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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WFMR_(defunct)
Whereas my activities at WFMR were often interesting, my connections with jazz at WYMS were a constant joy.
The station had jazz programs all day and overnight, with folk music and other ethnic music features some evenings and on weekends. It also regularly broadcast Milwaukee Public School Board meetings (WYMS—Your Milwaukee Schools), and, of course, was in the administration building on W. Vliet Street.
I took over the mid-day program, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in 1997. It was previously hosted by Linda Scott who had decided that she wanted to spend her time doing other things. Linda, by the way, a kind and gentle person, was the first transsexual I’d ever met, something she and I also briefly discussed once.
The great thing about having more regular air time was the expanded chance to select and program the music, which every d.j. did. Bill Bruckner functioned as program director but chose to have marginal say in what recordings any of us selected. We had two turntables and two CD players, which meant that I could play my many LPs collected from my days at WNCN, WBAI, Radio Genova Sound, RAI, and KHFM and those CDs I’d collected as a writer for Footlights Magazine (see below), as well as to explore the station’s extraordinary CD library.
By mid-1998, Bill, who’d hosted the morning drive show from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., decided that he’d had enough of getting up way early in the morning and asked me if I’d like to switch shifts with him. I was delighted.
Coming in around 5:30 in the morning, by the way, I always heard the overnight syndicated feed Jazz with Bob Parlocha. I found his programming entirely wrong for that time of day. He featured hard bop. Jarring and noisy; moreover, he followed a programming pattern which seems to have remained common and unoriginal to this day, as if it were some required format. I’ve heard jazz d.j.s do it everywhere. Three unrelated tracks back to back, not of the same musicians or from the same disc, with no talk in between. Info about the first selection at the start and, at the end of the three, talk about what preceded. There’s no musical justification. Coming to Omaha in 2013, I was offered a show on KIOS. Asking if required to adhere to that so-standard pattern, I was told that I needn’t, even though the other WYMS hosts had always been doing it. They still do. I quit after 20 months, but that had nothing to do with the them. (More about KIOS much later.)
Anyway, re: WYMS, we had regular top of the hour newscasts at 7, 8, and 9 a.m., read from wire copy by Peter Zehren. He read well. Amusingly, he loved trying to pronounce the regional ways of naming states and towns, e.g., “Missourah” for Missouri, “Norlens” for New Orleans.
I don’t remember Peter’s title but he was part of Station Manager Roger Dobrick’s staff. Peter had a major role in on-air fund raising drives. He was in charge hyper-energetically and easily angered. But the drives were always successful. WYMS fund drives resembled many others of non-commercial radio stations; we offered “gifts” in return for specific “pledge” amounts. In 1999, Peter and I came up with an interesting idea. We’d offer a CD containing four of my jazz interviews, all of them from my earlier days, with Billie Holiday (WFLN), Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington (WOND), and Cannonball Adderley (WNCN).
Certainly WYMS had a serious following, including listener Keith Mardak, the CEO of Milwaukee’s Hal Leonard publishing company, evidently the world’s largest publisher of sheet music. In 1997, Mardak decided to create and sponsor a series of live jazz performances at the historic Pabst Theatre, where there was already a chamber music series. Mardak created an advisory board to work with his company to organize and plan the jazz series. I became a board member; so did Roger Dobrick, I think. Who else, I’m not sure, but most likely someone from Pabst management, and perhaps music critic Dave Tianen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Why me? Probably because I volunteered, but possibly also because I was a well-known music broadcaster, on WYMS and WFMR, and a writer about jazz for the monthly Footlights Magazine (more about that later.)
The board was thrilled to have a hand in booking some of most famous musicians, and we quickly engaged Dave Brubeck for one concert and Gerry Mulligan for another. (Re: Mulligan, see above for the New York part of this memoir, “Jazz Plus a Few Other Cats.”) I was the m.c. for both of those concerts. No surprise. I had been hosting pre- and post-concert events for the Milwaukee Symphony (more about that later, too).
But the artists I most wanted to engage were the members of Toshiko Akiyoshi/Tabackin Big Band. In 1998, I convinced the board to book them. I had been a Toshiko fan since the late 1970s, meaning I’d broadcast her LPs on WBAI, Radio Genova Sound, RAI, KHFM, and KUNM.
The Board agreed to have the band perform in the series. I was really happy about that. Once it was set, I’d hoped to broadcast one of the band’s more recent CDs, but there weren’t any like that in the WYMS library. After contacting Toshiko’s agent and then Toshiko herself, she agreed to lend us Monopoly Game from 1998, then only on a Japanese label. We had to agree to return it. Which we did.
I interviewed her on the phone where she lamented that so much of what the band had recently recorded for BMI was only being released in Japan. Evidently the company didn’t think big band recordings sold well enough to try to market them widely. Toshiko knew that the band wouldn’t get larger audiences without new CDs able to stimulate interest. And we at WYMS, a jazz station, consistent with BMI’s reluctance, had no new promotional discs.
That band did sometimes appear at jazz festivals. And there was an ongoing 1996-started series of Monday night performances at Birdland. But once a week in New York could hardly be considered a major source of income. That, by the way, was the best night for band members, more regularly engaged as studio musicians.
We talked about why Toshiko wanted to keep going, considering the high cost of maintaining the group: “People like to hear what we do. So do the musicians; without that enthusiasm we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
She and second husband Lew Tabackin started the 16-member big band in 1973, engaging L.A. studio musicians. It was not a profit-making enterprise, so much so that Toshiko copied the arrangements herself. It was always her own music that was featured, her choice. “I wanted to find an outlet for my writing and try to accumulate a real library to leave behind when I’m gone.”
Toshiko felt that a meaningful big band had to have a specific identity rather than be a group that relied on playing standard repertory. She cited Ellington among others. Duke had said to me back in 1957, something he certainly had said before, “The band is my instrument.” Duke was able to keep it going almost full-time by taking funds from his substantial royalty earnings, so many of his songs had become standards. Toshiko didn’t have that option, but she regularly took piano solo and trio gigs and that kept some money coming in.
“I enjoy playing the piano,” she said, “and that’s part of what I like about being in this band. I didn’t start this because I wanted to be a leader.” She also had to take time out to be a mother. In 1963, she and then-husband saxophonist Charlie Mariano had a daughter. At that time Toshiko and Mariano had ongoing small groups in the U.S. but she “felt uncomfortable and insecure” away from her native culture. She went back to Japan and stayed with her mother while giving birth to a girl now known as Monday Michiru, actress, singer, songwriter.
As for Toshiko’s influences, musically and otherwise: “Everything you do, everything you see is part of your heart. My music is part of my experience, part of myself.”
When that tiny Asian woman in her late ’60s stood up on the Pabst stage in front of that massive amount of instruments and all those men, I started to cry. I still cherish that moment. And her.
In addition to being an m.c. for the Brubeck and Mulligan concerts in the Jazz at the Pabst series, I did so for a 1996 event featuring drummer Louie Bellson. He was coming to lead one of his big band clinics—something he’d been doing nationally for a long time. It was at a local college that had jazz studies as part of its music program. Possibly Alverno College; I’m not sure now.
At the start Louie had played in many big bands, including those of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman. Louie gained much fame performing with Duke Ellington in the 1940s. How did he fit in with such different styles? “A drummer has to go where the music goes. Your major role is to keep time.”
Watching Louie play, I always admired his stage presence. He was never showy. I compared that to Gene Krupa who always seemed to grab the spotlight. “Sure, he was a great showman, one of the best. He put drums in the spotlight, but he always had to be the pulse of that great Goodman band rhythm section. And he did that. He knew that you’ve got to be an accompanist first and foremost. Great players know how. And, I’ll tell you, there are a lot of new great players today who have that ability and adaptability, coming out of rock groups but able to fit in perfectly everywhere. Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, for example.”
In a phone interview, we discussed why he continued to have such clinics, even, as then, in his early ’70s. He explained that he wanted to keep jazz bands and drumming alive by sharing what he knew and had learned, crediting Jo Jones for being a major mentor. “I couldn’t have done all that by myself if it weren’t for Jo; that’s the absolute truth. Without him, I wouldn’t be playing what I play today.” I didn’t think to ask how the connection came about. But clearly they were good friends and, in Louie’s early days, if both drummers were in the same town at the same time, Jo always wanted to give him pointers.
Reflections on his career? “The Lord has blessed me by allowing me to do what I really most like to do. It’s always also been a lot of fun.”
During my 10 years in Milwaukee I interviewed a lot of jazz musicians to promote their forthcoming appearances in town: Monty Alexander, Paquito D‘Rivera, Barry Harris, Ahmad Jamal, among them.
The one I cherished the most, after Toshiko, was John Frigo, whose career as a jazz violinist took off at age 72 in 1988. Prior to that he’d been a very busy Chicago bassist.
I first admired his violin playing when I was at WFLN hearing a 1955 Brunswick LP with pianist Dick Marx (Too Much Piano). Playing bass on most numbers, Frigo took two eloquent violin solos on “Nina Never Knew” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”
Then, at KHFM, there was a second encounter, Frigo appearing for a couple of tracks with younger violinist Randy Sabien on a 1983 Flying Fish LP In a Fog. I had no idea back then that I’d later live in Milwaukee and encounter Randy whose home was in Wisconsin. Frigo and I met there in February 1997 when he was 80.
Frigo got his first major jazz attention on records as a “special guest” in a 1987 Santa Monica gig with Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis, Triple Treat II from Concord Records. What a delightful discovery that was for me, hearing it when hosting jazz shows on KUNM.
“I’d performed with Herb, mostly on bass, when we were members of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra in the mid-’40s,” Frigo told me. “We also linked up with pianist Lou Carter around then as a group called “The Soft Winds.”
“Back in ’87, I was playing bass in a small cocktail lounge group at Chicago’s Conrad Hilton Hotel, across the street, as it turns out, from the Jazz Showcase. Hearing that Herb was there, I figured I’d go over and say hello. I hadn’t been playing jazz violin much at the time, but Herb knew that I could, and the three of them asked me if I’d like to join in and play a couple of tunes while they were booked at the club. I went home, got my violin and came back.”
Did that get any attention?
“Leonard Feather, who knew me as a bassist, heard about my sitting in and interviewed me for the paper and then followed that up with a great review. A few months later, Monty asked me to join them in Santa Monica for what turned out to be two recordings.”
Frigo was quickly becoming known. So much so that newly emerging Chesky Records’ first-ever recording in November 1988 featured Frigo, called there and mostly thereafter “Johnny.”
“Around then, I got a call from The Tonight Show inviting me to come on as a guest. Johnny Carson probably thought I’d be interesting, suddenly getting known, at age 72, as an up-and- coming jazz musician. During the interview, Johnny asked me why I was just getting started to be serious about jazz on the violin so late in life. I said I’d waited that long so there wouldn’t be time to become a has-been.”
“But you’d actually been playing violin ever since that Dick Marx session in the ’50s, right?” I asked.
“Really long before that. Starting back in high school before I moved over to the bass. Even though for more than 25 years I’ve made quite a good living playing bass in Chicago studio sessions, I never gave up the violin. I’d join in at barn dance kinds of things to keep my fingers in shape. And, even if I wasn’t playing anywhere, I’d open the case every three or four weeks to see if the strings were OK while gathering dust.”
“Barn dances?” I asked, surprised.
“Sure. There was the National Barn Dance radio show in Chicago and every so often I’d drop by and sit in, just to keep fresh by playing country stuff; I was always looking for ways to get my chops back. Then I took a morning gig at the Regency O’Hare Hyatt for several years as a strolling musician at breakfast time with an accordionist. That’s actually when I really got them back.”
“Still it took a long time for you to get a name for yourself as a jazz musician,” I said. “Do you think that’s an example of good luck?”
“I always say that luck happens when you’re prepared for it. And, you know, there are very few fiddle players with track records after so many years off.” He also laughed at the title for his next Chesky session in 1994, Debut of a Legend, saying, “That’s such an oxymoron. And how could it be a debut when they’d already issued the other in 1989? But I had no control over he title.”
I pointed out that Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli were going at it when they were no longer young, to see if he felt any kinship. Grappelli was born eight years before Frigo and was still flourishing at the time with many recordings in the 1990s and Grappelli in his ’80s. And Venuti, born probably 12 or 13 years before Frigo (Venuti kept changing stories about where and when he was born), also had a lot of great gigs in his ’70s. Frigo felt that they’d been playing so long that their styles were set, whereas he was coming up with something fresher, being a bass player. “My age helped me. I found my own style and conceptions.” Not to put down Grappelli. “He was actually a hero for me when I was young.”
If you listen to the three of them back to back you’ll discover that Frigo had a different, wonderfully rich, lyrical sound with conceptions resembling those of other jazz musicians, as if commenting on his own phrases.
“I’m a very emotional guy. That’s why I love playing ballads. I like having a chance to be introspective, a sort of quiet space where I can find unusual sounds that few people do on violin. You have to break the rules.”
“I remember one time when I was playing in a club and a sweet little old lady in the audience asked me to play ‘Lara’s Theme’ from Doctor Zhivago. I knew how she wanted to hear it. I played it straight, no jazzing it up. I had empathy.”
“Actually, I don’t consider myself a jazz violinist. I like to play each song for what it’s worth. For example, I love playing country music, classical. And I love 30-second commercials, including the many where I played in Chicago studios. There’s so much going on, condensed so well. Sometimes they give me a lump in my throat, that crystallization of talent.”
The future, especially given his age? “I hope to see I’m alive for the next 10 years on this great upward surge and, you know, continue to get better with my own special style. And if someone says to me, ‘When you play that, you’ve made me cry,’ that’ll be my reward.”
He did live another 10 years, sometimes continuing to write poetry and to paint. We lost him in 2007 at age 90. By then there were two more sessions under his own name. More at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/05/AR2007.
No surprise that Frigo balked at being called a jazz violinist, the use of the word “jazz” often bothers such musicians. Even trying to pin down what is and isn’t, the music itself eludes resolution.
Ahmad Jamal doesn’t like the word, he told me, when I interviewed him prior to his appearing in Jazz at The Pabst, probably in 1998, when he was in his late ’60s. He preferred to call such sounds “American Classical Music,” saying that “jazz” is a very unsophisticated over-used term. “We’re not one-dimensional players, us so-called jazz musicians.” As for his own background in other kinds of music, he pointed out that he’d been playing pieces by Liszt when he was 10. And that he’d just created a recording of his own music with the Assai Quartet that he cited as an example of not fitting into the confines of labels.
His biggest ever hit, “Poinciana,” recorded in 1958, part of Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me (Argo Records) stayed on best-selling record charts for 108 weeks. Jamal pointed out that he’d never stopped performing it, 40 years later. “But I’m a baby compared to Mozart.”
Did he keep on playing that tune because it was a hit and people clamored for it? “No. You play those things that appeal to you the most and, if it appeals to the public, you’ve got a winner.”
We discussed his style. I liked best his earliest sound, back on the Argo Records recordings around 1960. And found his more recent playing not nearly as distinctive. Not that I said so to him. That ca. 1960 style, I find, matches up with what All Music Guide’s Scott Yanow calls a “use of space.” Richard Wang in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz refers to it as “lean” with “simple embellishments.” And Wikipedia quotes “minimalist” as written by eMusic’s John Morthland. Apple Music Preview’s Matt Collar says that what Jamal “chose not to play marked him as an innovator…an adept use of tension and release…(with) nuanced shadings.” And calls attention to something later as “expansive” and “funk-infused.”
“I’m known for my discipline,” Jamal responded. “They call it what they want. The style has developed over the years a great deal, as it should. It’s a change in my approach.”
Writers often call attention to Miles Davis saying that he was influenced by Jamal’s early style, specifically a rhythmic sense, as quoted in Wikipedia and Gerald Early’s Miles Davis and American Culture, “his lightness of touch, his understatement.” According to that same source, Jamal characterized what he thought Davis admired was “my discipline as opposed to my space.”
Clearly Jamal was, let’s say, protective of his image. And when I mentioned that term “space,” referring to critic Ralph Gleason using it, Jamal talked about his dislike of music critics. Not that that attitude is rare. Many musicians don’t like being pigeon-holed in print and take umbrage at mistaken information passed off as fact.
Jamal specifically mentioned Leonard Feather and said he’d filed suit against Feather for referring to “an illegal name.” Wikipedia points out that the name appeared in a 1986 article by Feather in the Pittsburgh Courier(“Pittsburgh Jazz Festival Swings into Town.”) In fact, you’ll find Jamal’s birth name in Wang’s piece as Fritz Jones and at Wikipedia as Frederick Russell Jones. Moreover, some years after this interview, in one with me, guitarist Jimmy Ponder, referred to Jamal as “Fritzy Jones.” Both musicians hailed from Pittsburgh’s North Side and knew each other, Ponder being about 12 years younger.
Feather, by the way, evidently regularly got birth dates wrong. Jamal said that Feather was 10 years off, giving the birth year as 1921. Jamal was born, actually, in 1930. I’d often repeated Feather’s info to other musicians when talking to them and it was clear that Feather was consistently inaccurate. Usually they were amused.
My conversation with Jamal was always congenial, even though I was no longer a fan.