The Best in Jazz Radio

Count me as one who still believes firmly in the sanctity of jazz radio. What constitutes an effective weekly jazz radio program? How do those charged with that responsibility make it happen? We’d like to hear from others around the jazz radio dial who’d like to weigh in on the subject. Either weigh in at the COMMENTS section below, or be in touch at willard@openskyjazz.com.

Despite the shrinking jazz radio universe, there are still a number of outstanding weekly jazz radio broadcasters out here. Two of my favorites who come immediately to mind are Jim Szabo, who has been on-air at WRUW, broadcasting from Case-Western Reserve University to the Cleveland area, for closing in on 40 years with his “Down By the Cuyahoga” show. Another is from my home station, WPFW in DC. If its Sunday afternoon on WPFW it must be time for “A Sunday Kind of Love” with Miyuki Williams. Each brings a great deal of joy, care, and sheer knowingness to their weekly tasks. So I thought I’d start this ball rolling by pitching a couple of questions at Jim and Miyuki. Szabo was typically expansive, Williams was succinct and brief.

One very salient point to keep in mind: these are both volunteer programmers, neither has been paid for what is obviously a labor of love. All for jazz! And each has engaged in extensive efforts at bringing live performances to their respective communities. Jim Szabo was one of the founding members of the old Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, and Miyuki Williams is currently working on a gala 70th birthday party/concert performance in DC for her friend, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett.

Both are exceptionally skilled interviewers and each has mastered the art of the artist tribute. Evidence: last April Charlie Haden was the artist-in-residence at our 31st annual Tri-C JazzFest. On the Friday evening of Charlie’s residence, some hours after we had screened Haden’s superb film “Rambling Boy”, Szabo arranged to have Charlie as a guest on his show, which resulted in a wide-ranging interview plus music selections from Haden’s rich career.

A few weeks ago Miyuki Williams learned on the Saturday evening before her noon Sunday show of the passing of Abbey Lincoln. She quickly marshalled Professor Acklyn Lynch, an old and dear friend of Abbey in DC for a beautiful and touching show in remembrance of Ms. Lincoln’s singular artistry. Additionally Miyuki has specialized in salting her jazz selections with informative interviews with playwrights, actors and theatre people from DC’s vital theatrical community.

How long have you been programming jazz radio and how did you arrive at your programming position at your current station?

Jim Szabo: I got involved with WRUW, the station of Case Western Reserve University, when I became an undergraduate there in 1973. After graduation, they said I could hang around if I wanted to. That was 37 years ago.

Miyuki Williams: About 31 years ago on a Monday night I was driving on Minnesota Avenue listening to WPFW 89.3 FM. Jerry Washingon, better known as “The Bama” was on the air. He proceeded to miscue songs, start something then change his mind and play something else, and start a cut from the middle of the song. I guess some people complained so he said, ‘if you think you can do this call me and maybe we can get you a show.’ I am not sure where I summoned the nerve or courage from but when I arrived at my destination, I called him from a pay phone and asked if he was serious. He said yes and invited me to come to his Sunday program. I arrived at the station at 7th and H Street at the agreed upon time and met him.

It was like love from the first. I made the committment to return weekly, he promised to train me. I started assisting him first with phones, then with engineering, and finally he would force me to program. When he thought I was ready he had me cover his show and asked the station admin to have me substitute for others. Eventually I got a show right after his Sunday program. At one point I was slated for Monday mornings, and finally moved back to Sundays.

Do you have a particular programming philosophy that guides your efforts, and during the course of a normal week how do you go about planning your programs?  What dictates the selections you spin on the air?

JS: Many factors come into play when planning my programs. The first is an overwhelming desire to play new releasees. This gives the musicians on the current scene a chance to be heard — Lester Bowie called jazz “musical research,” and I think that it’s important to show what’s happening now. I will get to the station a few hours prior to the program, and set about previewing the new releases. So I don’t know specifically what I will play until just before airtime; I let the sounds of the new releases get my imagination going.

The second factor is to aim for my programming goal: “have 100% of the listeners like 75% of what I play.” I will typically play a wide range of jazz styles within my (3 hour) program: beat-oriented jazz through straight ahead to the freest of expression; small groups, singers, and big bands. I try to design an “arc” across the three hours, stretching the traditional musical boundaries of melody, harmony, and rhythm as the show progresses. If a listener is comfortable with only a subset of the styles in the jazz universe, my 75% goal will hopefully have them keep listening to other styles that may expand their pallett. My program is usually placed in the schedule sandwiched between shows that primarily feature rock music, so my choices for first and last cuts try to smoothen the transition.

A corollary to the second factor: the “like 75% of what I play” extends to me as well. I definitely play jazz that I personally do not like.

The third factor I use for programming is the calendar of upcoming area jazz events. I will plan features for visiting artists, and sometimes the artist’s visit sparks a theme for the entire program. In the summer of 2008 the SMV tour stop of bass players Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten generated the idea of a show called “Jazz from the Low Frequenies”; I played jazz featuring tuba, bass saxophone, baritone voice, and more.

The fourth programming factor is also a calendar, but a calendar of jazz history. If a particular artist has (or would have had) a birthday on the day of my show, I may put together a short tribute. If the anniversary of a significant jazz recording or event occurs on the day, I may do the same. And if, unfortunately, an important jazz artist has passed away within the past week, I may devote some or all of the program to a proper send-off.

My show is done live, so I can juggle these factors in various combinations right up to the start of the program.

MW: My philosophy is to play good music, to provide a soundtrack for whatever is going on Sundays. I imagine the audience is reading the Washington Post or New York Times, going to/coming from church service, preparing Sunday dinner, working in gardens, on computers, trying to recuperate from the week, preparing for what is comking up.

I know the audience is smart, knowledgeable, and busy. I try to provide them with information of what is going on in the community, especially music and other performing arts, but cover whatever groundd that moves me. Music selections may be about upcoming performances, birthdays, new releases, holiday or significant current events. I try to incorporate at least one local performer a week. I try to communicate the best of myself from a place of love.

If you’re a radio programmer and would like to participate in this ongoing dialogue, hit me back at willard@openskyjazz.com

In the on-deck circle for next time: Arturo Gomez. KUVO (Denver, CO)

This entry was posted in General Discussion, Radio. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Best in Jazz Radio

  1. Craig Taylor says:

    Exactly what is the nature of jazz radio in the 21st century? What is its role and function? Why does it matter? Why is it important?

  2. …Which begs the question: Why do YOU still listen to jazz radio? (And I can personally testify to the fact that you do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *