled. Nine to noon featured longer pieces.

I decided that I would have as much fun as possible, taking Richer at his word about us as disc jockeys. Why be deadly serious in the rather formal, restrained approach of the time? Certainly QXR’s George Edwards would never dream of making jokes. But plenty of compositions up to the present day are jovial, entertaining, and light-hearted. Back in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, for example, audiences cheered and applauded cadenzas, sometimes stomped for encores between movements, and were rarely as reserved as worshippers in churches. Think of the majority of Baroque music. Or Mozart’s irrepressible sense of humor. Or Strauss polkas.

So I had fun with, e.g., Offenbach’s “Orpheus in His Underwear” Overture, or Spoonerisms, like Handel’s “I Know That My Liver Redeemeth.” Goofy background stories emerged, such as a scherzo (Right. Joke) for piano four hands, me saying that it was for four-handed German virtuoso, Hans Keinfuss. Or reporting that Johann Strauss’s “Wine, Women, and Song Waltz” was a companion piece for his brother Eduard Strauss’s “Bier, Männer, und Schreien” (“Beer, Men, and Yelling.”)

I pointed out that one of Chopin’s Nocturnes was published posthumously, because he had been dead when he wrote it.

7 Veils

On an April Fool’s Day I presented a “very rare” recording of “Salome’s Dance” by Richard Strauss, a.k.a. “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where audiences would be able to hear the dancer. Over an open mike (mine), while Reiner with the Chicago Symphony performed, “Australian exotic dancer Mildred Dawkins” was heard ripping fabric and becoming increasingly out of breath.

We sometimes had Japanese-imported LPs with liner notes entirely in Japanese except for the name of the writer. Calling attention to one such LP’s notes, I observed that Alan Rich wroteこれは素晴らしい記録で, which I “read” in my best John Belushi-like samurai warrior voice. A caller chastised me, saying that I should not have done so, that the Japanese were “a peace-loving people.” Huh?

Certainly, this being New York, sloppy pronunciations of foreign words were a nein-nein. But my alleged Japanese was never criticized as being wrong. Imagine.

Sometimes, incidentally, in 1982, when quoting liner notes on-air I credited them to Hannelore Rogers instead of the actual writer. We were dating at the time. Later we married. Much later, she actually wrote liner notes.

Since NCN catered to knowledgeable, sophisticated listeners, I also decided to invent a cataloguer of works by Vivaldi, Baroque compositions being a staple of non-threatening music. His concertos have been ubiquitous on accessible classical music stations. I wanted to see if I could put one over on a Vivaldi nerd. And I did.

Vivaldi  was rather casual, even disorganized, about dating or otherwise identifying what he wrote. No opus numbers, which was not unusual in his day. Given more than 500 concertos, it became difficult to be precise about them, especially given that there are multiple works in the same key for the same solo instruments. Musicologists have delighted in creating their own catalogs, most prominently Marc Pincherle’s “P” number, Antonio Fanna’s “F,” and Peter Ryom’s “RV.”

I added “S” for Sondaggio, as a person’s name. Sondaggio is actually an Italian word meaning “search.” The numbers I used were record company catalog numbers.

Eventually, I landed a fish. There was a fascinated phone inquiry about Sig. Sondaggio. I replied that I had met that remarkable scholar while living in Italy and that he came up with a fool-proof system which he permitted me to use. The caller wanted a copy of the catalog but I demurred, explaining that I had only one, on very frail onion skin paper and didn’t want to let it out my sight. Disappointed, he hung up. And then he called back a few months later to say that l had given the same “S” number to two entirely different works. And to express his doubt about the whole idea. Perhaps Sondaggio had made a mistake, I suggested. “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” he asked, dismayed. I reassured him that it was genuine and he never called again. He was the only one who took the bait.

Every hour from 6 to 9 a.m., David Dubal deliberately programmed at least one extremely popular and familiar piece; I’d call attention to it by calling it a “Classical Hit” and then ding a nearby metal lamp with a pen.

During nine to noon, with my more free time between selections, I’d copy recorded promotions for upcoming syndicated national/international orchestra programs and then dub, edit, and re-use conductors’ comments, such as Carlo Maria Giulini talking about words Beethoven wrote on one of his scores, Giulini saying, “What is meaning? Is a mystery. Can we say this is great music? Yes. Is.” Transposed to “This is great music? Is a mystery.” It aired occasionally after pieces I thought trivial.

Although, inevitably, there was pleasure listening to, or at least overhearing good classical music, there were duties. For example, giving traffic and transit reports during drive time. We had no one on the streets calling in, but doing my own research was not required. Biberfeld felt that we needed to give listeners a sense of what was happening, so that they’d stay tuned and not seek truly useful information at “all-news” WINS or WCBS. All I had to do was call New York City Police’s Traffic Control Division and get some kind of report twice each hour. Not to overburden me, given that I was already announcing, running the equipment, monitoring volume, taking hourly remote transmitter readings, searching liner notes for informative supplemental comments, ripping copy from the AP news printer, assembling and editing the copy for broadcast, writing everything in the log and cleaning LPs (see below.) Thus I had friendly daily phone connections with Sergeant Tom Washington at Traffic Control.

Early on, Washington told me that he got his information from listening to WINS (“All News, All the Time. You give us 22 minutes; we’ll give you the world.”). Fine by me.

On a Tuesday ca. 7:22 a.m., Tom told me that nothing was happening. I didn’t believe it. New York on a workday morning? I didn’t say so to him; in my next on-air report, I announced that Sergeant Washington of the City’s Traffic Control Division said that there were no problems. Whoops! At my subsequent call he sounded truly nervous. “Hang on, Gordon! Hang on! I’ll get something,” he said. Clearly word had gotten back to him about my mentioning him on the air. Thereafter he always had some kind of information. Was it accurate? Up to the minute? Who cares? We’d both done our duty.

Being up to the minute also meant giving weather forecasts and time checks. One morning an angry caller said, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You said it was 6:41! It was 7:41!” To which I replied, “I don’t get your problem. You knew what time it was.” Later that morning, Richer told me that he had been the caller. Not angry. We both let it pass.

Actually, answering the phone while on the air was not required. But we did it sometimes.

Speaking of time, the station format at the new NCN much resembled that of QXR. All programs were broken up into hourly segments. Certainly that made sense during drive time when we had to prepare and read wire news copy at 6, 7, 8, and 9 a.m. But not at 10 or 11 a.m., for example. And Jim didn’t have newscasts at 12, 1, 2, or 3. At the previous NCN, we had longer works lapping over the top of the hour, say a 25-minute piece starting at 12:50. And that was a much better idea; it served the music, instead of serving the format.

This hourly format exists today in many stations and still makes no sense. It means that music directors have to squeeze everything into hourly bites. And being a commercial station means having enough breaks between pieces to fit in commercials, i.e., requiring time for non-music. Since no NCN announcer was permitted to do any programming, the way to fill a rare shortage of music was with extra talk. Easy.

But, if something were to run over that was a problem. We had found solutions for such problems. For example, we’d delete a movement from a baroque concerto. Who’d notice? Or we’d skip a section from a ballet suite, etc. But sometimes there was only one option: make the tone arm jump while playing the LP, by tapping the turntable, or banging on the counter next to it and then fade down the music and re-set the tone arm further in. (This bounces back into memories of my overnight show on an even earlier NCN in 1958 when opening a drawer under the turntable. See above.) Yes. We did that. Who came up with the idea? No idea. The practice was already on-going when I joined the staff.

Another responsibility was to “cushion” intense, recorded, ad agency commercials whose aggressive productions were deemed insufficiently civilized to be heard immediately within earshot of classical music. Sure, NCN was a commercial station, but management was sensitive to criticism. So we announcers had to make sure that we sandwiched such spots in between more restrained ones, read by us live or ad agency-generated. In fact, early in my years there, Richer had even asked such agencies if they would allow us to read the copy instead of having to broadcast their productions. After being turned down too often, he felt that he couldn’t pass up the revenue.

Richer was truly a hands-on station manager. He had to be. Commercial success depended on him. NCN had never made a true profit in all of its 20 years, regardless of management. That may have accounted for his seeming edgy much of the time. His demeanor felt different than Stan Gurell’s at the 45th Street NCN. Gurell often came across as congenial.

Of course, GAF had put a lot of money into this new version of the station, just around the corner from the last one. 1180 Avenue of the Americas. It didn’t look radically different. But daylight streamed through windows; the previous NCN had been encased by walls and hallways. Yet, although the new offices were larger, nothing seemed stylishly modern.

Clearly, a hell of a lot of money had gone into the sound quality of broadcasts. Audio engineer Dick Sequerra had been hired—and paid handsomely—to design everything in the on-air studio and all the equipment that it needed for maximum high-fidelity. Sequerra had been a designer for Marantz electronics, producers of high-end audio equipment, and had his own company as well.

The on-air studio felt like a sacred inner sanctum. One entered through a door leading to a slightly upward-inclined hallway to a second door. The studio was actually suspended above the floor underneath and supported by pads to eliminate any vibrations from the street or the subway below the building.

Once the building got a serious bomb threat, not against us specifically, but we were all warned to evacuate. I was on the air at the time. I chose to stay. Not only to be defiant, but I also felt that the way the studio was suspended and cushioned, I was entirely safe. There was no bomb, by the way.

Monks cleaner w name

The studio didn’t look unusual. Except for two extra turntables not next to the board. They didn’t play LPs; they cleaned them on a Keith Monks machine.  We had to clean every record before it aired. This meant that the first turntable’s tone-arm circulated water-dampened, groove-sized threads into the LP at high speed, and then the second one’s threads dried the grooves. Fastidious attention.

Two massive speakers loomed against a wall facing the console. When Richer would bring in visitors he’d often point with pride at such equipment, calling attention to the cost. At times, he did so while I sat there at the console, unacknowledged. I’d identify myself, pointing out that I operated this magnificence and that, jovially, of course, there was some cost for my services.

All of us had AFTRA union contracts. Never having discussed the amount with any of the staff, it was never clear if everyone got paid the minimum required as I did. In 1977 that was $27,000 a year (in 2015 = $109,000). Although we were union members, we rarely concerned ourselves with issues or contractual digressions. This was not the same as how QXR felt back in the ’60s (see above); QXR was part of The New York Times, a thoroughly unionized operation. Moreover, QXR announcers were among that rare breed who didn’t run their own equipment while on the air. Union engineers’ duties included lowering tone arms on LPs, moderating the music volume on-air, and opening and monitoring what announcers said on microphones.

I had been an AFTRA member as far back as the early ’60s and had seen the benefits whenever I’d subbed at QXR. There was good pay and there were good ancillary benefits, such as some medical insurance. I always took pride in being a member of the union all through the years and was an active participant in national and local union meetings, mingling with celebrities far better known than I but feeling like an equal.

Come 1979, GAF’s contract with us was due for renewal. Bob Adams had been the last shop steward. No one had volunteered to replace him. But that role needed filling when the contract issue emerged. I volunteered to be steward, which was to everyone’s relief; they didn’t want the responsibility nor the risk of seeming militant.

Not that this meant that I was in charge of anything or a labor organizer. The steward linked the staff and the union, making personal decisions, but might be called upon to talk to management on behalf of the staff or the union.

I called a 1978 meeting for the announcers to collectively decide what we wanted in our new contract, which I would then convey to AFTRA. Other than more pay, we wanted little else, except maybe time-and-a-half for working holidays or getting compensatory days off. AFTRA’s Irv Lewis worked on our behalf and advised us that getting raises plus that time-and-a-half deal might not be easy. The negotiations stretched out for many months. Ultimately we got slight raises plus an agreement about the time-and-a-half, with neither Richer nor us becoming combative.

During that same year, Richer called us four full-timers together to talk about some “really bad news.” First and foremost, bad news for him and GAF. The National Labor Relations Board had ruled on the AFTRA/Bob Adams suit about his firing and ruled against GAF. “So we have to take Bob back,” Richer said, clearly dismayed. “This is a problem; we only have slots for four full-timers, so I have to let one of you go. Gordon, you were the last one hired, so, I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you on full-time staff.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; this was more astonishing than threatening. How could Bob think he’d get away with it? AFTRA would have instantly contested a dismissal without cause, especially due to my being shop steward. Maybe he thought I’d not contest what he said. But I did. “Bob,” I replied, “Jim was the last one hired.” Sitting there, Jim was clearly distressed.

Richer looked even more dismayed. “OK. Sorry, Gordon. My mistake. I’ll have to think this over. Jim, you can stay for now.”

Of course, Richer must have known that Jim was most recently hired. And he couldn’t find any other way to justify dropping me. Certainly he wouldn’t have dared to get rid of Jim. Jim was Black; it would look like racism. Who knows? Maybe Jim and AFTRA would have filed suit over that.

Pinckney remained. And two weeks later, Bob Adams returned to WNCN, but not as a program host. He was given a news shift with no connection to the music, which he loved as much as we all did. We had no regular on-air news reader; we had always assembled and read the newscasts ourselves. Bob was also given a special schedule: Wednesday through Sunday 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., i.e,. no weekends off. The dark hours of the dawn. Clearly this was meant to make him dislike the job so much that he’d give up and quit. He didn’t quit while I was at NCN. I’ve since learned that he was even hosting Music Through the Night, according to Keynote in 1984. Where was Fleetwood then? I have no idea. An on-line obituary says that Harry continued on NCN with Music Through the Night into the late ’80s. Bob died, by the way, in 2010 at the age of 92.

Some incidental moments:

I’ve since learned from Bob Richer, with whom I’ve become friendly, that Fleetwood liked to turn off all the lights in the offices and hallways and leave on only a tiny lamp next to the console. Harry had contended that the VU meters gave him all the illumination he needed. And evidently, he occasionally took timed short naps. But how long could they have been? Maximum: one side of an LP, i.e., approximately 25 minutes at most. Back in my early NCN days, we’d had as much as an hour, given those long tapes. Now that was a real nap.

There was an announcers-only utilitarian bathroom which was immediately outside the Master Control entrance. It had a toilet and a sink, so that an announcer could rush and flush quickly when needed. There was no other facility in the offices, which meant the rest of the staff had to take a long walk past all the desks to a hall in the building. Couldn’t the big budget have afforded something more convenient? Staffers, of course, would yearn to use what was more readily available, the announcer’s perk. Once, while I was in there, a couple of the women knocked on the door hoping for access, as if I’d been there too long, meowing like kittens. I opened the door, pants on the floor, and said “Be right out.” They dispersed.

Pleasures and perks

Beverly Sills w name

In 1980 I became friendly with Beverly Sills and a number of stars from New York City Opera. Bob Richer had developed a new close relationship with the Opera, further enhancing our reputation on the New York classical music scene. We program hosts went on the air with interviews and conversations with company members, broadcasting from the New York State Theatre, helping to pitch subscriptions in Operathons, events similar to now-current public broadcasting stations’ on-air fund drives. Thus we felt close to the people at the Opera, including Sills, who had just become the company’s new general manager. Bob had proposed the tie to Peter Sharp, president of the Opera. They worked out a deal for NCN to broadcast Opera performances and syndicate them. Subsequently, the Operathons repeated for several years.

As an outgrowth of that, we also fielded a softball team (“The Brahms Bombers”) to play against an Opera team in Central Park. The NCN staff was certainly much smaller than theirs; we might have had, maximum, 15 employees. I played, but the station turnout was small; we were able to field only eight players. So, the Opera team lent us some ringers. Of course, they had plenty of people with athletic abilities. Think of stagehands, for example. The Opera team was so eager to play that, at one point, an umpire had to stop the game; the Bombers had 13 people on the field, of whom five weren’t us. The Opera won, of course, especially due to two home runs by Sam Ramey, in both cases when the bass emptied loaded bases.

NCN was certainly doing well by then, sometimes surpassing QXR in the ratings. Sometimes they were slightly on top. Not that there were major differences. Together we had only a fraction of a market as big as New York’s. But under Richer’s guidance and Biberfeld’s, as well as with true PR savvy, we were taken seriously. This was certainly different from the days of a niche audience, albeit truly devoted, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Corigliano w name

We got major coverage in the classical music world when, April 21st, 1982 we had a four-hour live broadcast featuring as guests and performers, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Morton Gould, Ruth Laredo, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Eugenia Zukerman, and more. Beverly Sills was there, of course, along with NYC Opera’s Carol Vaness and Alan Titus singing selections by Bizet and Gounod. There was also a reception at the station for the broadcast connecting it to inaugurating a new studio from which we could broadcast live performances, as we did that day. Beautiful, expensive sound-proofing, of course.

By then, NCN was finally making some real money. At the end of 1981, we’d celebrated the first year ever when the station had made a genuine profit, 25 years after the station went on the air. Each of us got a commemorative marble and brass paper weight inscribed “With thanks for your help.”

Walking into that new studio, separating myself from the milling, jolly guests sipping champagne and nibbling hors d’oeuvres, having glad-handed many and received lots of compliments for my expertise, I saw an elderly, balding man sitting all by himself. No one else there. He looked forlorn, so I wanted to cheer him up. “Mr. Thomson,” I said, “I’m so glad to meet you and see you here.”

“I’m Aaron Copland,” he said gently. So much for my expertise.

It’s actually contradictory that we had those contemporary composers as our guests, since GAF’s NCN avoided broadcasting programming contemporary music for fear of turning off listeners, turning their dials elsewhere. I’m sure David had never scheduled any of Ned Rorem’s beautiful songs, for example; music emanating from singers’ lips would never be allowed to cross that audience’s ears.

In the Science Network days David and all of us had been deeply involved in airing music of our time, and he had had many connections with such composers. No wonder the Listeners Guild was stirred to get NCN back on the air, and no wonder they were distressed that the content had been so down-sized into easily accessible listening.

Wuorinen w name

Sure, at the latest incarnation of the station, we often aired interviews with such major living members of the concert music world, even as we had done in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We just didn’t air their music. In one such interview with Charles Wourinen, I asked how he felt about such an absence of his compositions on NCN. He replied that meant people would be stimulated to go hear it live.

When I met Corigliano in 2015, discussing the reception 33 years ago, I hadn’t remembered that he had been at that 1982 event. He also told me that he’d been the Music Director at WBAI in the early 1960s and had likewise participated in the War and Peace reading project. When talking about the Wourinen interview, I actually had forgotten with whom it had been, telling Corigliano about the above comment. “Yeah, that had to have been Charlie Wourinen.” I was shocked. How did he figure that out? “That’s the kind of thing he would say.”

Throughout all of those years, it was great to feel so much a part of New York’s classical music life, to even feel significant in my own way, not as some kind of minor celebrity, but more part of a community, as if we were equals.


Moreover, ever since my first days at NCN, I was regularly offered free tickets to theatre and concerts or was given them when they had been requested. That was marvelous. Example: One day I was presenting music from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, music which, incidentally, I admired. Saying so on the air I mentioned equal admiration for the movie, and how it had marked the return of blacklisted screen writer Dalton Trumbo, adding that equally disgraced Howard Fast deserved much credit for the great book on which the script was based. A few days thereafter a package arrived at the station from Fred Bass at Union Square’s famed Strand Bookstore. He’d sent a copy along of the book, autographed by Fast.  

Another time a package containing eight bottles of Martini & Rossi vermouth was sent to me, after I’d been reading live copy for the product on the air. Who sent it? No idea. I gave away all but two bottles to other people at the station.

Jazz Plus a Few Other Cats

Bill Watson (already mentioned in Chapter Radio Daze) was on QXR in 1976 when I was added to the substitute announcer list once more, not that we ever encountered each other at the station. He had a weekly pre-recorded program sponsored by American Airlines. C.E.O. C.R. Smith had much admired Bill’s NCN broadcasts and personality and not only paid to have him host three hours once a week on WQXR but also hired him to select and announce all the classical music recordings heard on American’s in-flight music services.

I’m sure QXR required Bill to tape his show to be certain that Bill would not do something radical on the air for which he’d become so well-known during 15 years at NCN. I heard one such program while I had an evening shift. Bill said something about having received a letter from a listener whose name he mentioned. That was all he said about that person—no thanks, no comment—moving on to announce his next music selection. Had this been the old days, he would have most likely excoriated the listener on the air for something in the letter. I asked the engineer on duty if Bill’s comments had been edited. “Yeah. All the time,” he answered.

Matt Edwards says that when Bill no longer had the American Airlines broadcasts, he was out of radio permanently and told Matt that he’d become a janitor at a New Jersey shopping mall. A New York Times 1992 obituary said that Bill died at age 77 in a Westchester County nursing home.

At QXR I became friendly with Earl Bradsher, Jr. (a.k.a. Earl Bradley) who regularly broadcast weather features sponsored by Con Ed. Earl was one of the few out gay men I knew and was critical of closeted others, such as those at WNCN. He was planning to start a classical music radio station in St. Petersburg and kept urging me to consider becoming his program director. Since I had no intention of leaving New York, when he moved to start up WXCR  (Tampa Bay Concert Radio), he asked me to record station IDs for him. Which I did gratis. In December 2015 I searched for his name online and found it in a 1983 piece in the St. Petersburg Times. Clearly at that time he’d started the station. What happened thereafter is yet to be found.

QXR dropped me from the substitute list when I went full-time at NCN.

Reunited with Jazz

At BAI I got to renew my weekly American Music series, again featuring contemporary concert/“classical” music, jazz, film scores, and cast recordings of musicals. Since at least half of my 1960s LPs were still in storage in Genova, I was in touch with record companies and began to re-build my library. Also there were a lot of new “modern” music LPs at NCN, never to be aired. I incorporated them into my broadcasts with David’s tacit acceptance, because they never left the station and were played only on NCN equipment. Bob Richer OKd my taping there.


There were a few pop records coming into NCN. Among them was one by Gino Vanelli, Canadian pop/rock singer/writer who’d created a symphonic piece Pauper in Paradise, which had a lot of appeal and seemed just right for the BAI program where any kind of musical cross-over fit right in. With that and other Vanelli discs, I became a fan.

This was a time when jazz musicians were into the trends of what sold best—latino sessions, fusion, funky hard-bop. Sure, I liked some of that and programmed it, but the mainstream was still my stream.

Of course, substantial audiences remained for much of what jazz greats were still doing in person but on fewer records than in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Plus there were  younger musicians who were carrying on such traditions, especially those debuting on newly emerging Concord Records, such as Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché, both of whom I interviewed (Hamilton in 1981 and Vaché in 1985).

Hamp LP

During that time Lionel Hampton had started his own label, Who’s Who In Jazz—great sessions where Hamp performed separately, with Dexter Gordon, Woody Herman, J.J. Johnson, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, and more. Impressive line-ups and lots of good playing. The production of the LPs left an indelible impression. They were the sloppiest such product ever seen, with misspellings of artists’ names, strange and varying typefaces, wrong composer credits for some of the songs, including Hampton’s taking credit for something called “Short Ribs,” which was really Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some  Barbecue.” In one instance, a jacket cover made it look as if Coleman Hawkins was on the recording. He wasn’t. Margaret Mercer was listed as a co-producer for some LPs; she had been an assistant to David Dubal around that time and later became program director at WQXR.

I hosted a jazz radio show in Italy, taped at NCN.

Radio Genova Sound

In 1978, I went on a holiday, revisiting Genoese friends from the time when I’d lived among them. They included painter Gianni Ghiazza. When I told him about my jazz shows in New York he introduced me to Marco Remondini who had recently started his own radio station, Radio Genova Sound. English words. Very hip.

Marco had started the station in 1975 at a time when RAI owned and controlled all Italian broadcasting. His was one of a number of private stations that started cropping up around then. They weren’t legal. But, since no government agency made any moves to close them down, such owner/operators continued broadcasting based on the widely held Italian modus operandi that anything not officially prohibited was tacitly acceptable. Soon the private stations were being fined as unauthorized businesses but still not prohibited from broadcasting. They opted to pay fines and several decided to appeal their rights legally. In 1976, the Italian Constitutional Court, in a case involving a Florence station, held that the RAI monopoly was unconstitutional regarding local broadcasting. Radio Genova Sound was officially on the air. These stations called themselves “public” radio to contrast with state radio. They also sold advertising, as did RAI.

Marco and I discussed producing a monthly two-hour bi-lingual show on tape and mailing it. He could only afford to pay me 40,000 lire per show (ca. $50 then and about $190 in 2015) plus mailing costs. He thought it was equally hip to have someone on his station speaking some English. This was a characteristic intro: Allora, qui abbiamo un disco da Duke Ellington. This is the 1959 orchestra with Johnny Hodges, sax alto as soloist, e dopo Jimmy Rushing canta and Dizzy Gillespie plays la tromba. The titles “Fillie Trillie” e “Hello Little Girl.”

The show was called Jazz Da New York con Gordon. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

Guardie di Finanza col nome

On a second trip in 1980, I decided to take two boxes of tapes, 12-inch reels recorded at 7.5 ips, which equals one hour of the show per tape. I was carrying six months’ of shows and traveling by train from Germany, as opposed to my previous visit in a rented car. Arriving at the Italian border, two members of the Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) asked me what was in the boxes. In Italian. Stupidly I replied in Italian, forgetting my old practice of speaking English when confronted by Italian authorities. Usually in such instances I was left to go on my way, being considered thereby to be a tourist, i.e., guest, or because the authorities usually spoke very little English. This time I was taken off the train and questioned about the legality of transporting unauthorized recorded material, as if it were a product for sale. (At least I was smart enough not to mention that Marco paid me for the shows.) The Guardia guys felt that I should pay customs fees. But after some friendly discussion, given that I was an American and could prove it, and that I didn’t actually live in Italy, they decided to let me go and put me on the next train.

Then, in 1981, I met Carla Verdacci of RAI at a party at a friend’s apartment. I mentioned my on-going show. She suggested that I send her a copy of one of the tapes; she might be interested enough to propose it to RAI back in Rome. She liked it. She pitched it. Jazz da New York con Gordon became a monthly RAI feature all across Italy for two years until I was no longer in New York. At  double the payment rate.

Woody on clarinet

Reversing directions, two close Italian friends came to visit New York in 1976 and were eager to hear Woody Allen play his jazz clarinet. They knew the dates and the place. Allen appeared at Michael’s Pub on Monday nights. We went. His group of musicians, some of whom were familiar to me from records, got into traditional New Orleans style. Allen sounded quite capable but not distinctive. But my friends didn’t care about that; they just loved being there. After one set, Allen took a chair on the stage and, sitting by himself, shook hands and held brief conversations sequentially with any people in the audience who wanted that personal contact. Sort of a Santa Claus line. My friends were thrilled to have the chance to speak with him, me translating. He was courteous and polite.

I did a few interviews for my BAI program. Two stood out. One with Ruby Braff. The other with Gerry Mulligan.

Ruby w name

Braff was my all-time favorite trumpet/cornet player and I’d cherished his recordings for more than 25 years. He was appearing in the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Having never seen or heard him in person I was looking forward to that. And decided to try to get an interview. With his phone number from the Festival publicity office, we made an appointment to meet at his apartment in the Bronx. 

It was clear from the start that he was delighted for the attention. He was jolly and outgoing. We both had a great time. When the taping finished he gave me a couple of new LPs he’d recorded in England. One was on the Pizza Express label, Braff Plays Bing. He told me a story Crosby told about himself. In the early ’70s when Crosby was in his, a New York taxi driver asked him, “Didn’t you used to be Bing Crosby?” To which he replied, “Nah. Must be some other fella.”

Braff also told me a Benny Goodman story. Braff had played in some of Benny’s 1950s groups, in person and on records. Eleanor Steber (opera soprano) had gone to Goodman’s house to go over some music they were planning to perform together. Steber told B.G. that the room felt very cold. Benny agreed. Excused himself and left the room. And returned wearing a sweater. Without further comment. Steber told this to people she knew.

Ruby and I became something like friends. He suggested that we keep in touch and that we should hang out together. He’d call me. Which he did. He invited me to join him at Jimmy Ryan’s where one of his favorite trombonists Vic Dickenson was playing. They’d had some great sessions together for Vanguard Records in the ’50s. Being a big fan of Dickenson, I looked forward to going.

Vic w name

I’d never been in Ryan’s, despite its reputation. It usually featured traditional jazz, a.k.a. Dixieland. Even though I loved such music along with all other styles, going to any club was not something I did. Ruby and I stood at the bar talking during the music. Conversation under such circumstances seemed normal. This was not a venue for a serious concert. At a break, Vic Dickenson came over to the bar near us. Despite his vigorous outgoing manner on the stage, he looked serious. “I’d like to go over and tell him how much I admire his playing,” I told Ruby.

“Don’t embarrass him. Don’t embarrass him. He hates having to play here,” Ruby replied. Then Ruby went over to Dickenson, wordlessly shook hands and returned to me.

Soon we were conversing about musicians playing in clubs, competing with all the noise of talking people. “They’re listening,” he said. “They hear what we’re doing. And I know when to play softly to get their attention, if I want it. That’s what it’s like in clubs.”

Roland Hanna w name

A month before, I’d gone on a Thursday evening to hear pianist Roland Hanna play in a small club near Washington Square. There were only a few people there to eat, drink, and listen. Always a Hanna admirer, I was once again impressed with his gentle, lyrical pieces. Clearly a party of six, really partying, wasn’t listening. Gabbing. Laughing loudly. All of a sudden in the middle of one piece, Hanna got up from the keyboard and went to a table by himself. Going over to him, I told him how much I liked his playing on records and just a few minutes ago before he’d stopped. “Yeah,” he said, sadly, “but how could you hear it?” I replied that I could hear it and asked why he walked away from the keyboard. “What’s the point?” he asked. “I can’t compete with that.”

Telling Braff about that, Braff commented, “Jesus Christ! What did he expect? It’s a club.”

And we talked, too, about Charles Mingus who’d eventually given up such live gigs, laughing together at a Mingus’ recording, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, where Mingus wanted to give the feeling of a club date and begins by telling the audience how to behave.

Another time Ruby invited me to one of his small club gigs in Fort Lee. He performed with a guitarist and a bassist and kept loudly calling out key changes after a few lines of notes in the same tune. It was very distracting.

Dick-Hyman-AP w name

In April 1982, he invited me and my girlfriend/eventual wife Hannelore to hear him at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. Pianist Dick Hyman performed with him, a pairing with great results already on records. That afternoon Hyman played the church’s pipe organ. The idea for both of them was not entirely new; in 1977 Hyman had recorded on a studio organ with Braff in a set of Fats Waller-connected tunes (Fats Waller’s Heavenly Jive). This time Braff was facing downstage, his back to Hyman, whose back was to his. They played magnificently. How did they coordinate without seeing each other? I asked Hyman afterwards. He showed me two mirrors he’d set up on the organ wings.

Braff had told me by then he hated playing in such out-of-the-way places as that one in Fort Lee, but that he always tried to avoid big clubs where there was a lot of smoking; he was developing emphysema, making it increasingly difficult to get the most out of his horn. FYI: he died of it in 2003, more than 20 years after we’d connected.

Having left New York for New Mexico later in 1982, I didn’t try to stay in touch. Frankly I made no effort to do so, just as I’d neglected to sustain a similar friendship with Tony Scott.

However, just a few years later, Ruby was appearing at one of Dick Gibson’s famed jazz parties at Denver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel that I regularly attended.

Waiting for a set to begin, I was standing in a hallway, when drummer Bobby Rosengarden walked by. I recognized him from when he’d played with Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub. “Hello Bobby,” I said. “You’ve played with Ruby Braff, right?” He said that he had. “Is Ruby anywhere around? I’m a friend of his.”

“Yeah?” Rosengarden replied. “Probably the only friend he’s got.” And walked off.

I soon found Ruby in the hall, talking to bassist Michael Moore. I went over to them.

“Hello, Ruby!” I said. “I’m Gordon Spencer. Remember? We met in New York.”

“Yeah. How you doing Gordon? Good to see ya.” And he turned back to Michael Moore. Dismissed.

Certainly my feelings were hurt. But I let it pass. I’m sure Ruby had met a lot of people in New York and elsewhere. Given that this was at least three years since we’d last been in touch, it might have been natural that he didn’t remember me.

But what did Rosengarden mean? In time, I learned that Ruby was becoming more and more contentious with everyone he knew. He accumulated quite a negative reputation, being called by some colleagues “Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde,” no doubt inspired by one his favorite Robert Louis Stephenson books. You can likewise see him being nasty in an interview with Brit Jim Godbolt. However, there Braff is also full of praise for many jazz greats and turns out to be eventually quite congenial. It’s a great interview.

Interviews with musicians can often turn out to be challenging. Even those of us who come fully prepared have to expect many variables. Some musicians are so outgoing and friendly, such as Louis or Duke, about whose interviews I wrote above, that the interviewer is almost superfluous. Yet there are other artists who are not that articulate, or are distracted, or bored, or even annoyed, especially when dealing with the same questions that they consistently get asked.

My interview with Gerry Mulligan had a much different feeling than the one with Ruby. In January 1981 I’d seen an article in New York Magazine about Mulligan, mentioning that one of his quartets was to play at Eric’s in February. I called the club to see if I could get Mulligan’s phone number so as to set up an interview. That made it possible to call Mulligan. I told him that I’d admired him for years and that I often played his records on WBAI, WNCN, WOND, WFLN. Politely he said he wasn’t much available because he was working on writing new orchestral arrangements for a concert with the CBC Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in June. But that, if he had some free time later in the month, he’d get back to me.

As the date for the gig at Eric’s became imminent, not having heard from him, I decided to call again. Responding, he said, “Well, as I think I told you I’m really busy. But, all right, if you want to come up to my home in Darien, I guess I can spare about an hour. But no more. Would that be acceptable?”

Yeah, if I’d thought about it better, I might have realized that this was something of an imposition. But I was so eager to talk with him that I didn’t want to miss the chance. It was clear from what I’d recently read that Mulligan was, off the stand, an intellectually alive person with many interests in all kinds of things, including (like me) classical Indian music and yoga, theatre, literature, movies. I felt as if we might bond. Well, anyway, I hoped we would. That was certainly naïve.

Mulligans w name

Arriving at his house, I was warmly welcomed by his wife Franca. We exchanged a few words in Italian and she led me into their living room. Mulligan told me (again) that he hoped we could keep the talk to no more than an hour.

Every so often in the conversation I felt that he was a little put off by the questions, not that they were in any way personal, but rather as if the answers were so obvious that they needn’t be asked.

It wasn’t a bad interview by any means, but listening to it later, he sounded impatient at times. I concluded that he hadn’t really wanted to be bothered but had felt it was an obligation, being, after all, somebody famous who needed to not be dismissive of the press.

We ran into each other again in February 1995 at a gig. He fronted a quartet playing in Milwaukee where I was living, hosting jazz shows and serving on an advisory board for a series of jazz performances at the Pabst Theater. I was the m.c. I didn’t expect him to recognize me after 14 years but went up to him to say hello and to remind him of that encounter. Remembering that Franca spoke Italian I thought it would be cool to talk to him in Italian because he must have known some. When I started speaking, he looked totally unsettled, as if facing an obstacle that threw him off-balance. I guess he didn’t understand. Apologizing in English, I told him my name. Then, when introducing him on stage, we shook hands as if old friends. It had never occurred to me that backstage he could have been nervous before a performance. So many people are. Why shouldn’t he be?

Clearly we never bonded.

In 1978, I’d gone to a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Stan Getz was on stage. (“That’s some kind of genius,” Ruby said to me once.) Before Getz started playing, he went over to the microphone stand then walked away from it. Calling out backstage, he said, “Would someone take this thing away from here? We don’t need it. This is Carnegie Hall for Chrissakes!” A stagehand came and moved the microphone to the side of the stage. Many of us cheered. I vowed then I’d find a way to tell him of my admiration.

In late June 1982, I had that chance. He was to appear at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a reunion concert with Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. The “Four Brothers” shared the bill with younger, further-out guys, the World Saxophone Quartet: Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and David Murray.

Through the concert promoters, I’d been able to phone Getz and he said to meet him backstage after he, Giuffre, Cohn, and Sims had practiced out front.

They ran through a few arrangements, deciding who would solo where, Getz then came to where I was sitting, leaving the other men still on stage talking, occasionally playing a few notes, as if trying out things.

stan getz w name

He seemed gentle, almost serene. Quite a contrast to ebullient Ruby Braff and opaque Gerry Mulligan. I told Getz of my admiration for his Carnegie Hall comment. He smiled. “Yeah. You’d think they would have known better. Horowitz wouldn’t have had a mic.”

I took my tape recorder out of a bag and plugged in a microphone. Immediately a tall, grey-bearded man in sloppy street clothes walked over to us.

“What are you guys doing?” he challenged.

“I’m going to interview Mr. Getz,” I replied, showing him the microphone and the tape machine.

“Says who?”

“What do you mean?”

“You have permission from IATSE?” (The backstage tech union.)

“Gee, no. Do I need that?”

“Goddamn right you do!”

“Well, I’m an AFTRA member.”

“And I’m with the AFM,” Stan added.

“Look,” the IATSE guy said, getting pissed off. “I don’t care what unions you belong to. This is an IATSE space. You can’t record here. We do all the recording. You know, I could confiscate that equipment you’ve got. So you better get the hell out of here right away if you know what’s good for you.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

“Well, you should have.”

I was flustered and distressed, not able to think what to suggest next to Stan as we walked out of the building. Upon exiting, we ran into bassist Marc Johnson who just happened to be passing by. Johnson had played with Bill Evans at the same 1978 Carnegie Hall concert as Getz. Stan hugged him tenderly, said something I couldn’t hear, and we continued heading toward Columbus Avenue.

I knew that Getz had used an echoplex a few times and I’d had felt that saxophonist John Klemmer, well-known for that device, sometimes had a Getz-like tenderness in his playing. “I was wondering,” I said to Stan as we walked, “Do you think that John Klemmer was influenced by you?”

“God, I hope not,” he replied, grinning. Before I had a chance to ask what that meant, he’d hailed a taxi. Getting in, he asked, “Can I drop you off somewhere?”

Oh, I thought, he’s through with me. “If I go wherever you’re going, maybe we could talk there?” I suggested.

He directed the driver to an address in Greenwich Village. “Look, I’m staying at Irwin Corey’s house. I shouldn’t bring in any uninvited guest. Maybe we could do this some other time.” Perhaps he’d been put off by that IATSE encounter. Certainly I was.

He left me off near Times Square and I walked cross-town to my apartment, dejected.

Irwin Corey w name

Incidentally, long an Irwin Corey admirer, I always loved his Professor act (“The World’s Foremost Authority”), having seen it numerous times on TV, especially on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen where the routine ended with Corey being chased through the audience, i.e., “Stop that madman!” I’d even used some of his style in my Beyond the Fringe audition back in the ’60s (see above). Plus something in Corey’s face reminded me of my father in a jovial mood.

Actually I met Corey in 1978. Gary Gumpert, an old friend from my days at Temple University, had heard me on NCN and called to re-connect after so many years. He invited us to a party at his home in Great Neck. On a balmy April evening we sat in a small garden outside his house where Gary introduced me to some neighbors. Corey was one of them.

Corey looked just as I thought he would, except that his hair was combed and he was wearing clothes more casual than the falling-apart, semi-formal attire of his standard act. Naturally I told him how much I’d enjoyed his performances. “They are terrific, aren’t they?” he asked with a serious expression on his face.

Used to talking to famed people, mostly musicians, I wasn’t star-struck. Rather than pepper him with questions, I told him about how Gary and I knew each other and about Temple U and my own performing background. Corey seemed interested. Soon we dispersed into the party. But I kept subtly watching him to see how he behaved off-stage. He seemed very much like the Professor. At one point all of us started earnestly discussing politics. There Corey rambled on in the same tone as the Professor, throwing in non-sequiturs, making little sense. No one laughed. Maybe he was serious. But it was as if he and the Professor were interchangeable. Maybe doing that act so often, they’d merged somehow.

Rufus Harley w name

Speaking of old friends, in 1980, Jean Desjardins (a.k.a. John Gardner), a buddy from the 1960s, called and invited me to his wedding celebration at his home in suburban Philadelphia, an isolated house surrounded by woods and trees. It was one of the most original parties I’d ever attended. He’d not only hired caterers but wandering entertainers, including a double-talking comic who threaded and chattered among us. Plus, all of a sudden, a bagpiper, completely kilted, dramatically came marching through the woods. Rufus Harley, a black man who’d  billed himself as the World’s First Jazz Bagpiper. I knew who he was; he played on a Herbie Mann concert LP from about 10 years before. Evidently he was one of John’s neighbors.

During those days Fleetwood, Marzano, and I collectively became friends with Gladys Buchman, a regular NCN listener. She sometimes called us and sent us holiday greeting cards and a few times invited us to dinner at her apartment. Together we eventually decided to take her up on the offer out of curiosity. It turned out that she was in her early ’60s and lived in Alphabet City…Avenue C, I think…in a public housing project with her husband Morris.

They were both very jolly people and seemed to be unendingly fascinated hearing our stories about ourselves. So we three minor celebrities had a great time hanging out together, which we’d  never done elsewhere or before. Plus Gladys and Morris would tell us about their kinds of lives about which we had no inkling, except to learn that they loved going to live concerts despite living on pensions.

Naturally,  I invited Gladys and Morris to dinner in midtown and once asked them if they’d like to see my cat, Sulu, given that they had three cats of their own.


Gladys couldn’t get over Sulu’s beauty. He was indeed magnificent. A nine-year old chinchilla, with deep blue eyes, beautiful white fur under light grey tips. Many friends had remarked on his exceptional looks. Some had even said that he should get modeling jobs. A potential show business cat. Gladys thought so, too. A friend of a friend of hers knew an animal talent agent.

Gladys gave me the name and phone number. Sulu and I got an appointment.

The agency was in a large office building on West 54th Street. A tiny office, seeming to have one room, one agent. Nothing unusual about the place except for an open cardboard box full of wriggling, chirping chicks on the top of a small bookcase.

“Before you let the cat out of the case,” the agent asked, “do you think the chicks are in any danger?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “He’s never seen any before. It’s hard to say. But I can probably get him back into the case if there is a problem.” Nonetheless, I scanned the office to see where Sulu might run and hide if he panicked. Not that chicks would scare him, but the agent’s reaction to threat could turn out to be too energetic.

“OK,” the agent said. “Why don’t you let him out?”

Sulu was not eager to emerge. He had certainly not enjoyed the cab ride or the ascension in the elevator. He was a house pet, not a traveling companion.

As in the past, I had to turn his carrying case on its side to, in effect, dump him out. The trick was to pick him up thereafter before he scampered away. Of course, he was nervous. Not because he was auditioning. That would have been my effect on him, wondering if Sulu was on the brink of a performing career.

I was able to lift him to my shoulders where he stared at me, as if to say, “What the hell is this?” Then he scanned the room. His ears pricked up, hearing the chicks. He was very close to them. He looked. No other reaction. He turned to me, still puzzled. That was his audition. He passed.

The agent called me the following week telling me that Sulu had a job. A photo shoot. All I had to do was take him to a photo studio in the Garment District at the scheduled time.

There were several rooms in sequence at the studio. The receptionist sent us to one, saying Sulu would be up soon. The waiting room was full of cats, some sitting on human laps, others hiding under chairs. None of them seemed to be congenially mingling with the others. Stuck up felines. Nothing unusual there.

A man with an occupied cat-carrying case joined us, looking discouraged and picked up his coat.

“How’d it go?” a rather glamorous lady cat-companion asked.

“He didn’t make it,” the man replied.

I took Sulu out of his case and held him, stroking him, getting him to resist the urge to hide under another chair.

Talking with the other cat people, I learned that we were all there for the same job. This was Sulu’s gig? I didn’t get it.

A gruff male voice called out. “OK. Gordon. Bring Sulu in.” Certainly someone there knew what the star animal’s name was.

That room glared with spotlights. They were illuminating a draped wooden box on top of which was a different shaped box containing the delights of Tender Vittles Gourmet Dinner.

“OK, Gordon, here’s what we want,” said the man identifying himself as the director. “We just want Sulu to sit next to the box, with one paw on it and look straight-ahead at you. Which is toward the camera, under which you’ll sit. Do you think the lights in his face will scare him?”

As before at the agent’s, I knew Sulu was unpredictable. He was a cat. “Gosh. I don’t know,” I replied in a confident show business voice.

“Right,” the director said. “Could you take him over to the box, set him down next to it, put his right paw on it and slowly walk back?”

Sulu’s paw was placed. I backed away. Subtly.

“Camera ready?” the director whispered.

From somewhere behind me and the lights a voice answered “Ready.”

Sulu left the box and walked over to me and sat in my lap.

“Do you think he can do this?” the director asked gently, not at all aggressive.

As before, I pleaded innocent ignorance.

Same routine. Set the camera. Ready for the shot. Sulu back to my lap. Well, at least he didn’t hide under a chair.

After the third try the director said. “Sorry, Gordon. That’s a great looking cat, but this won’t work.”

I asked if I could stay and watch the next candidate and was told that that was all right, provided that Sulu didn’t fight with his competition. Sulu and I took a seat together off to the side where he remained secure in the place he most wanted to be: my lap.

The next cat was striped black and white and didn’t look all that special. The lady who brought him placed his paw on the box and walked away. This animal could have been stuffed for all the movement it didn’t make. Multiple photos were taken. The cat never moved that whole time. Show business. There’s no business like it. I know.

I made no other attempt to further Sulu’s career.

As for mine, I had a couple of minor roles in advertising.

I had an agent, Bea (Bernice) Beck, who would every so often get me auditions. She was the wife of one of the most famed voice-over performers of all time, Jackson Beck. Not that his name would be remembered by most audiences. Rather, actors and announcers much admired and envied him; he got a lot of work. Those of us who experienced the great days of radio drama knew him as narrator for The Adventures of Superman for many years. And he provided loads of voices for everything else, including cartoons, e.g., “Bluto”  in “Popeye” movies.

Bea did get me one memorable job. It was for voicing an Arby’s TV commercial. Young & Rubicam producing.

In the luxurious, classily decorated offices, I joined five other men in a waiting room going over the script. We said “hello” to each other. Plenty of resonant voices there, pretending that we didn’t mind that one of us could come away with the big cash which we deserved, given our massive talent, even if none of us was in Jackson Beck’s league.

Norman Rockwell glassses w name

The script: one page, one sentence: “Get your free Norman Rockwell glasses now at Arby’s.” What a challenge. Incidentally, almost 40 years later, they’ve become collectors’ items. 

My profound reading took the day. Subsequently the session took one day. All day going over and over that one sentence. The director had me say more variations than anyone could imagine.

Bea got me a buy-out, i.e., rather than receiving  residuals over the time that this commercial aired, I got a flat fee. AFTRA rates, of course. I don’t remember how much money that was; it might have been something like $700, given the fee of $2,000 in early 2016.

For a couple of years I also produced and voiced radio commercials for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concerts. This was a pattern I thereafter repeated for the New Mexico, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras. Aside from my expertise with such content, I blew away the competition; Hannelore was a top staff member in the marketing departments for all three.

Station Number 16

In May of 1982 someone had posted an ad from Broadcasting Magazine. The classical music radio station in Albuquerque, KHFM, was looking to hire a morning program host who would also be chief announcer. New Mexico! I’d seen it and loved it when, as a vacation in the summer of 1977, I had driven that far west, camping in my new VW van (a descendant of my cherished European one). I was enchanted by The Land of Enchantment. The dramatic vast spaces, the beautiful spacious skies, the purple mountain majesties, such a compelling contrast to the tight little island of Manhattan. I had yearned to live in New Mexico, but couldn’t think of how to do it.

This was the chance. No second thoughts. No doubts. I knew that they were bound to be impressed; I was a New York classical music radio host.

By then, Helga and I had split. I had been living alone in Manhattan, on East 46th Street in a tiny, expensive one-room apartment (rent of $475 a month or $1,465 in 2016). A ten-minute walk to NCN. And I’d fallen in love with Hannelore Rogers, a rare, lively, intelligent woman who’d done something rare—written me a fan letter. Classical d.j.s didn’t get them often. When I told her that I was going to look into the job, she was truly distressed. She loved New York, having lived there less than two years.

I applied. After hearing my air-check audition tape, KHFM invited me to come for an interview, paying for the flight and hotel room. I was offered the job at a much lower salary than I was earning at NCN—$32,000 a year (ca. $80,000 in 2015).* KHFM offered me $18,000 (ca. $45,000 in 2015). Of course, I knew that living costs in Albuquerque were radically lower than those in New York, but I didn’t think that that was enough, never letting on that living in New Mexico would have been my joy at any price. I asked for $22,000 ($55,000 in 2015). They thought it over. One day later we had an agreement.

*Above I pointed out that in 1977 at $27,000 a year the 2015 equivalent was $109,000. This reflects the constantly changing fluctuation of the dollar’s value in different years.

Hannelore had traveled with me. She was offered a job working for the same man who was one of two major owners of KHFM. Bill Weinrod, also the executive administrator of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. She was hired as marketing and development director, a new position at the Symphony, then undergoing expansion in an improving local economy. We moved into a small adobe-like house (i.e., it was made of cinder blocks but had a shape designed to look like a characteristic adobe house). We did not marry. Yet.

My final performance on NCN was on July 30th 1982.

There we go again. In and out. In and out. In and out. My 12 collective years at WNCN had been in small increments, about three years starting in 1959 (fired), about four years starting in 1967 (quit), about five years starting in 1976 (quit).

And during those final five, inevitably, there were changes in the NCN staff: Bob Adams, fired. Matt Edwards, quit. Larry Josephson, hired and fired. Jim Pinckney, hired. Bob Adams, rehired. Gordon Spencer, quit. Six realignments. Broadcasting.

Coming to think about it, I had few roots. Starting in childhood, relocating was a regular part of my history. No surprise that as an actor I wasn’t sure who I was (see above). By the time I left WNCN I’d moved from 17 homes.

KHFM letters

There’s no question that shifting from New York to Albuquerque seemed like a radical change. A welcome one. Plenty of gorgeous sky rarely impeded by tall buildings. To the east there were unobstructed views of the glorious Sandia Mountains, glowing deep violet in the evening. The air felt fresh. And traffic noise, such as I heard constantly outside the midtown Manhattan apartment I’d just left, was minimal.

I’d often wanted out of New York ever since returning seven years before. Not that I’d not had a great life there then, but always earnestly, constantly yearning to be closer to nature and away from the inevitable pressures endemic to New York.

As for being a performer, I thoroughly enjoyed having programs on WBAI and producing jazz shows for Italian radio. But, on a day-to-day basis, most of the time I was just making the best of the WNCN full-time position. Making the best wasn’t enough.

Mike Langner w name

Thus, when interviewed for KHFM, I told Bill Weinrod and station manager Mike Langner that I wanted to be able to do my own programming for the morning show.

We discussed the obvious limitations, e.g., no difficult modern music. No non-classical music. But it was OK, for example, to present some singing. They agreed.

Two layers of freedom. Magnificent.


The station was a self-contained one-story cinder block building, on a small side street, the transmitter tower looming above and behind it. 5900 Domingo Road. (Incidentally, in 2015, a drive-by revealed that the building had become a private home. With the tower still standing. KHFM had become part of multi-station ownership at 4125 Carlisle Boulevard sharing the space with, as far as I could tell, three other stations.)

On the first day walking into 1982 KHFM, I’d brought an umbrella; the skies suggested rain. The receptionist, Shirley Davis, laughing, found it funny because, she said, it never seriously rained there.

Shirley’s desk in the reception area faced large plate glass windows looking out to the unassuming street with its modest ranch style houses and a few scruffy trees. The on-air studio, just off that, had a window looking out to a sandy, stony yard on a small street perpendicular to Domingo Road. Offices were on two sides of the building, between which was an open space with more stones and sand. The only other special feature of the building was a dusty back room with wooden shelves holding a major array of tubes, dusty discarded turntables, miles of electrical cords and cables, and other equipment about which I knew little. An echo of 1959 NCN at the top of The Pierre hotel, especially given that Mike’s major background was as a broadcast engineer just as had been Dave Passell’s.

Charlie Maldonado was the program director. Given that Bill and Mike had agreed to programming freedom, I had been told to check with Charlie if some choices might be questionable. I rarely consulted him. Neither he nor Mike were likely to question Bill’s decisions. Probably they wouldn’t dare; he was a co-owner. Life in that part of New Mexico seemed to lack the tension and competitiveness of back east. Easy-going.

My show aired from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. I had to arrive by 4:30 to turn on the transmitter and prepare a wire-copy newscast. A throw-back of 27 years to WFLN. Given the size of Albuquerque and environs it wasn’t necessary to have traffic reports. KOB’s morning-drive and afternoon-drive pop music shows covered that.

My last newscast was at 9:00 a.m. And most Monday mornings members of the staff were laughing loudly outside the not-well-sound-proofed studio door. They weren’t guffawing over international disasters or tragic current events. They were at the weekly staff meetings. Early on, I mentioned the problem to Mike. Characteristically he said that he would take care of it. Note the word “would.” It was equal to another phrase: “Yes. We could do that.” Implication: it’s not urgent and worth thinking about. Quasi-italiano. Soon I tried to take care of it myself by stuffing a crumpled newspaper under the door. It made no difference. Eventually, after repeated requests, Mike added some thick felt to the bottom of the door. It made no difference either.

As in the past at WNCN and WBAI, my show was about the music not about me. Programming choices covered all periods from Renaissance to modern, as long as they were accessible. Parts of ballet scores. Symphony movements (provided they were scherzos, or nocturnes, or not something marked allegro or adagio, etc.; that was my own musicological fastidiousness). Piano pieces. String quartet movements. Guitar pieces. Choral works. Symphonic movie music. Art songs, primarily featuring baritones, although when on occasion presenting a woman singing I’d issue a “soprano alert,” tapping a lamp, just as I had done for NCN’s classical hits. I loved every minute. Oddly, there were few listener complaints.

Certainly my music choices were quite varied and unconventional as compared to, say QXR’s and NCN’s. More than once, Sales Manager Roxanne Allen would mention her concerns during management meetings. She said she could have trouble with sponsors if they heard something they didn’t like. Not that she ever mentioned specific examples where someone declined to advertise with us due to the music. In any case, neither Mike nor Charlie ever suggested that I program differently.

I tried not to talk too much or too long, a carry-over from NCN and QXR. And rarely spoke about myself. However, there were occasional short conversations with unusual studio visitors whom I made up and personified with character voices. Bill, Mike, and Charlie had no problem with that. The prized New Yorker had almost carte blanche.

Thus I exchanged niceties with motherly Cockney cleaning lady Flora. Was halted in my tracks by an Italian couple disagreeing about the weather, in Italian, untranslated. Texan Merle Noir (merle noir in French means blackbird) would stop by to deliver dairy products. There was commentary about the music by stuttering, happily enthusiastic Clove Parnes, whose speaking style was inspired by my encounters with Clive Barnes at WQXR. And there were fake ski reports by Jean-Claude Silly.

Once Jean-Claude reported on the ski area in Los Alamos. There was a real one called Pajarito, but in the 1980s it seemed to be out-of-the-way and under-publicized. In fact, it was known then to have very few lifts. This suggested that visitors were discouraged and that the area was primarily for residents. Or as if it were top secret, Los Alamos being principally a government town, famed for work on atomic bombs.

Jean-Claude said that he had trouble finding the ski area because there were no signs pointing the way and street names were almost non-existent. Those he could find seemed to be numbered in code. And when he asked people for directions, they whispered unintelligibly. He thought that he’d found it near a statue of J. Robert Oppenheimer wearing dark glasses and pointing toward the sky. But it turned out that that was at a trash dump full of shredded paper. Finally, J-C. was invited into someone’s house, after he had signed a three-page document vowing secrecy. And, as he looked out of the occupants’ plate glass window, he could see a bunch of children skiing. He was told that that was the place he was looking for. This may seem like a lot of talk, but he gave this report in installments one February morning. Listener response: none. Not even from Los Alamos.

Having to be on duty only four-and-a-half hours, I sometimes had the freedom to use the recording studio wherein I created short comic productions, each no longer than about three minutes. One item was A James K. Polk Portrait, a send-up of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. My version set to music by Jerome Moross from the movie The Big Country.

“James K. Polk was the 11th President of the United States of America. Born November 2, 1795, in a  log cabin in North Carolina. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘Don’t light a match mother or the house will burn down.’ James K. Polk studied the law at age 23 in a Nashville office. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘I must have a pen. This pencil is broken.’ James K. Polk stood five feet two inches in his stocking feet. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘Sarah, where are my shoes?’ James K. Polk never carried a pistol in the White House. And this is what he said, this is what James K. Polk said: ‘My servant George always carries my gun.’”

Whiiting Coffee

There was a report from Vienna by investigative reporter Herbert von Holznagel, who, speaking with a German accent, reported on a recently unearthed tool shed once used by Beethoven. Herbert rattled around all the clinking objects in the station’s back room discovered fascinating things, such as a piece of parchment covered with ink blots which looked like a trail of blood or maybe they were blood which looked like ink blots, an unfinished sausage sandwich on seeded rye where the mustard had dried out, and many pounds of ground coffee which he touched to get a sound like rustling straw. The last item was a send-up of what was actually in the station’s back room. KHFM had a trade deal with coffee roaster/seller Norman Whiting, which meant for one daily no-cost commercial the station got one free bag of coffee. Shirley would go once a week to Norman’s and come back with seven bags. She stored them in the uninsulated back room. The coffee dried out under the southwest sun’s heat in about 10 minutes.

Once I created a fake radio commercial touting a film called Oberheim (the name of an electronic audio synthesizer). In it a kid, Bobby, was passionately in love with his computer. In the 1980s it was already possible to own a personal one. Bobby didn’t want to leave his bedroom; the computer was jealous of any other relationships and spoke with Bobby with a whiny, high-pitched voice. “Starring Richard Burton as a talking fireplace.” Here I dubbed in Burton saying “…they do hear some sub-human monster yowling at him from inside,” dialogue from an LP promoting the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Obviously I was having fun. I recall few listener responses. Except once Mike took issue over my fake interview with a dopey basketball player who, I said, was from New Mexico A & M. The 6 foot 11 player was trying to figure out how many points he scored in the last game and couldn’t do the math. Mike said I shouldn’t have insulted A & M that way. But there was no A & M. Turned out that there used to be, many years before; but the name had been changed in 1960 to New Mexico State. Obviously some people remembered the bygone name.

As chief announcer I had few duties other than to sometimes find replacements for on-air shifts by calling a few volunteers we had. I did train everyone to frequently mention the call letters as we had done at WNCN. Plus I wanted them to talk a little about the music, suggesting they quote or use a sentence or two for the liner notes. Dave Fisher, a volunteer program host, a kindly local auto repair mechanic who loved music and had some understanding of it, had trouble with that idea. Probably he was not comfortable having to ad-lib. He demurred, saying “I thought that the music was the most important thing,” meaning to let the music speak for itself. To which I countered, “Right. But it’s not the only important thing. And talking about it shows how important it is.” He struggled for a while trying to do it right. I never criticized; he got better in time.

Mike eventually brought in a young woman, almost a girl, named Suzanne Bernadette. She had been a member of the congregation at Hoffmantown Baptist Church, and that’s where they’d met. Evidently he thought that it would be good to have someone so young on the air. Suzanne always sounded innocent when announcing. However, I lamented to him one day that I couldn’t get her to stop deleting slow middle movements from some Baroque concertos—she claiming that doing so kept everything more lively. That maybe she would listen to him and correct the practice. He replied that he thought that was a clever idea. I also tried to change something else she did: constantly promoting the next piece to follow a commercial break “after I return.” I pointed out that the commercials were part of the program as much as she was. Mike saw nothing wrong with that either. She was his protégé, I guess, and she could do no wrong.

This is one of several times in those years when I expressed perhaps unwelcome opinions to Mike. Perhaps they seemed as if I was being critical. Maybe I couldn’t disguise my underlying attitude. Having been a New Yorker for the previous seven years or so, I was trying my best to seem accommodating and less impulsive. I’m sure that over time, I got better at it, but being outspoken was most likely too direct for New Mexico culture. I tried applying Italy-learned ways of being indirect, but don’t think I always succeeded.

My attitude toward Mike probably showed. I had trouble with his too-easy agreeability with everyone and everything. He didn’t conform to my conception of station management.

In time I learned that his major qualification for running the station was due to an incredible ability to come up with solutions to technical and engineering problems; he often invented unconventional, inexpensive fixes, a sort of duct-tape approach. It turned out that he was known all over New Mexico radio for such special talents.

He told a story about himself, having been called by an engineer at KRST to try to solve a transmitter problem. The engineer told Mike that a switch repeatedly kept getting stuck and that the engineer had tried everything he could think of. But despite considerable knowledge and skill, nothing corrected the problem. “Mike,” he said, “I know this won’t make sense, but, could I hold up the phone near the transmitter for you to say something? Maybe just hearing your voice would make it work.” Mike thought the idea was funny, but having understood the details of the problem, he replied, “Well, it’s worth a try. Move the switch down and up again.” The engineer did so. It worked.

Roger Melone w name

The on-air staff included gentle, unassuming, sweet Don Hoyt, who, being bald and chubby, seemed much older than I, but probably wasn’t. Don loved classical music and knew a lot about it. He was also a member of Roger Melone’s New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Don had one “defect.” Living alone as he did, he must not have taken good care of his clothes. He often smelled as if they needed a thorough washing. The effect seemed to be the reason that at choral concerts people seemed to never stand directly next to him, as if leaving spaces on either side.

KHFM had a Saturday night jazz show from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. hosted by young volunteer Rick Fletcher. Every so often, I’d listen to hear how he was doing it. After a few months, I noticed that he regularly would give obviously wrong information, such as who the soloists or what the titles of the music were.

One evening he aired what sounded like Billie Holiday at a studio rehearsal. She talked to the musicians, made suggestions, ran over a few bars. It was more talk than music. But worse, she seemed off-mike; the sound was execrable. Rick let it play for half an hour. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t notice how bad it was and let it run so long.

I asked Don Hoyt about Rick, since they had known each other for a long time. They also had a mutual friend named Marsha. Evidently Rick was having an affair with her. She was married and in the NMSO Chorus. She and Rick apparently had telephone liaisons during the jazz show. Moreover, I learned that Rick always appreciated listener calls while he was on the air and encouraged them.

Being chief announcer I asked him to meet me to discuss what I thought was wrong with his performance, telling him that he had to pay more attention to what he was broadcasting, citing some of his obvious errors with information. He said he would try to do better. But for the next couple of months nothing changed.

Mike Langner agreed that Rick wasn’t very good at hosting the show, but didn’t want us to stop broadcasting jazz. So I told him that I would take over the program, although that was not the reason for my wanting Rick to leave. It was not an ideal choice; it meant having to give up late Saturday evenings, despite my love of that music. Even with initial reluctance, the re-connection with jazz was great.

Soon I also noticed that on many of the station’s LPs there were tiny little numbers in pen next to some of the track listings. They were dates. Bill Weinrod not long thereafter told me that he used to play those records when he had the jazz program. He’d given it up to have more free time. He wrote the dates so as to make sure he didn’t play the same selections too often and too soon.

Weekdays at 9:05 a.m., after my newscast, we aired a nationally highly popular syndicated program Adventures in Good Music, hosted by genial Karl Haas. We had started carrying it on WNCN in 1970.

Some NCN listeners and staff had felt that it was too simplistic and that Haas talked down to audiences. Certainly it didn’t appeal to some musically more sophisticated people. Bill Weinrod felt that way, too. But he didn’t want to interfere with KHFM programming. As a spot-commercial carrier it was as successful as anything else on the station. Personally, I felt that New Mexico was more fertile ground for Haas’s concept, presumably being less discriminating than New Yorkers. Not that I listened to those broadcasts that time around either. Yet, at that stage of my maturity, I was more accepting.

We hosted one of his concert/lectures in November 1985. That weekend he came to the studios to record one of his broadcasts, beginning by choosing some of our LPs to use. Clearly he didn’t need a script. Then he went into the recording studio where Cindy Abrams produced the program for him. Cindy later told me that Haas had placed a clammy hand on one of her legs, but that she gently removed it and that was that. He was about 72. She in her early 30s.

I also used the recording studio to produce and tape my jazz shows for RAI, those I had started in New York, then called Jazz da New York, renamed Jazz con Gordon. Although I was well-paid, I tried to save money by not buying new tape, and took some I found on shelves in several places, including the back room. Since many reels were not full, I’d splice together what I needed. Some already had splices. Not all of the tape was the same brand or of the same formula, or of identical colors, but I didn’t know that much about tapes and had thought that they were all the same. Which is to say that, in trying to save money, I was probably producing programs whose sound quality was not the best or uniform, especially if some of what I used had been stored in KHFM’s hot, uninsulated back room.

In any case, about a year after I had been sending my KHFM-produced shows to New York, RAI’s Carla Verdacci contacted me to say that they decided to drop the program, especially since I was no longer in New York. Some years later, I became convinced that the sound of the tapes themselves was not consistently of the best quality and that that was the reason for dropping the show.

Neal+Stulberg w name

Of course, KHFM, Albuquerque’s only classical music station, had a strong connection to the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. No surprise either, given that Bill Weinrod was a major station owner as well as executive administrator of the Symphony. This meant that we carried promotional programs featuring interviews with visiting conductors and soloists, along with other features, such as those with Music Director Neal Stulberg as host. Plus commercials. Written by Hannelore. Announced and produced by me. In the same recording studio. Later, even after I’d been fired (see below), I still used the studio for such productions.

Given the relationship with the NMSO, we attended all the concerts plus many social events, becoming friends especially with Bill and his wife Kate. We spent many times together in mutual homes hosting meals, or going to concerts, movies, and the theatre together. We also became close with Resident Conductor Roger Melone, as well as Neal Stulberg and his wife Leah Shamoon. We kept up regular contact all with of them for many years after moving away.

Composers Cornered

I sometimes hosted post-concert talks, mostly as an m.c.

Once I was invited to be Santa Claus for a Christmas concert, being asked if I’d like to conduct the NMSO while in costume. I jumped at the chance.

So, pillow-stuffed and red-suited with a belled cotton hat hanging over the ears, and a low-budget white beard covering my own, I ho-ho-ed up the aisle and, turning to the orchestra, picked up my baton.

No Bach, of course. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” was my gig. I’d heard that as much as I’d ever want to hear on radios and sound systems everywhere at that time of year. But this was different. I was to lead the musicians, many of whom I already knew.

I raised my baton and the orchestra started doing its thing. Often I could detect, only fractionally delayed, what was coming next musically, where the main melodic line was coming from. So I was able to make it look like I was cueing in the musicians. And, when it came to the clip-clopping sound, I even anticipated that and pointed to percussionist Chris Shultis. Or for the trumpet sounding like a whinnying horse, I was ready to point to Kenny Anderson. I didn’t have any ability to wave my stick to mark tempo, of course. But afterwards several people whom I knew said that they were really impressed with my conducting, because it looked like I knew what I’d been doing.

Quite a contrast to my day as a nine-year-old conducting Sammy Kaye’s Swing and Sway Orchestra. (See way above.)

This was a time when I met and interviewed many visiting artists, those who appeared with the Symphony and those connected to the Santa Fe Opera and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

rostropovich w name

For example, when Mstislav Rostropovich brought the National Symphony for a concert, I was there at his press conference. His program looked very conventional, and, despite being the official Washington, D.C., orchestra, there was no American music in it. I asked him why. He affectionately reached out and grabbed my hand, saying, “Because, darling, that is what your concert producers choose from repertoire.” He grinned, not at all offended.

Clearly, I was still a kind of edgy New Yorker. But, after all, I’d been a news reporter and an interviewer for years and didn’t believe in so-called “softball” questions.

When Ned Rorem came to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, we connected for the third time, having done so in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. By then, Rorem was regularly lamenting that his kind of music, melodic, neo-romantic, was being overshadowed by more complex, somewhat atonal, avant-garde compositions. He got around to that again in the course of this interview. “Ned,” I asked him, “given how you feel, has anyone ever called you a crybaby?”

Rorem w name

“It’s my function to be a crybaby,” he replied. And that, yes, he’s heard that, but his laments were about the plight of many American composers and that, despite much critical appreciation of his work, “I’m still a crybaby.” As for getting such attention and how that might get him more attention, “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Glass w name

From a different sound spectrum, Philip Glass came to Santa Fe in 1983. He and his ensemble gave a concert of his own music at Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater. Hannelore and I went to that concert and, after about an hour-and-a-half without an intermission, decided we’d heard enough of what sounded like the same thing over and over. AND REALLY LOUD. We left.

Prior to going I’d interviewed him for broadcast at KHFM and some of that was also printed in the Santa Fe-based magazine Notebook.

“Do people find your music boring after it goes on for a long time?” I asked.

“People say that about Bruckner,” he responded. “They say it about Satie or Beethoven. You always have people who like or don’t like something. It can’t be for everyone. There’s almost no work of art of any kind which has had that kind of success.”

We talked about changes in concert music, from a previously dominant trend, “not particularly accessible,” I called it. He agreed that that was true. But then there was a new movement towards tonal music, such as Rorem’s. How were they related?

“I think that what’s happening in my music is part of the whole general thing. This is one of the most exciting times to be around and writing. You know, we can even just be openly entertaining.”

“Would you call what you’re doing experimental?”

“Well, when we talk about experimental music, we don’t mean that it will be something people aren’t going to like. These days audiences don’t expect uniformity; diversity is something which has become one of the hallmarks of our time.”

“Do you have a label for your style?”

“I don’t know of any composer that would care to label himself…The music I write is what means something to me, that speaks to me and speaks to other people. I don’t need another label.”

Glass came to Albuquerque in October 1987. The Hiland Theater was the site for two screenings of Koyaanisqatsi,which was a film with live music. Friend David Noble, the music critic for the Albuquerque Journal, wrote that there were 13 musicians and technicians to perform the score. The film was conceived and directed by Santa Fe’s Godfrey Reggio.

The full title was actually Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It primarily consists of slow motion and time lapse footage of cities and natural landscapes, in effect transposing them to make a statement. There was no dialogue. Only music. Actually the Hopi word means “unbalanced life.”

David said that some of the footage was shot in the Four Corners area of New Mexico.

A few years later, in 1988, although no longer at KHFM (see below, “Firing #4”) I interviewed Terry Riley, a sort of Glass musical cousin or maybe uncle. We discussed, of course, 1964’s In C, which is often cited as the first minimalist piece to get wide-spread attention, before that term actually was used. He agreed with the definition and that what he created had a  major influence on the idea of minimalism which came along not long thereafter. “It was a totally new concept,” he pointed out, partially influenced by North African music and experiments with tape loops.

Terry Riley

We spoke about A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969), which I personally admired and had broadcast during my second WNCN years, when the station was at its least-conservative- programming best. Riley described that piece as becoming popular in an unexpected way, that people told him about putting it on automatic replay on record changers, and that he got mail from those who said that they listened to it all day.

“Trance Music, right?” I asked. “Did it bother you that people were getting stoned to your music?”

“No, I’m happy when people get stoned on my music. That’s one of the best ways.”

The interview with Riley was one of several at a composer’s symposium in Telluride, CO, in August 1988. The setting was magnificent and the conversations fascinating.

Lou Harrison w name

Particularly interesting was a conversation with Lou Harrison, who reminded me and listeners that calling Asia the Far East made no sense, that that was Eurocentric, and for him especially, living in California, Asia was the West. He also pointed out that his music often had Asian influences, so much so that critics heard those influences even when they weren’t there.

We discussed at length his decade-long connection with Charles Ives. After an initial letter to Ives, expressing interest in his work, Ives sent Harrison “a crate” of photostats of scores, especially chamber music, asking Harrison for assistance in editing and copying. Eventually Harrison even completed some of the works, with a few insertions here and there.

Ives, of course, paid Harrison but chided him about getting paid, writing, “You sure know how to compose but you don’t know how to write bills.” Ives, as is well known, had supported his own writing with proceeds from his highly successful insurance agency. Harrison said that, given such self-underwriting, Ives believed that music should be free for everyone and so regularly gave money to contemporary composers. And even made Harrison one of the heirs to the royalties, along with other composers. “That sure helps sometimes,” Harrison laughed. Harrison perpetuated that practice, apportioning some of that money to younger composers. “I must say I’ve made some good choices,” he added. Harrison declined to name any of the recipients.

Firing #4. New Breaks

I was fired from KHFM in January 1988.

Why? The simplest answer would be to again point out that that’s the nature of broadcasting. As elsewhere in the business, new owners took over.

Months before my dismissal, there had been rumors to that effect. As 1987 drew to a close, it was announced that the New York-based Concert Music Network was buying the station. This was not the same as the Boston-based Concert Network, the owner of the early WNCN, where I had the overnight show (see way above: “A Big Break”).

Despite our personal friendship, Bill Weinrod had told me nothing about why he and his ownership partner, Phil Hart, were selling until the official announcement was made to the staff and the newspapers. Of course, Bill may have wanted to make sure that nothing went public via me, but you’d think he would have trusted me to not reveal anything.

At an October staff meeting we were all introduced to Peter Besheer who would become one of the new owners. He was executive v.p. of the Concert Music Network. There was no actual network in the sense of linked broadcasts of programs and, evidently, the group is long since gone. Besheer in person seemed rather cold and unapproachable. New York state of mind? Perhaps. But maybe that was his reaction to me, knowing that he had staff changes in mind, wanting to not be misleadingly congenial. Or maybe he’d heard me on the air and didn’t like what he heard. Who knows?

In any case, he, Bill, and Mike all assured us at that meeting that Besheer had no staff changes in mind. Given familiarity with past ownership changes, I didn’t take them at their word.

Mike met with me in January, and, not surprisingly, spoke about why I was on my way out. Despite an evaluation report full of praise the previous January, this time in his mild, reasonable-sounding way, without anger or rancor, he cited that I’d never been easy to get along with, was too independent, not enough of a team player, etc. He said nothing complimentary.

Nonetheless, he wrote an excellent letter of recommendation. It referred to “a very professional manner” and being “interactive and communicative” in staff meetings, “freely sharing…ideas.” You could read between the lines, of course. He further said that I was being dismissed due to “a change in sound…desired by the new owners.”

Certainly it’s possible that the cause (“sound”) could have been my far-from-conventional morning show for such a format, both in music selections and in indulging in comedy bits. And although my interactions with the staff could have been the reason, as Mike had said, it is equally likely that my salary was a factor. By New Mexico standards, I was expensive talent. The morning show was taken over immediately not by someone newly hired, but rather by Program Director Phil Dougherty who, therefore, got extra duties for, presumably, a pay adjustment. Maybe none. I listened to him a few times, and he sounded both bewildered and inept. He was fired very soon thereafter. He was replaced by Suzanne Bernadette, the part-time secretary and part-time announcer who’d always seemed dippy on the air, but at least she knew what she was doing.

Mike’s letter of recommendation said our parting had been “amicable” and that I was welcome to use the studios for any production work which I might want. That was generous. And certainly valuable to the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, given that I continued to produce their broadcasts on the station as well as radio commercials for the market.

Consequently, through November 1990 I was in and out of KHFM studios as a producer, always welcomed in a friendly manner. And I never attempted to file any kind of lawsuit about being fired. That was in my interest and the Symphony’s.


As for what to do on radio thereafter, seeing the possible change coming, I auditioned in October as a newscaster at Albuquerque’s KKOB, the top-rated station in town. It had a full-time news staff of reporters and anchors. Given my daily wire-copy, self-edited newscasts on KHFM, I’d had recent experience. So I was added to the staff as if part-time or for relief work; thus, through the rest of 1987, there were a few assignments depending on my availability. And with the new year, of course, there were more. Within a year, I was hired full-time.

Being fired again turned out to be more instructive than ever. In a short time, I discovered that through my own efforts I’d never again be equally vulnerable.

Through the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra’s principal oboist Darrel Randall, a radio fan who also taught at the University of New Mexico, I contacted the chair of the Music Department proposing a jazz history course. I started one in the fall. It was a credit course.

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One of the highlights was inviting our friends, local jazz saxophonist John Magaldi and his singer/wife Joan Steele, to perform for and talk to a class.

Through another friend, Beth Gard Salimbeni, I connected with the head of Continuing Education and started teaching Italian.

Combining these activities with the work I was doing for the Symphony and the part-time reporting and anchoring on KKOB meant satisfactory earnings, albeit not substantial.

Plus, I contacted KUNM (a function of the University) and volunteered to host a jazz show. By April I had one, for three hours every week.

Jazzy Times

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I remained connected to jazz and in two-and-a-half years after being fired from KHFM I had that jazz history course at the University and my weekly show on KUNM. That meant talking to artists who had gigs in Albuquerque, in Santa Fe, or in Denver at Dick Gibson’s Jazz Parties. 

Thus encounters there or previously with Gary Burton, Eddie Daniels, Mercer Ellington, Woody Herman, Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Jay McShann, Bud Shank, Buddy Tate (above) and more.

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While still at KHFM, I had a chance to talk to Woody Herman who’d brought his big band to play at Santa Fe’s St. John’s College. It was a one-night gig on a chilly March night. Woody was 73 then. And he certainly looked frail and sounded so in our conversation. I’d read stories that reported him in ill health and that he was hanging on because he had major financial problems, owing the IRS millions of dollars due to his long-time bookkeeper’s multiple failings.

I brought up the issue about the bookkeeper. Reports had said that Woody didn’t hold it against the man, Abe Turchen, who’d been a close friend. “It’s nothing,” he told me. “I don’t have anything to cry about.” He also mentioned that he was living well, but had to rent his house, one he’d previously owned for 40 years, from the IRS.

Nonetheless, he was still up front and center leading and playing his music, just as Basie and Ellington did in their 70s. “It’s still what I like to do. And I’m too old to retire. But money and fame aren’t really why we’re in music. We love it. It’s a great hobby.”

About what influenced the sound he sought in the band, he mentioned the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra but most especially the feeling of Duke Ellington’s. Although Ellington always had a specific sound derived from the special styles of soloists whose replacements tended to have similar styles, Herman said he was never looking for that in his own group.

As for his own playing, he cited Coleman Hawkins’s conceptions but continued to feel that he hadn’t yet mastered the clarinet; “I’m still trying to find something easier to play.”

I also asked him about the idea of a Herman ghost band. FYI: the term refers to bands that continue playing essentially the same books and arrangements associated with the leader’s concepts after the leader has died. Actually, it appears that Woody came up with the term, according to his biographer Gene Lees.

By the time Woody and I talked, there were quite a number of such bands, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra (which had been around for decades), plus Basie, Ellington (see below), Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, and more.

Woody felt that, if someone wanted to front an orchestra in his name and that did something for the new leader, that would be fine.

Woody died about seven months after we met and, shortly before dying, delegated the band leadership to the reed section’s Frank Tiberi who kept the flame alive.

When it comes to what might be called a ghost band, consider the Duke Ellington Orchestra led by Mercer Ellington. I interviewed Mercer. He had taken over the orchestra right after his father’s funeral in 1974.

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The year we met means that 68-year-old Mercer had already kept it together for 13 years. The Orchestra was sharing the stage for a 1987 performance with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. That was also the year in which Mercer and the Orchestra recorded the GRP LP Digital Duke, which garnered the 1988 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

I was curious to know how he dealt with inevitable questioning focusing more on his father than himself. “Talking about Ellington,” he answered, “is like talking about myself. I find my voice, mannerisms, even my movements have become like his. He’s taken over my existence.” By the way, Mercer would sometimes talk about Duke as simply “Ellington” or “Dad,” or “Pop.”

Mercer had not only been a member of the family, but of the Orchestra, with 10 years in the trumpet section up until Duke’s death, but also as composer, arranger, and band manager. He was part of the organization.

He had had a separate musical life of his own. From age 20 and for the next 20 years he fronted groups that at times included Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, and Carmen McRae. But calling another group The Ellington Band didn’t work out too well; it made his father uncomfortable. “He thought it was bad luck.” At times, too, Mercer said, Duke hired people away from him, meaning Mercer attracted major talents, but, since they’d hoped such gigs would be stepping stones to Duke, and they were, it meant that Mercer kept losing the best players.

Sometimes he was also able to get musicians into his father’s orchestra, e.g., the return of Cootie Williams. Cootie had been one of Duke’s biggest stars for 11 years. But in 1940, Benny Goodman hired away Cootie for much more money than Duke could pay. That switch became famed in the jazz world.

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Cootie didn’t stay long with Benny, having left to form his own rather successful group, which, at times, included Charlie Parker, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Bud Powell. Mercer became Cootie’s road manager for a while. By the late ’40s, however, that small orchestra fell apart. Cootie continued to get some gigs and record dates through the 1950s and stayed in touch with Mercer. But by the early ’60s, Williams was reduced to being part of a backup band for comedienne Belle Barth, whose specialty was raw blue humor.

“‘That is ridiculous,’ I told Cootie,” Mercer said. “‘You need Ellington and Ellington needs you. There’s a record date coming up, and I’d like you to be on it.’ I didn’t really know what the hell I was talking about. I didn’t even know if Ellington would welcome him back.” When Cootie showed up for the gig, though, Mercer “reminded” Duke that that was at Duke’s request. Duke didn’t question it, and pointing to a chair in the trumpet section, told Cootie to have a seat. During that session he even gave him a few solos. Cootie stayed with Duke for the next 12 years, up to the time of Duke’s death.

Was his father the only reason that Mercer became a musician? No. “From age eight, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was always hanging out with the players from Duke’s earliest group, and when I was on the road with them in 1927, I saw that they were having so much fun. That’s what I wanted to do. So I hung out with them to learn as much as I could.”

Mercer actually started writing and arranging for Duke around the same time that he had started his own group. And during the early ’40s, Mercer came up with several of his best known pieces “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Moon Mist,” and “Blue Serge.” Certainly “Things” became a regular part of his father’s book. So often, in fact, that record labels often credited it to Duke. “I didn’t care too much as long as they sent me the money.”

As for the origin of “Things,” Mercer devised it in 1942 for a 9 a.m. recording session, after Duke telephoned him at 4 a.m. and told him the band was set to lay down four numbers and he only had three. Evidently Duke knew that Mercer “had been out on the town, staggering. I’d had a lot to drink. And he said ‘I need a fourth side. Write it.’”

Evidently Duke tried to never spoil Mercer and to make sure nothing was easy for his son. “He’d say ‘I gave you an opportunity and you weren’t prepared for it.’ I even raised hell with him because he wouldn’t often play my tunes.” So after that dark-of-night call, “I was determined to do it. I wrote down everything I could think of which sounded like clichés, all the things I could remember in my condition.” Hence the title. The tunes incorporated weren’t what they used to be.

As for “Blue Serge” and “Moon Mist,” they, too, became part of his father’s regular book. The origin of all three was due to Duke’s being unable and unwilling to record anything of his own for about two years. In 1942 there was a strike against all the major record companies by the American Federation of Musicians, due to disagreements about royalty payments. No union musician could make commercial recordings in that strike that went on until 1944. That’s when Duke, being a union member, got Mercer and Billy Strayhorn to do all the writing; they were not AFM members. That was the time, by the way, of Strayhorn masterpieces “Take the A Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Day Dream.”

I asked Mercer if he continued to write his own pieces and whether the Orchestra would play them. Overall, it seemed, he was constrained to feature his father’s best known pieces, because that’s what audiences came to expect. Nonetheless, he came up with “Carney” for the 1975 LP Continuum on a session which included Cootie plus, in 1989, “Danske Onje (Danish Eyes)” and a suite whose title is the same as Duke’s autobiography, Music is My Mistress, for MusicMasters records. “Yet, whenever I write something that I think is new, I run into something similar to what Ellington wrote before,” he said.

Mercer kept some form of the Orchestra going right up until the year of his death, 1996.

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Jay McShann also had led a big band at one time, but when we met that band was a long time before. Charlie Parker has been a member of that group, so inevitably our conversation, like that with Mercer Ellington, dealt with someone who was more of a major part of jazz history than himself. This was at the same 1989 Gibson Jazz Party where I’d also spoken to June Christy (see below).  

“The first time I heard Bird was in Kansas City. I was passing by a club one night when I heard him playing. I went up and had a chance to talk with him,” McShann told me. ‘I thought I knew all the cats in town,’ I said to him. ‘Where you from? You sure sound different.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m from Kansas City, but I’ve been away down in the Ozarks with George Lee’s band. I’ve been woodsheddin’ down there where it’s real quiet, you know, away from where most cats want to be, away from where the happenin’s is. Maybe that’s why I sound different.’ Bird had it together the first time I heard him. That’s why I got him to join my band.”

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When that happened seems to be a matter of opinion. I’ve read bios that say 1937, 1939, and 1940. In any case, McShann’s group started up in 1937. And clearly Parker stayed with it until 1942. He can be heard soloing in his recording debut on six numbers recorded in Wichita for a 1940 radio broadcast with an eight-member group. “The guys at the station said that they couldn’t afford to pay for more people,” McShann explained.


We also talked about the influence on Charlie Parker by legendary alto player Buster Smith, a.k.a. as “Professor.” Evidently Buster mentored Bird in what some jazz writers feel was a sort of father and son relationship. Buster was 16 years older than Parker.

“I remember a time in Kansas City,” McShann pointed out, “when Prof got mad about playing in a club where they were broadcasting. He was supposed to get a raise and they didn’t give it to him. Anyway, I was listenin’ one night and thought that ole Prof sure sounded good. The next day I ran into him and told him so. ‘That wasn’t me; that was Bird,’ he said.” He’d asked Bird to sit in for him.

McShann’s 11-member band was swinging in K.C. around the same time as Basie’s. It must have sounded special. You can hear how because it got recording dates with Decca Records’ Dave Kapp in 1941. The first session was four tunes, Parker soloing. “We tried to record a lot of our original stuff, but Kapp said it was too modern. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I can’t sell that. It’s good; but I need something I can sell.’”

“We was very disappointed, ’cause we wanted to record what we wanted to play. So Kapp says, ‘Can you play a blues?’ We said we could. ‘OK. Play me a blues.’ After we did that, he said, ‘Play me a boogie-woogie.’ We did that. Then he said, ‘Play me one more blues and I’ll take one of them funny tunes.’ That was ‘Swingmatism.”

The band broke up in 1944 when Jay was drafted into the U.S. Army. But he never had another; the band business was not thriving anymore, although he fronted some pick-up ones as heard in a reunion with Jimmy Witherspoon in 1958’s Goin’ to Kansas City Blues.

Kansas City was where all the happenings were for Jay. He settled there in 1936 after gigs all over the Midwest and Southwest. And went back after he got out of the Army. But his career got off the ground in Tulsa. “At first I couldn’t get a job anywhere. But I heard a band rehearsin’ in a club and I listened real well. I didn’t hear a piano. So I went up there. And I said to the leader ‘Do y’all still need a piano player?’ So he told me to take a seat and play something. They put music in front of me. And I started playin,’ but I couldn’t read a note as big as a house. They thought I was readin’, but I was just playing the same music I’d heard them playing. So then the leader said, you know, ‘Take off on something.’ I sure could do that. He listened and then told me I had a job cause he wanted a guy who can read and play and make up something.”

After the Army, McShann was pretty much out of the national picture, except for a few record dates. He stayed in K.C. because he had young kids in school. “Maybe goin’ not further than 300 to 600 miles.” But he started coming back in the late ’60s, not just as a pianist but also as a singer. “I started singing because I didn’t have any singer with me, you know, and people wanted to hear one.”

When we met in 1989, at age 73 he spoke about how he’d been flourishing. “I play more often these days and I enjoy it just as much as I ever did. But I sure do miss havin’ a big band. I got such a great kick outa it. I loved that sound. Specially when I had so many great cats in it.”

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One wonderful surprise was also a chance to interview singer June Christy. I’d always loved her smoky, sweet sound given her records with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and thereafter. 

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At a 1989 Gibson Party,  when talking to composer/arranger Johnny Mandel, he told me that Christy was attending and directed me to Christy’s husband tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper. Christy and Coop had been married since the late 1940s. 

The little lady looked old, although, as I later learned, she was only 63 when we met. In fact, I just recently discovered that she died the next year. And that she had had problems with alcoholism.

Speaking, she still retained that sweet, smoky sound while seeming full of happiness, and Coop standing nearby looking on lovingly.

About her sound, she agreed that Kenton favored such a quality, from Anita O’Day before her and Chris Connor thereafter. And that that may have been one reason Kenton liked her after he’d heard a demo disc she’d brought to him at age 17-and-a-half when the band was playing in Chicago.

Although she’d loved those years with Kenton, she said, the constant traveling, the one-night stands, caused her to decide to retire more than once, even though she loved the feeling of being part of a family with all the guys on the buses. “I can’t tell you how many times I retired,” she laughed. But she’d go back to touring, for example, “because the house needed new drapes.”

Speaking of recording with Kenton, I reminded her of one unusual recording from 1947 (age 22), “This is My Theme,” a Pete Rugolo score setting a poem, I’ve just learned, by Audrey Lacey. Conceptually it was very much a part of Kenton’s “Innovations” concepts, modernism in orchestrations much removed from dance music and pop. Not usually the kind of thing in which Christy took part.

In this case, Christy mostly narrated, dramatizing such phrases as “…carrying me to one high screaming peak, it drives me on…crystal sheets of hysterical laughter rising to a maddening pitch.” Christy told me that she hated that piece and eventually told Kenton. So he promised her that she’d “never have to sing it in front of an audience again.” For the next performance, he had her delivering the piece from a backstage microphone.

metronome all stars marked

Regarding  her records, we spoke about her being one of the Metronome All-Stars in 1946 when she and Nat Cole performed together. The jazz magazine’s readers voted for their favorites each year from 1931 to 1961. Then the musicians were collected into a studio to record one or two tracks together.

Evidently not all the musicians chosen showed up for the session on time, so, according to Christy, Nat Cole told her that they’d have to just wing their duo with the other performers. “That frightened me. I wasn’t used to being that spontaneous. I didn’t know what to do. But I’d always loved Nat’s singing, so I was happy to sing whatever he suggested.” He suggested a blues (“Gee, but I’m lonesome/Feel like I’m wanna cry (repeat) cause the man I loved has done gone and said goodbye.” It worked. After she took one chorus and Nat took one, each of the other All-Stars got solos: Charlie Shavers, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, etc.

I never aired the interviews with Christy or McShann, even though I had that jazz show on KUNM at the University of New Mexico. I never got around to editing them back then, but always thought I’d broadcast them some time in the future. I had chances to do so thereafter in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Omaha. Nope.

More jazz


The Phil Woods Quintet performed in Albuquerque at the KiMo Theatre in 1984. The wonderful Pueblo Deco building from 1927 had been restored in 1977 following a fire and disrepair that went with the disuse of downtown. By the time we arrived in New Mexico, it and downtown were picking up again, and the KiMo had become a major venue for live on stage performances. That same year the newly formed New Mexico Repertory Theater made the KiMo its home (more below).

Two things I remember most from the Woods performance. One was seeing trumpet player Tom Harrell for the first time. His physical movements looked strange, as if he was not entirely there. No signs of enjoyment, no sense of his body responding to the rhythms around him. I later learned that he had paranoid schizophrenia and was on drugs to control the problem. The other thing that struck me was Woods, after naming the first piece, turning to the audience to tell us that he always believed in identifying the music and that an informed audience was the best audience.

That statement resonated with me a few years later, in the late ’80s during a Miles Davis gig, and two by the Basie Orchestra, the second one with Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine. The first two events were at Popejoy Hall on the University of New Mexico campus, the biggest venue in town, where most New Mexico Symphony Orchestra concerts took place, plus those of touring ballet, opera, and Broadway-centered shows.

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Miles didn’t speak to the audience, not only not identifying the music but also not the performers with him following their solos. Consistent with Miles’s famed disdain for making nice. Every so often he did hold up one of several large signs on which, each time, one word was written. One said “Foley.” I had no idea what that meant. Later I learned that that was the name of one of the guitarists. And, somewhere around that time, I also learned that Kenny Garrett was the alto player, and Marcus Miller was playing electric bass.

The physical activity on stage seemed as indifferent as the lack of communication. This Chicago Tribune description about a 1991 performance, i.e., not that much later, sounds the same: “Backed by a band that owes more to funk and rock than jazz or blues, Davis roams the stage, tossing in a melodic fragment here, a background phrase there. At one moment he huddles with guitarist Joseph Foley MacCreary, trading musical phrases as they walk the stage together; at another, Davis ambles over to a bank of electronic keyboards, hitting an appropriate chord now and then. In solo passages, he generally turns his back to the audience, hunches his shoulders over and points his horn to the ground.”

The Kiva Auditorium in Albuquerque resounded with HIGH VOLUME. So much so, that, when I reviewed the event for Zounds, a weekly newspaper, I wrote the whole thing IN CAPS. I later acquired a CD of a 1989 session from Warner Brothers called Amandla with Foley, identified by only one name, Garrett, and Miller. It sounded very similar to what I’d heard that evening. I like it. At lower volume.

The Basie Orchestra was led by Frank Foster. Both times he rarely used the microphone to name the tunes or the soloists. When he did so, he did it when the applause was at its strongest, thereby uselessly. During that first gig, I went down a back hall at intermission to try to speak with him about that. Encountering him, I said how dismaying it was to not hear and understand him, asking him to delay the information until the applause died down. In a pissed-off way, he said, “We don’t have time to wait that long.” Whatever that meant.

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For the second appearance a later year, at the Kiva Auditorium, “Dizzy and Mr. B. Salute the Count,” Diz was already in his ’70s and Billy in his mid-’70s. You’ve got to hand it to them for being up there. Especially when their ages meant that they were no longer in their primes and that they would have had a tough time living up to their reputations.

Here are parts of what I wrote in a review for Zounds:

Those who hope for continued golden moments in the name of the past may be trying too hard to hold on to their glittering recollections. Am I? By expecting them to be better than they were at this concert? Sure, if this was supposed to be an evening of good music.

Hey! This is the “re” decade: recycling, reliving, revisiting, the 1980s wrapping up nostalgia packages; this show was right on the money for such a marketing product.

When the band lit into Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” the focus of the rest of the event was symbolically foretold. It was clear that crowd-pleasing was the game as the spotlight fell for one of many times on drummer Duffy Jackson, a head-nodding, arms-flailing visual spectacle, showing how fast he could play.

There were other displays of what the band could do, with a few more solos bordering on interesting with a hell of a lot more of Duffy. They crowd dug that. Lucky them.

Foster still lacked the skills as an m.c., consistently naming the soloists while applause drowned out his every word. Then he trotted out that old cliché “little lady” to present singer Carmen Bradford. Little she ain’t, daddy. She sang rather well at times, particularly in “See See Rider,” which lifted the band above solid and dependable gloss into a few moments of drive and fire.

Then it was Diz’s turn. Foster went off the stand leaving the band to back up Diz in whatever way it could without an obvious leader. Diz’s playing was more uneven than good. The notes flurried with as much skill as ever, but the tone was often strained and the pitch not much on keel. He spotlighted his own excellent arrangements of “Round Midnight” and “Manteca” that he’d arranged at one time for Count. That was as far as the title “Salute to Count” went for him. No verbal statements of tribute. There Diz soloed with taste. He didn’t hold back. He gave as good as he could. That should have made the real music lovers feel that they’d gotten their money’s worth.

A standing ovation, of course. Why not? Probably as much for the fact that he was still alive and playing as for what he’d just done.

After intermission the band, Foster up front, fielded a few more pop-ups, such as “April in Paris” (“one more time,” for chrissakes. How many times do we need it?) along with other mementos.  

Then came the Eckstine set. “Where the hell are we?” he asked, grabbing the microphone. Feeble laughter from the band which may have equally wondered the same. They were out on the road propping up memory. This time, a frail version of The Act. Straining to hold on to the voice, wandering up and down the stage with as much presence as a sad marionette in the hands of an apprentice. This was a legend of great popularity built on records, and off-stage unseen appeal. Wobbly knees now. An inadequate smattering of patter and a story to tell about Duke arriving in heaven, which got befuddled in telling and told a story more about the teller.

To Mr. B’s credit though, he didn’t do too much memory-land stuff, trying to remind us of his old hits. His choice of material and the arrangements played by the band with an unidentified leader other than Foster were often tasteful. Too bad that Eckstine is no longer able to sing with quality equal to the material chosen. After about six such numbers, gathering diminishing polite applause, some people in the audience began drifting out.

There will be more good performances, I’m sure, by the Basie band. Maybe even at a time when it’s mostly a backup group in such road shows. Diz will still have a few glowing moments, I’m certain, but probably the best are now behind him. Ahead of him and Mr. B. is more of the road. Too bad that they need to go out on it, that punishing jostle, an astigmatic jump-off vision of America. Time out of joint, their own joints shaky and not what they once were, any more than are mine, any more than for many others there at the Kiva in search of an illusion of time standing still.

There were also several Santa Fe Jazz parties, similar in concept to Dick Gibson’s at Denver. These were produced by Bumble Bee Bob Weil. He featured a lot of younger greats, such as Howard Alden, Dan Barrett, Eddie Daniels, Ken Peplowski, and Warren Vaché. All of whom I interviewed and whose interviews I’ve never since broadcast, alas.

The Newsman

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My job as anchor and reporter at KKOB was at a time when personal computers were just becoming standard office equipment. Basically what we were doing was writing stories on versions of word processing. Our desks had screens and keyboards, and those were almost all we needed to know. For our newscasts there were pre-recorded energetic sounding intros, such as “Now, from the KKOB computerized newsroom, here is Gordon Spencer.” Sitting in the news booth we had the option of reading what we’d printed or reading directly from a computer screen. I never took the risk of reading from the screen, as did morning drive anchor Frank Haley.  Frank was part of what was sometimes called “The Morning Team,” the other members being program host Larry Ahrens and traffic reporter Brian Ward. Whenever I filled in for Frank, I was expected to do what Frank did with Larry, exchange banter after the newscast.

News director John Geddie required that our newscasts regularly contain audio clips recorded by our reporters and/or statements from someone who’d responded to our questions over the phone. Ideal length :45, given that these “cuts”  had to fit in five-minute time frames. In order to include them on-air they were already set up on audio cartridges to play during the broadcast. Multiple clips for the same newscast would follow each other on the same cartridge; there was no way to use more than one; it would have meant too much distraction while reading copy live and no doubt would have been noisy.

To edit the cassette tapes for broadcast, there was no editing equipment. We’d simply choose the part we wanted, copy that onto the cartridge and stop it at the precise moment by pressing the cassette player’s pause switch. Primitive by today’s standards, but it worked.

We had police radio on in the newsroom at all times, listening for the codes identifying where and what police were being called to: 10-10, a fight in progress; 10-15, civil disturbance; 10-72, a shooting; 10-80, pursuit in progress; 10-100, dead body; and 10-4, message received. A standard phrase used was that someone “advised” the police about something instead of “informed” or “told.”

As reporters, we drove our own cars and had no direct contact with the station while away from it. No hand-held mobile phones. No CB radios, although our traffic reporters had those. We’d use pay phones to call the news editor on duty and tell him/her what was happening. Between the two of us, we’d then decide if it was worth coverage. If it was, the editor would decide how much coverage to give it, and how soon. Perhaps a return to the station to write the piece or pieces. If it seemed a story best covered ASAP, we were to phone in what we’d write on the spot. We also were instructed how many separate cuts we should file and how many seconds each should be. In setting up to record our copy over the phone, after identifying the subject, we’d say “coming down in 3,2,1” so that editor could tape it instantly. At some point, I became so adept that I didn’t always have to write the story but could ad-lib it, much as you see TV news reporters do regularly.

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Once, when covering a trial, I interviewed one of the jurors. When asking his name, I was astonished that he was Mark Rudd. His was a name well-known from my New York, WBAI days in the ’60s. He had been a famed anti-war activist quite involved with the Weather Underground as well as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Not bringing that up, I didn’t even ask him how he came to be in New Mexico. It didn’t feel right. It could have been a complex issue which had no bearing on that moment. Later I learned that he had been in Albuquerque since 1978 and taught at Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute, later re-named Central New Mexico Community College.

Eventually John gave me a regular beat, a new one for KKOB, but, as a concept, a vital service to the community, not that that was my idea. I covered evening meetings of the Albuquerque City Council and the Bernalillo County Commission. Unlike some of my colleagues and other people I knew, who generally seemed cynical about all politicians, I admired what these people were trying to do and found their meetings and the ideas discussed constantly interesting. Clearly there were factions and antagonisms among them but I never tried to report on that. Given how short the few reports had to be, I tried to emphasize what they were accomplishing, believing that it was most important for listeners to know what their local governments were actually doing.

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There were lots of friendly contacts with people whose names have stayed familiar. The two which stand out most are Hess Yntema and Michael Brasher. Hess was one of the more vocal members of the City Council and made a name for himself by often making public comments to the newspapers about issues which he felt were important. Moreover, his actual name struck some people as so unconventional that they assumed he was more quirky than he actually was. Michael and I had had contact with him because he was active in local radio as the manager of Albuquerque Public Schools’ radio station KANW, and he hung out with Mike Langner. Brasher always looked, sounded, and seemed young. I admired him for wanting to give his time and energy to local government. He, too, was one of the more vocal members of the Council.

Upon deciding to leave Albuquerque in the fall of 1990, the Council presented me with an award, a document citing my “fairness and objectivity” as the first “Electronic Reporter” to be so recognized.


In New Mexico I became involved in theatre for the first time since performing in Genova about 10 years before. In New York I’d seen a lot of theatre, but Albuquerque was different. There were three roles during my eight years there. Two were at The Adobe Theater in Corrales and The Vortex, companies/venues which are still flourishing as I write this in 2017. Plus  one at the Santa Fe Actors Company.

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KHFM’s Roxanne Allen and her husband Kip were appearing in Ernest Thompson’s well-known On Golden Pond at the Adobe, a small space at that time within San Ysidro Church in a rather rural area. They suggested I audition and that got me the role of Charlie Martin, a family friend of elderly Norman Thayer Jr., the aging man whose memory is fading, the central focus of the story. Roxanne had the role of Norman’s daughter Chelsea, engaged to Billy Ray, played by Kip. On stage they didn’t seem to have much chemistry, as if strangers rather than a married couple.

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Through Barrett Price, a friend of theirs, I learned about a play-reading group run by Jim (“Grubb”) Graebner. Barrett, officially known as V.B. Price (Vincent Barrett), had a performing background in his family. His father was movie star Vincent Price. I got to know Barrett slightly and had the impression that using the initials of his name was so as to be accepted for himself. Of course, I can’t help wondering if he might have been embarrassed; some of us think that his overly elegant dad was not that much of an actor, an almost arch caricature on screen. I never talked to Barrett about that, of course.

Re: Grubb, our group met irregularly and did not perform. We just read amongst ourselves for our own enjoyment. But Grubb was a playwright and decided to produce his own play Night of the Bull Moose Connection in 1985 at the Vortex Theater. Like the Adobe, it was a venue, not a performing group.

As for my Santa Fe performance, I did not appear in person in a production of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in The Clair De Lune, although I was in the cast. I’d been asked to be the Voice of the Radio Announcer to which F & J listen during the play. It didn’t require me, of course, to be on stage or backstage, just to tape-record the voice.

Albuquerque Little Theatre

The biggest draw in town was Albuquerque Little Theatre Company, which produced local performances with  occasional guest stars, such as Sandy Dennis in Agnes of God in the ’86-87 season. They offered fairly standard repertory, such as The Hasty Heart and Wait Until Dark in that season. I don’t remember attending often.

Another significant venue was The Wool Warehouse, now a National Historic Landmark. Starting in 1929, it had been sheep rancher Frank Bond’s storage area. In 1984 Betty and George Luce bought it and made the second floor a theater restaurant. Very classy. Another venue at the time was the Barn Dinner Theatre in Cedar Crest. Very rustic.

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There really wasn’t a lot happening in local theatre then. So, in 1984, when New York theatre director Andrew Shea announced that he was forming New Mexico Repertory Theatre, this sounded like something significant. It established offices in downtown’s relatively recently restored KiMo Theatre, a wonderful Pueblo Deco building from 1927 (see above “Jazzy Times”). Bill Weinrod and other locally influential makers and shakers had been doing all they could to make downtown a more viable destination for residents and visitors alike and started a drive to get public funding and support. Naturally they enlisted me to do what I could to give them on-air press coverage at KHFM. I interviewed Andrew and made sure that, whenever possible during my morning show, I’d mention what the group was doing. Later I did as much as I could on KKOB.

The first production was Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys that Andrew directed. It was exceptional. And was also surprising, given its need for two black actors, and we had so few black people in the city then.

The Rep mostly cast actors from the state, primarily from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Kip among them. New Mexico Rep debuted Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, originally developed from workshops and showcased at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where Medoff was on the faculty. It also presented Sam Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love while he was living in Santa Fe and an imaginative production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Macbeth was costumed to look like Fidel Castro and the rest of the cast equally resembled Cubans from the same time and place.

The Rep tended toward more cutting edge and new scripts than anyone else in town such as Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

On Milwaukee Air

Although things had been going well for me in Albuquerque, our income was increasingly unsteady. That was due to the financial situation at the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Paychecks were delayed and that made the staff nervous. Which means that Hannelore started exploring moving on. We didn’t want to rely solely on my earnings, should the Symphony fold.

We went on a job-search trip to Saint Paul, MN, and Milwaukee, WI. Several months before, at a symphony marketing conference, Hannelore had met David Snead, head of the Marketing Department at the Milwaukee Symphony. He’d suggested she come visit if interested in a job with him. She had also learned about an opening at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

What would I do, if she got one of those? We weren’t much concerned. Both cities, bigger and more culturally rich than Albuquerque, had what seemed to be major classical music radio stations. And, given my recent discovery of multiple ways to earn income as newscaster, reporter, and jazz history and Italian teacher, we believed I’d find something.

Re: the Twin Cities, I had been in touch with KCMP, an established non-commercial classical music station at St. Olaf College. I drove to Northfield, MN, to see if there could be some future for me there, part-time, substitute, something like that, having called ahead.

The manager seemed very interested in having me join the staff, although he didn’t mention a specific job. He showed me around the station, of which he was very proud. Justifiably. It looked substantial and well furnished, larger and with more studios than any version of WNCN. It certainly was a far cry from KHFM. I told him about Hannelore’s and my plan to look into possibilities in Milwaukee, promising to be in touch again, once we’d made up our minds. It was great to feel wanted.

Hannelore had an interview with the marketing/PR director at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and, while not getting an immediate offer, unlikely in any case, she was uncertain if she really wanted to work there.

Our short visit in Minneapolis and Saint Paul didn’t tell us much about what it would have been like to live in the area. We had to rush to make Hannelore’s interview with David Snead in Milwaukee.

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I had also been in advance contact with WFMR in Milwaukee, a commercial classical music station, and station manager Obie Yadgar. He’d suggested coming to see him at the station if and when we were in town. While Hannelore was meeting with David and his staff, I drove out to WFMR, which seemed quite far from downtown, 21 miles. There was trouble finding it, but eventually it was visible in the middle of an almost rural neighborhood.

The building was free-standing and small, on the same scale as KHFM. There were about four offices, on different sides of two hallways, a large control room, a small utilitarian studio, a record library; also a small kitchen and a bathroom.

I’d not sent Obie an audition tape, so he auditioned me on the spot, giving me a program guide and sitting me in the small studio in front of a mike to ad-lib introductions to music and performers listed on a page. No challenge. He went into another room to listen and, in about three minutes, stopped. “That’s great,” he said. “I wish we had an opening. But we don’t. If you move to Milwaukee, would you be interested in something part-time, maybe on weekends?”

“Sure,” I replied, trying to not sound shocked or delighted at how easy that had been.

“OK. I can get you on the air on weekends.”

I tried to be cool and minimize enthusiasm.

“But, here’s something important,” Obie continued, becoming very serious. “I must ask you to not tell your wife about the weekend shift until you arrive. Call me, of course, to let me know your decision, but don’t say anything to her about the offer until you’re actually on the way.”

Yeah, that was odd. But what the hell, I’d honor the agreement.

Hannelore was offered the job of Marketing Director of the Milwaukee Symphony, and we moved in mid-October, 1990. I called Obie when we were on our way. I learned upon arriving why he wanted to maintain some secrecy. The weekend guy had friends in the orchestra, and Obie didn’t want him to know he was being dropped until I was actually on hand. Obie had been nervous that Hannelore might tell someone at the Symphony.

We settled in at the end of November 1990. I was 57. That wasn’t too hard.

Since a weekend shift at WFMR was certainly not serious income, I began looking around and found that there was also a full-time jazz station: WYMS (Your Milwaukee Schools). It was owned and operated by the school system and, as a “justification,” always broadcast school board meetings.

Station manager Roger Dobrick and program director Bill Bruckner, learning of my Albuquerque, RAI, and New York credits, were suitably impressed, and I was added to the stand-by list of program hosts without an audition.

My first attendance at a staff meeting was unforgettable. Not due to the meeting itself. It was January 16th, 1991, and I was listening to the news on my car radio en route. As I was parking, the latest story said that the U.S. had just started bombing Iraq. The beginning of the first Gulf War. I sat there, tears streaming down my face. Another Vietnam War loomed. More young Americans to be killed in a place where they didn’t belong. I sat there for a few minutes before going to the meeting and told everyone the news. They seemed less disturbed than I. That’s all I remember from that evening.

(More about WYMS below.)

WFMR was not the most stable place to work. Not because of anything I did or didn’t do. Management. Ownership changes. Here we go again.

When I joined, the station was owned by Capitol Classics, Inc., with Bob (Robert) Caulfield as station manager and co-owner with his wife Angela, who, evidently, was quite wealthy. After they divorced in 1991, they sold WFMR in 1992 to Harris Classical Broadcasting, headed by Randall Harris and his brother-in-law David Bishop.

You know what that means. Immediate staff changes. Nearly all of the on-air people were out, Obie included, except for Craig Haebler. The change was a major shock and disappointment to core WFMR listeners, especially those for whom Obie was an icon. As morning show host, he’d built a solid following with his friendly sound and very pleasant voice. Also he was famed for the kind of verbal shtick common to many radio personalities, such as regularly saying something like “Let’s heat up the samovar and brew some strong tea.”

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Jazz host Ron Cuzner stayed on until, I think, 1995, when Harris created “smooth jazz” radio station WFMI (more below about that station). Cuzner’s The Dark Side had long been a local fixture with a major following. I’d listened a few times but never got much sense of what he was doing, hearing so little, working during the day. His peculiar speaking style annoyed me, though, with long, seemingly random pauses between words or sentences. Certainly, even more than Obie, he was another of those truly distinctive radio personalities, like those mentioned above, e.g., Bill Watson.

Spring ’92, Bob and Angela threw a going-away party, a lavish affair at Shorewood’s elegant Hubbard Park Lodge on the Milwaukee River. They gave us gifts, too. Mine: a wrist watch which, as of this writing (July 2017) still runs perfectly.

Never having been full-time at WFMR at that point, the watch reminded me of the inexorable movement of broadcasting life. Given ongoing writing work (details later), I didn’t feel much bereft and certainly this was no big shock. But wait! Soon I’d be back again.


The new owners bought low-cost syndicated classical music programs, self-contained with announcements included. They were produced on very small tapes called DATs by a now-defunct radio station in San Francisco. The announcements could not have been more elemental: “Richard Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils, Chicago Symphony. Fritz Reiner.” No “this is,” “performed by,” “conductor,” etc.

Craig’s job was to oversee and program the tapes in a computer-driven system which was part of the package, the tapes becoming the essence of WFMR programming. Craig also pre-recorded commercials, station breaks, and other announcements which he inserted into the system. There were no regular drive-time elements such as weather forecasts, time-checks, or anything else that distinguished one part of the broadcast day from another. Nearly complete automation.

Each tape had a tone to signal the next event to take place, so, when the musical selection ended, the signal triggered something else, such as a recorded station break. When that ended, a new tone signaled the DAT to continue.

Have you ever known any computer to work perfectly without regular human contact? Although during the day, Randy or David, or some other staff may have been at their offices in the station building and could have possibly taken over if there were problems, they’d have to be seriously listening and notice problems, instead of talking to each other or being on the phone or concentrating on their work.

It didn’t take long for difficulties to appear. Harris was committed to the same quality of sound the station had always had—clean, crisp, undoctored high fidelity. Other stations, pop ones, for example, had processing systems to make the sound louder and stronger, usually eroding quality and tending to make all levels of music equal. Harris didn’t want that.

However, the new WFMR computer system had a fail-safe feature. It was geared to recognize silence after a lapse of five seconds, at which time the system responded as if to dead air, even without a tone cue. Then it would segue to the next event. Duh. With a long pause between symphony movements, for example, or if the music was exceptionally quiet, the fail-safe kicked in.

Listeners already turned off by the change in programming were even more alienated. But if they called the station to complain, early mornings, evenings, weekends, usually no one was on hand to even answer.

Randy soon realized the problem and asked Obie if he’d like to return for a morning show, which would have to incorporate some of the DATs, but supervised. With weather forecasts, time-checks, the standard stuff. Obie declined. Randy asked me. Sure. Why not? I’d have a chance to do some programming and I’d be paid. Eventually Randy did away with even more use of the DATs, finally dropping them altogether in 1995, I believe.

Cutting down on the DATs meant that more programs on WFMR would originate there. Which meant the need for a program director. I think that I was asked if I’d be interested. If so, I’m sure I would not have been. A full-time job would have seemed too constricted with so much enjoyable stuff going on otherwise: filling in on WYMS, writing for weekly Shepherd Express and Footlights Magazine, creating/voicing  commercials for the Milwaukee Symphony, and hosting Symphony pre-and post-concert talks (more about all of that follows).

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Steve Murphy was hired as Program Director and morning show host. I stayed on to fill in where needed. Craig had afternoon drive-time and there were weekday evening shows with Allison Graf. Craig had his own signature phrase, by the way, signing off at the end of his shift, “I’ll be looking for you in the rear-view mirror.” By then, I was only on the air substituting.

Allison called her program Music by Candlelight, beginning it by lighting a match next to the microphone. Allison had a very gentle, appealing voice, never overdoing it or trying to sound breathless or sexy. She did her own programming but had a limited knowledge of classical music. Once she sweetly said something like, “Isn’t this a lovely Spring evening? Let’s sit back and enjoy something beautiful. Here is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’m sure she was soon shocked when the riot-provoking portions stabbed and slashed.

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In 1996 there was a hit movie about classical music: Shine. It was nominated for seven Oscars, and actor Geoffrey Rush won one for his portrayal of Australian pianist David Helfgott, who, despite having suffered many mental breakdowns, for a while became a celebrated concert pianist, especially playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. So much so that a CD performance of it was issued. I heard it and, like some other people, thought it sounded rather amateurish. When WFMR got a copy, David Bishop asked me if I’d be willing to broadcast it. This was at a time when all of us chose our own programming. I told David politely that I thought it was embarrassing for Helfgott and for WFMR and I’d prefer not to air it. David didn’t question my refusal. I mention this to show how well he and Randy and I got along.

In 1994, I proposed a weekly Broadway musical cast-recording show, The Best of Broadway. Randy and David thought that was a fine idea and no big risk, my having offered to produce and host unpaid. It certainly didn’t last long. They’d hoped to sell it to sponsors and weren’t having any luck. When Randy heard one show where I featured Rodgers and Hammerstein flops, i.e., mostly unfamiliar songs, he asked me why I didn’t present something people would know and love. Within a few months they decided to drop it.

Then I proposed the show to WOKY, which was featuring “oldies,” i.e., pop music of the ’40s and ’50s. This was similar in content to a then-very-successful syndicated series on several U.S. stations called “Music of Your Life,” aimed at previously young adults. Thus I was connected to the same kind of music that I’d hosted about 40 years before on WOND. Of course, those recordings on LPs were new. (See far above: “The A.C. DJ. ‘J’ also means Jazz.”)

WOKY was happy to have the show in 1995 and 1996. And Randy generously allowed me, still on the staff, though irregularly, to tape the programs at WFMR when a recording studio was available. I gave up the project in ’96, wanting to concentrate on other activities.

In August 1995 Harris added another station, WFMI , likewise commercial, to broadcast smooth jazz. It was in one on-air studio, a former office in the same building with WFMR. Another office was turned into a record library. The sales staff was the same for both stations.

WFMI never did much in the ratings any more than did WFMR, so it’s no surprise that Harris was glad to sell them both. Yep. Ownership change number 3. Lakefront Communications, a.k.a. Milwaukee Radio Group, a subsidiary of Saga Communications, Inc., bought them both together in May 1997. And changed WFMI’s content to “modern adult contemporary.” I have no idea how that sounded; I never listened.

One good thing about this new ownership: the on-air staff remained, unlike other regular alterations in much of broadcasting. Steve, Craig, and Alison remained, and I continued substituting on WFMR until moving to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2000.

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On one afternoon Tony Randall was an on-air guest when I was hosting. Randall was in town to appear with the Symphony narrating old standby Peter and The Wolf. Hanni had made sure that he’d appear on the station with me. We talked about what music he liked, with Craig finding the CDs in the FMR library so we could play some of the music. Then Randall would talk about why he liked that music or how some of it connected to his life. Although I was the interviewer, all I had to do was follow wherever his conversation went. At one point we discussed his recent re-marriage, his first wife having died in 1992. Three years later he’d married 25-year-old Heather Harlan when he was 75. They’d just had a baby, his first, and he was raving that it was a wonderful thing at his age to be a father for the first time. What else we talked about I don’t remember but he was certainly having a good time. So was I. So was all the staff hovering outside the studio’s glass walls.

From Wikipedia: At midnight on June 26, 2007, ironically on the 51st anniversary of its original sign-on, WFMR ended its classical music format when it flipped to a smooth jazz format.