The Independent Ear

A Jazz Life: Rusty Hassan (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1 of our oral history interview with Rusty Hassan, just scroll down. Part 2 picks up at the dawn of Rusty’s now 50-year stint as a jazz radio programmer.

Willard Jenkins: After this guy you met at the bar … With the records. What prompted him to say, “Why don’t you come over and do some radio.”
Rusty Hassan: It was our conversation about the music. I don’t remember the guy’s name. I never saw him again. He went and did his class, but he got me into doing the radio.

So, when he said that, “Why don’t you come do radio?” What’d you do about that?
I went that following Monday, he showed me what to do, and at that time they had somebody engineering the show and you were behind a booth. You’d give the engineer the records. I had records to bring, but then there was a library. They had jazz albums as a part of the station’s library.

So this guy actually trained you?
Yeah. Well, he did one show with me and said, “You’re on your own.” There was that initial nervousness when you think about people out there listening and stuff like that.

How did you become a permanent part of the station, it’s not like you can walk in off the street and do a radio program.
Well, I took over the spot that he had. He said, “This is my successor here. He’s doing my show.”

So that’s how he introduced you to the station management?
Yeah, and they said, “Fine.”

Did you have to be a Georgetown student to produce a show?
At that time, yes, but there was a transformation that occurs with GTB, which is why it went off the air, and I’ll get to that. But at that time, it was a student-run station and it was off the air in the summer time. I had graduated from Georgetown and I had no vision of doing radio anymore in 1967, but when John Coltrane died, there was no WGTB on the airwaves. I didn’t even have a working record player at that time, so I went over to a friend’s house to listen to all my Coltrane stuff. At that time, WGTB had a jazz show every afternoon from about 4:30 to 6:30, called Emphasis on Jazz.

So this is how you got started in radio?
Yeah. I did mine [show] on Monday, somebody else was doing the other days. So I started my Junior year, and I went back to it when school started my Senior year.

What was the duration of your program?
Two hours. When I graduated in ’67, oh God … 1967 was an incredible time. Vietnam War was at its height. I had been living off-campus, so there was a mixed group of people, students, people who’re involved with SNCC, older African Americans who lived in the neighborhood. These were my circle of friends in ’66, ’67. The summer right after graduation, a friend of mine, John Reddy had been involved in SNCC, a white guy working in Southwest Georgia in the Summer of ’66. He had met Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer. He said, “Look, me and another friend of ours, Ed Seizer, we’ll be in Louisville. Can you drive down? We got clothing and other articles [to donate].” One of the friends in the circle of friends was this guy named Willy Kretcher. He’s in his 50’s at that time. Real street person, you know. He and I were gonna drive down to Louisville, and then John’s father had been a writer for the Reader’s Digest. He ghost-wrote Jack Paar’s books and stuff like that. So the other person going to Louisville with me and Willy, was Randy Paar, Jack Paar’s daughter.

We drove from DC to Mississippi, stopping in Chattanooga to hang out. We were drinking. We had a stash of liquor. We stopped and got some more along the way, and Willy liked to press the needle, so it was the scariest ride I’ve ever had. But in Louisville, Mrs. Hamer was still registering people to vote. Conversations in her living room were things like, “Well, you know I know why Stokley saying what he’s saying in terms about Black Power and the revolution, but that’s not gonna happen here. What we have to do is register people to vote, and vote these other people out. We gotta do this for the long haul. It’s not gonna be any quick transformation.” Stuff like that. Gave me a perspective. It was one of the most telling moments of my life to meet someone like Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer.

We rode back after a couple weeks of knocking on doors and stuff like that. Registering voters and doing some things. Back in DC that summer … ‘67, when John Coltrane dies and I’m not on the radio. Wondering if I’m gonna get drafted, because I was 1A. By the end of that summer, a friend of mine, one of the SNCC folks, said, “Well, you know the National Student Association’s got this program called Campus Community Organizers. Talk to them.” So I did. I became involved in the Vista Program that would involve students in community programs, still tied to Georgetown University. So when the semester started in the Fall, and I was in this Vista program, which was kind of screwed up because I wasn’t getting money yet, but I stumbled back into doing my radio show. I’m a graduate, WGTB’s back on the air, well here I am. They said, “Okay. Keep doing your show.” So I kept doing the show as a Vista Volunteer.

One of the community organizations that I hooked up with as a Vista Volunteer was called the New Thing Art and Architecture Center. Its Director was a guy named Topper Carew. He later did a TV show and a Hollywood movie called DC Cab. I interviewed him on my ‘GTB radio show. I’m a Vista Volunteer doing radio. I interviewed [saxophonist] Noah Howard, who I met up in New York. I started getting into the more avant-garde music of that era.

Were you programming the so-called avant garde on WGTB at that point?
Yeah, absolutely.

Talk about a typical program that you’d do on WGTB.
A typical show on GTB would be playing albums that I was really into at the time. John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” with Afro Blue, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, with stuff that he was doing. Then I discovered an album called “As If It Were The Seasons” by Joseph Jarman. So I’m getting into the AACM Recordings, also playing those on the air. Older stuff, Lester Young, Count Basie, I’d do a variety of those.

Did you have any particular influences on your programming style?
I don’t think so, quite honestly. Symphony Sid and that type were more personality driven. I was listening to Felix Grant on the radio here, but I was sort of counter. Felix would talk after every tune. I would segue stuff. I’d play way out stuff that he would never touch, because I’m able to do this. No program directors telling me not to do it.

The legendary Symphony Sid

There was no program director at WGTB?
Well there was, but he didn’t tell me what to do. Then when WAMU came up with the airtime in ’69, it was called the New Thing Root Music Show. Simultaneous to doing the radio, being a Vista Volunteer at the New Thing, I met Sandy Barrett. Sandy was teaching African dance. She was part of Melvin Deal’s African Heritage dancers and drummers, so she was part of the New Thing. One of her close friends at that time was [ancestor poet] Gaston Neal. So we had kind of a rocky introduction, and then we became very close friends after a while, but it was a testing period for all of us.

So that’s when you met Sandy, in ’68?
Another guy friend of mine, Will Majors from New York, was an African-American who was really into music, and for a while there, Will and I’d be going back and forth between DC and New York to catch acts up there and down here. We all went out to see The Graduate, and then Sandy and I just went together after that.

What did you study at Georgetown?
I was an English major. Yeah. It makes me very literate and able to talk well on the radio, I guess, but it worked well. I graduated from Georgetown, met Sandy with Vista Volunteer. In ’68, we have the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the insurrection here in DC, we’re living through that. Sandy got involved with the founding of the Drum and Spear Bookstore with her friends who were involved with SNCC, and I’m on the edge of that. I’m kind of the white outsider, but then [I was] finally gradually being pulled in.

Then we got married in August of ’69, and we went to Europe. Went first to England and stayed with my English roommate and his then wife. We bought an old van, we went and drove down to Dover, took a ferry to Dunkirk, and visited Amsterdam. Then we got to Paris. I had an address for Ambrose Jackson. This is at a time before cell phones, people in Paris were on a waiting list for telephones. You didn’t have a phone. Carolyn said, “No, he doesn’t have a phone, but here’s his address.” Five floor walk-up. We walk up, knocked on the door and nobody was home. We’re sitting there atop the steps, and we hear somebody coming up, and it’s Ambrose. We just hit it off. He just said, “Well, the Art Ensemble’s playing at the Museum of Modern Art. Come on up, I’ll take you there.” He introduced us to all the musicians. It was like an entree in many ways. While there, I borrowed a tape recorder from a reporter from TIME Magazine. I don’t remember how we met him, and I interviewed Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins

On your GTB radio station, you mentioned interviewing Noah Howard.

Did you interview other musicians on your show?
Not frequently, but one of the other first interviews I had was [saxophonist] Byron Morris, and he had performed at the New Thing. In fact, I interviewed Byron before I interviewed Noah. We started the New Thing Root Music Show, and Sandy and I went to Europe. While we were in Europe, Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton – there was the Actuelle Jazz Festival that mixed rock with avant-garde jazz – Grachan Moncur, Archie Shepp was there. But also, while we were there, on a double bill presented by George Wein, were Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor. Miles had Dave Holland on bass, I think Wayne Shorter was still with him, and Cecil… At a time when Miles was putting down Cecil [Taylor], but they were on tour together! So I got to see this.

Back at this jazz festival in a circus tent in Belgium, I met a guy, an American who was writing for Jazz Journal and doing advertising copy in London. His name was Fred Bouchard. Fred gave me his address in London… We were there with hardly any money, this old Bedford van. It was December driving from Paris back to London, and my friend Andy was in the process of buying a house or whatever. When I tried to make a collect call to find Andy, his father refused to accept the call, and when we got to London running out of gas, I got ahold of Fred. He answered the phone and he said, “Well, take a cab if you don’t have no money, and we’ll cover it” and Fred put us up.

While I was staying with Fred, we saw Duke Ellington, his orchestra at the big concert hall over there, and when he took us to Ronnie Scott’s, I saw Bill Evans on a double bill. So, musically, with all the other stuff that was going on in our lives at that time, musically, it was incredible. We got back to the states in 1970, looking to get a job.

What were you doing professionally at the time?
Vista Volunteer carried me into ’69. Then we came back to the states, stayed with Sandy’s parents for a little bit. That was not too comfortable. We found an apartment at 18th and Columbia Road. Other than that, I’d be at a friend’s apartment on Florida Avenue. He would listen to me on the radio, he’d say, “Well, it was a pretty good show, but I didn’t like that thing of John Coltrane in Seattle, Washington.” He wasn’t into the way out stuff. I took the Federal Employee entrance exam, and I got a job with the Redevelopment Land Agency, the Urban Renewal Agency for the city. It was a federal agency transferred in DC government. I worked as a family relocation counselor in the ’70s. I became active in the union at the job, became the local president and by 1978, when an opening came on the staff I applied for it and got a job with the Union. All that time in the ’70s I’m doing radio on Sunday afternoon, doing the New Thing Root Music Show at a time when things were really happening in many ways.

This is still at WGTB?
No. This is WAMU.

Let’s go back to WGTB for a moment. Talk about some of your more memorable experiences programming at WGTB.
I’m interviewing Noah Howard, interviewing Topper Carew, playing the music. It’s when I get onto WAMU in the early ’70s, and I have friends who are doing things elsewhere. This guy named Yale Lewis and a guy named Ron Sutton –

What kind of station was WGTB, otherwise?
WGTB was in the ’60s a mix of jazz, classical music, some talk stuff. Pretty rigid…

Besides yours, how many other jazz shows were there on WGTB at the time?
Every day 4:30 to 6:30 with emphasis on Jazz. In the ’70s, after I left the station, it became really radicalized. During the ’70s, Royal Stokes was doing a show there called “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say” doing traditional jazz. I was doing bebop and beyond. There was sort of radical programming on WGTB in the ’70s. They had a show called “Friends”. It’s the ’70s and they had a gay show on a Catholic station! They had PSA’s supporting the Georgetown Free Clinic. This drove the Jesuits up the wall! By the late ’70s, they give away the [broadcast] license to the University of the District of Columbia.

WHUR [Howard University Radio] came on the air around 1972; Yale Lewis was one of their first announcers and I visited him with my infant toddler daughter, Aisha in a stroller. Then my other friend Ron Sutton started a show there, and we used to trade off on Charlie Parker specials on each other’s shows. We were very wide open, in terms of not competition, but sharing. WHUR’s playing Jazz… Out of a basement or back room in a record store, [Ira] Sabin’s Discount Records, I received a paper called Radio Free Jazz [ed. Note: the early incarnation of JazzTimes magazine].

So how did you get on WAMU?
Topper Carew’s New Thing Root Music Show, putting a show on the air for him…

And what year was that?
It’s like July of ’69. Sandy and I got married in August, and in September we’re gone. I come back, there’s a guy named Ralph Higgs doing the show, Brother Ralph. He was teaching karate at the New Thing. Ralph started another show, like a midnight show. He said, “Why don’t you do the afternoon show, because I’m gonna do the midnight show” and the station management had no problem with it, because it was an organization doing the air time.

What kind of station was WAMU at that time?
WAMU at that time was very eclectic. There was a Black collective show on Saturday afternoons, same time slot, called “Spirits Known and Unknown”. They had a Latin show, they had a variety of music. Bluegrass was really big on the station at that time.

Were you free to play whatever you wanted to do within that jazz context?
Absolutely. I could play free jazz and [John Coltrane’s] “Ascension” back to back. So, on WAMU in the ’70s, I had about four hours of airtime on a Sunday afternoon, play whatever I want, and things happened. It was really great stuff, personally. When I had these ladies on the show for an interview about their event, they said, “Well, do you wanna come to the dinner dance?” I said, “Sure, it’s my birthday.” So, Sandy and I go to this evening at the Shore Hotel, Count Basie and his orchestra playing. So many empty seats, it’s the night before Thanksgiving, I guess the timing wasn’t all that good.

So at that concert, during the intermission, I’m out in the lobby talking to Hollie West who was then the critic for the Washington Post. We’re out there talking and Sandy comes out, “You’re missing it, you’re missing it.” Count Basie’s orchestra played Happy Birthday for me. Well, at the after party, I had my cigar. You could be obnoxious back then, 45 years ago. When we were leaving, Basie’s sitting by himself in the lobby, they were about to take the bus up to Boston. They had another show, a Thanksgiving Day show or whatever. We go up and talk to Basie. Now, I noticed he had a cigar in his hand, and I said, “Mr. Basie, you wouldn’t happen to have a light, would you? My cigar went out.” He pulls out this big Ronson, lights my cigar, looks at his, and said, “Well, this damn thing’s useless. It’s broken.” So I reach in my pocket, I said, “Here, have one of mine” and gave him the other cigar that I had gotten for my birthday. His eyes lit up and he said, “Boy, do you have great taste.” My best birthday… giving away a cigar to Count Basie!

So what were you doing professionally at the time that you were affiliated with WAMU?
I was working for the Redevelopment Land Agency as a relocation counselor, while I’m doing the show on Sundays.

Relocation counselor; what did that involve?
It involved people being displaced either by overcrowded conditions from the code enforcement section, or by urban renewal of the 14th Street Corridor. That whole area right now that’s been gentrified, big malls with the Target. That was all desolate area in the 1970’s. So I’m doing that during the day to make a living, and raising two girls, and doing the radio on Sunday. Interviewing people like Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, all these folks on Sunday afternoons.

What time of day were you on?
In the afternoon from like noon to four. One time, it was five when they were shifting. I had a whole afternoon, really stretching it, and had everybody come through. It was great. I mean Dexter Gordon coming in when the Homecoming album was just coming out…

Where was Dexter playing in town at the time?
Blues Alley, primarily.

Was there much of a jazz concert scene in DC back then?
The Kennedy Center was presenting jazz, but it was very sporadic. It wasn’t until Billy Taylor, who really solidified that jazz program there. Sometimes there were concerts at the Lisner Auditorium or [Howard University’s] Crampton Auditorium. I saw Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan playing at Crampton in ’71. That was just an incredible concert, sponsored by the Left Bank Jazz Society.

WAMU was a student station?
No. It was a station run by the University… with actually, very little student involvement. Lee, and Russell Williams were Black students involved, and they did workshops. They had people coming through to do training and stuff like that, so that was one of the student components on that [station]. Otherwise, they’d have the Diane Rehm [talk] show, and predecessors to that. While I was there, Rob Bamberger came on the air with his Hot Jazz Saturday Night.

Did societal elements influence your programming at WAMU?
Yeah, yeah… Playing music that expressed the civil rights and Black power struggles and things along those lines. Playing the music of Archie Shepp would be a part of it. Then having the opportunity to meet my heroes. Things were wide open. I already mentioned, WHUR played jazz during this time. There were meetings to set up WPFW. I participated in those. After ‘PFW went on the air, I participated in events, but I didn’t wanna leave the airtime on WAMU. I felt that more stations playing this music was better for the music. Why would I give up WAMU to go to WPFW?

WAMU… where you have four hours.
…in the afternoon. WAMU expanded the jazz programming around 1980,’81, to do an overnight jazz show.

Did you do that?
They offered it to me, and I was already working. I shifted to work for the Union, and the pay was so awful, it was a no-brainer. I said, “I’ll do Sundays. I’m fine with Sundays. I got a career, I got a job paying the bills and stuff like that.”

Were you paid at WAMU?
Yeah. Ultimately, I was given a quarterly stipend.

What was that like?
Rusty Hassan: A couple hundred bucks a couple months… It was beyond volunteer, it was some money.

Where’d that money come from?
The University. I wanna get into another aspect of my jazz life, because long after I left Georgetown, they offered a course and I could have gotten an A. At Georgetown I took a music appreciation course with the music critic Paul Hume and I didn’t get a very good grade in the course. What happened was that he had a gazillion students and he decided to make it real hard. He was really pissed, and I deserved the D+ that I got, but years later when I’m on a music panel with Billy Taylor for National Public Radio, there’s Paul Hume. I told him how I took Music Appreciation at Georgetown when I was there, but I didn’t tell him what kind of grade I got. He said, “Oh, yeah, well you know Paul Anthony also took that course.”

Somebody started teaching Jazz History at Georgetown, and I said, “Well, I’m gonna go check this out.” The guy was a bassist with the National Symphony. His name was Dick Webster. I had just got a bass, and so he gave me a lesson. I checked out the class, so we developed kind of a friendship. At some point he said, “Look, Rusty, I’m in a bind. The symphony’s going on tour. Can you do the class for me?” He said, “By the way, if you like it, the Continued Education Program is looking for someone to do a class at night. My day job’s at night and I can’t do it. We’ll do a proposal.” So I did his class, and I did the proposal, and I started teaching at Georgetown School for Continuing Education, a non-credit class. A couple of months, eight weeks maybe, I started teaching Jazz History.

Who was taking this course?
Adults. Adults wanted to take something. They’re even taking a Shakespeare class, you can take this, take Jazz Appreciation …

So it was like Continuing Education?
It was Continuing Education. Georgetown School for Summer and Continuing Education. So I started teaching there…

A No credit course?
No credit. Non-credit, no term papers, no tests. It was fun. Somebody from GW calls me and says, “Well, can you do the Jazz History class? We need somebody to take it over.” I said, “No, I’m working during the day.” Somebody from American University calls me up. It’s the early to mid ’80s. “Can you do the class?” I said, “Well, I’m working during the day. If you can switch it at night.” They said, “Yeah, what night?” “Mondays.” So they scheduled [the class] Mondays at 5:30.

In the ’80s and ’90s, I taught at AU on Monday nights, did Georgetown another night, somebody asked me at the Smithsonian. I did a couple of courses at the Smithsonian over the years. Did one course where it involved musicians. I had Andrew White talk about improvisation, I had Keter Betts talking about his career, I had Paul Hawkins talking about Latin Jazz. I had all these musicians come in… That was fun. From the early to mid ’80s to the early 2000’s, I was at AU every Monday for Fall and Spring semester.

How long were you affiliated with WAMU?
I was with WAMU until 1987.

What brought about your departure?
Change in the format, new management at the station.

Were they no longer broadcasting jazz?
The only jazz they kept was Rob Bamberger’s Hot Jazz Saturday Night. By that time, WDCU was well-established, and [GM] Edith Smith contacted me –

Back to WAMU for just a second. What was the local jazz scene like in DC when you were at WAMU? And were you a part of that scene?
Oh, absolutely. You got the clubs I mentioned, One Step Down bringing in musicians. Ann would bring in Benny Carter. People of that stature, it was just amazing. Blues Alley had the Heath Brothers, Rahsaan Roland Kirk… There was just an incredible thing going on with the clubs. More of the area artists playing in [DC’s] Northeast clubs… Wise and Moore’s Love and Peace. I was interviewing people, I was emceeing… One of the neatest times in the early ’80s, was when George Wein took over the Kennedy Center as part of whatever his festival was called. Kool Jazz or something like that… They took over the whole Kennedy Center, and I was the emcee in the Opera House.

What year was this?
’80, ’81, I’m not sure. I have to check that out, but the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard… That night, the last act was Lionel Hampton. He didn’t wanna stop, we were told.

Couldn’t get him off the stage, right?
I was making connections with the musicians. We would do crab feasts over at the house, and I’d have Roy Haynes come over when he’s playing at the One Step Down. The Heath Brothers, when they were playing at Blues Alley. Jaki Byard…

How long after you left WAMU did you become affiliated with WDCU, and how did that affiliation come about?
It came about right away.

You said that basically what caused your divorce from WAMU was the change in format.
Absolutely. They were changing the format… and WDCU had been on the air then about six, seven years. [Station GM] Edith Smith called me up, said, “Why don’t you come over? You can have Sunday afternoons.”

Was it 1987 when you started at WDCU? What kind of station was DCU at the time?
All jazz. They did a talk show, and they did rhythm and blues and gospel.

WDCU was known as Jazz 90 at that time.
Jazz 90. It was really, they had consistently the same announcers every day during the week: you had Candy [Shannon], Gwen Redding, all these folks. Bill McClure doing the evening shows. Whitmore John. It was very, very focused on the music.

Here again, you find yourself at another University affiliated radio station. Though, in the case of WGTB and WAMU, you characterized that those universities had a benign kind of relationship with those stations. Was it similar at WDCU?
Absolutely, the station was self-contained, they had all of the programmers doing the music.

Was it a training facility at all, for students?
They did some things like that. They tried to pull it in, trying to develop an interest in stuff like that, they did some workshops and things like that. It was more along the lines of being a professionally run radio station. They paid me, a stipend, more or less.

Who was the WDCU program director at the time?
Wiley Rollins came in.

Did the program director at WDCU exert any influence over what you played until Wiley came in and tried to make things sound professional, and give advice in terms of choices.

So now you’re doing Sunday Afternoons.

What time of day were you on the air?
One to four.

How would you set those three hours up, in terms of your production?
I would focus on who’s coming into town, birth dates, cover the artists that way… By the time I was with WDCU, it was switching from LP’s to CD’s. I’d take a bag of CD’s and have an idea of where I was gonna program it, and then program while I’m doing it. In terms of what fit.

There was a certain element of improvisation in the way you were putting your programs together?
Absolutely. In fact, it was really interesting to me, because here I had listened to Felix Grant all those years, and now Felix and I are on the same station. Not a whole lot of interaction, but I did sit in with him on occasion, see how he had everything scripted, with a stopwatch, really very precise in terms of what he was gonna say and stuff like that. I continued to do what I was doing when I was on the dial in the ’60s.

Rusty with DC radio legend Felix Grant, W. Royal Stokes, (unidentified), and Bill Brower

Would you characterize what you did as being kind of the exact opposite of what Felix Grant was doing, where his design was to talk after each selection?
Yeah, in many ways. In terms of looking for more of a freeform FM type of sound… Late ’60s, early ’70s, there’s a shift that went on musically, where music was now formatted in a fashion with these so-called “underground FM stations”. As a jazz programmer, I was able to not worry about the length of a cut, and learn how to segue music so that one piece would flow to another. Even within that context, and still be informative about the music.

Did you do a lot of interviews?
Absolutely. On WAMU, one of the best interviews I had was with Art Blakey. The first time he came and he spent the whole afternoon with me, and it had to be about 1977. Art came in, he flipped the question. I said, “Well, you know … ” I’m trying to say what a thrill it was to have him, he says, “Well, what you’re doing is so important to this music.” Art’s saying this to me! I had the material there to do like a musical autobiography of Art Blakey. What was really great was that afterwards… He was playing at, it wasn’t a jazz club, it was a restaurant right on Connecticut Avenue that would feature a variety of music acts, but not jazz, per se. It was really weird in terms of who they booked, because they had Anthony Braxton play there once. I think the place was called “Child Harold”.

Art Blakey was playing there… I saw him Saturday, we had him come on the show and went back to see him Sunday. He was breaking down his drum set, and said. “Hey, Rusty, where can I get something to eat?” I said, “Art, this is DC. There’s nothing, but my house is on your way out of town.” For me, the shocker was here’s Art Blakey, putting drums in his station wagon. For me, it’s, “Where’s the limo? What’s this?” He had Dave Schnitter and Bill Hardman, John Hicks and a Japanese bassist whose name I can’t remember. I said, “My house is on your way. We’ll fix you up.” Sandy fixed a ham for Sunday dinner. What else have we got? We came in the house, and I found out that Art wasn’t that [Muslim] observant. This is great. John Hicks wanted to stay in the car, so I fixed him a sandwich and brought him a beer, and we were friends after that. John and I became very close after that. Art adopted me. He’d come to town and want to hang, and I’ll never forget one time he said, “Where are we gonna get some Japanese?” I took him to a Japanese restaurant, worried about whether it met his criteria, and it did.

What were you doing professionally at the time?
I was working for the Union, as a staff person with the American Federation of Government Employees. I was doing arbitrations, I was doing contract negotiations, playing group therapist to dysfunctional executive boards, investigating … In essence, doing a lawyer’s job without the law degree. In the ’80s, I got a Master’s Degree, a Master’s of Science in Labor Studies from the University of the District of Columbia. So in addition to [teaching] classes two or three days a week, I’m taking classes.

What got you into this labor work?
It was a political philosophy. When I’m doing the social work, the person said, “We have a Union here.” Okay. You join the Union. Then I became active in the Local at the Redevelopment Land Agency, as home rules come into play here in DC. So I’m involved in lobbying the DC City Council in terms of transitioning from the Federal System to a DC System, and then when the staff opening came up, I said, “Let me do this.”

It was always a matter of looking at something I could do with my progressive politics, and be comfortable with the living that I’m making, and yet doing something that’s going to pay the bills for my household, with the kids that we were raising. My daughters went to DC Public Schools. They went to John Burroughs down the street here, Taft down the street, and then School Without Walls. In the ’80s, Aisha went to the University of Maryland, Kenja got into Princeton. That was financial… What we did was put one of the paychecks aside. It’s a pricey thing even with the financial aid she was getting, but it was a concentration on making sure our kids were well educated. We’re doing the same for our grandkids right now.

Speaking of WDCU, you mentioned this with WGTB and with WAMU, but with the progression of time, what was the DC jazz scene like when you started at WDCU?
At WDCU in ’87, it was a rich scene. The One Step Down was thriving in many ways, in terms of the acts they were bringing there. Blues Alley would bring in an act for a week, from Tuesday through Sunday. The Kennedy Center had Billy Taylor setting up the programming there, so that the major artists are coming through there. It was really a rich scene.

One of the people I became really close to was my father-in-law’s best friend. His name is [pianist] John Malachi. John, as you know, was a pianist in Billy Eckstine‘s Orchestra. They had Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey… John, I first heard at a junior high school that Sandy’s mom was teaching at in ’68. He and I really hit it off. He would play at parties at Sandy’s parents’ house. After everybody left, my father-in-law and John would be working on stuff on the piano, and I was like the fly on the wall. Then John would tell me stories that you couldn’t repeat on the airwaves. After that, when I started teaching, John would come particularly to the Continued Ed classes, he’d come and talk about the Bebop era. What it was like to travel with the band, and what [Charlie] Parker was like.

One of the last interviews I did at WAMU was John contacting me to say, “Look, I’m doing a concert at Ellington school. Can I come by and talk about it?” So he came on my show on Sunday afternoon, and he talked about the band touring Florida and how Bird asked him to stay behind. Charlie Parker was working on changes on “Cherokee,” and the two of them jammed on this for hours afterwards. As John was leaving the studio, I said, “Boy, I gotta get more of this stuff on tape. I gotta sit down with you, man.” He was already setting up an interview with Bill McClaren on DCU, and then Bill called me at work two days later and said, “My interview’s off, John passed away yesterday.”

Wow. Huge missed opportunity!
Yeah. I miss him, now 30 years later.

At the time you programmed at DCU, which as you said was known as Jazz 90, what were your thoughts about the fact that given WPFW’s Jazz programming, at that time DC was unusual as an American city offering such a breadth of jazz radio programming. As an active member of the DC jazz community and a WDCU programmer, what was your sense of jazz radio in DC at that time?
I thought it was great, the fact that we still had two stations presenting the music. WAMU was not doing it anymore except for that traditional jazz show with Rob Bamberger. The competition was revitalizing the scene in terms of keeping it vibrant, and it was a friendly competition. I’ll never forget co-emceeing – for whatever reason it was set up this way – but I’m co-emceeing for Ahmad Jamal, with [WPFW’s] Jamal Muhammad out at Ft. Dupont, that kind of thing. Developing a friendship along the way, and making sure that the programming is top-notch, because somebody who’s on opposite you, may be doing something even better.

So there was no sense of competition between WDCU and WPFW?
Well, yeah, it was competitive in a friendly way. Let me tell you. I met [WPFW’s] Jerry Washington when he was living down the hall from Ron Sutton. Then Ron was on WHUR, he was actually doing sports. What happened at HUR was when they shifted to the quiet storm format with Melvin Lindsey, they pushed Ron off the air and made him sports director. Gave him a substantial pay increase, but took the jazz off the evening to change it to the soft R&B that they were gonna do with the Quiet Storm. So then Ron starts doing stuff on WPFW, and upsetting the folks at WHUR a little bit, but then he brings his buddy [Jerry Washington] from down the hall. “Come on, sit in with me. Sit in with me. Now you do it.”

So, Jerry Washington starts focusing on Blues, and creates a persona known as The ‘Bama. WPFW actually didn’t do any counter-programming initially; they had Dorothy Healey on Sunday afternoons, and people mistook the station phone numbers and they’d call me up and say, “Well, how could that lady be saying that kind of stuff? That’s un-American.” I said, “You got the wrong station.” Jerry Washington did the Other Side of the Bama, so he’s doing jazz on Sundays. If ever I had a scratchy record, I said, “Well, this is from the Jerry Washington collection of classic jazz.”

I met [WPFW’s] Nap Turner at a club on 14th and Rhode Island Avenue NW when the hookers were going in and out of this club. What happened was John Malachi had been playing there and had asked for more money for the group, and the guy said no. He then booked a woman named Julie and Nap was playing bass. So I knew him as a jazz bass player, and I watched him develop on WPFW to this personality.

How did you make that shift from DCU to PFW?
Well, when DCU went off the air, I had so many friends who were on the airwaves at WPFW…

What year was this now?

So you were at DCU 10 years?
I was at DCU 10 years… and all my friends who had been listening to me, like Larry Appelbaum, all these folks who were on WPFW were saying, “We’ll find a spot for you.” Then I became a sub, the Sunday sub for the Rolling with Bolling show. Sitting in for Rick Bolling, or whomever.

This is ’97?
’97, absolutely… Then there was the infamous blow-up between Brother Ah and the then General Manager…

The late Lou Hankins…
Lou Hankins called me up and said, “Can you do Tuesday nights?” I said, “Yeah, okay.” I didn’t know exactly what had happened, but then I ran into Jamal Mohammad out at the VA Hospital, which is one of my locals, and he explained. He had witnessed what happened between them. So I said, “Well, geeze, I gotta do it. Gotta take over Tuesdays.” I was really … I’ve been friends with Brother Ah for years, but I’m not gonna not do this show. Some time later, [trumpeter] Benny Bailey was playing out at Twins, so a week after I started doing Tuesday nights. I said, “Well, let me go see my friend Benny.” I walk in there, who’s sitting at the bar? It was his old friend, Robert Northern sitting at the bar there.

Brother Ah…
So I walk up to Brother Ah, I say, “How come I’m doing Tuesday nights?” He said, “Well, you know Lou Hankins has a failure to communicate.” I said, “Okay.” He had no hard feelings for me, of course, but he said one day we’ll work it out, and eventually he got back on the airwaves.

When you started at WPFW, was your programming any different than what you were doing at WDCU, WAMU and at WGTB?
Absolutely not. I’m blessed. Here I am after 50 years still doing what I started doing as a student at Georgetown. Never had a program director telling me, “No, you can’t play this.” What I have done is edit a bit. I became more inclined to pick and choose from the cutting edge and avant-garde artists, pieces that would be more accessible to a broader audience. I’m sure it’ll turn them off, but I’m going to pick and choose things that will keep a listener engaged rather than turn them off.

Rusty with fellow WPFW veterans Askia Muhammad, Larry Appelbaum, and this writer at a bookstore panel discussion

Would you say that through your evolution with these four stations, that becoming more attuned to what the listener might be interested in, was part of your growth?

But how did you get that way?
Because of reactions like, “Well, Rusty, I liked everything you played but that [Coltrane] recording from Seattle, Washington.” Then from my own listening tastes, in terms of being very eclectic with it, not afraid to play traditional jazz as well as the avant-garde. To pick and choose what your listener will appreciate. Also, because for all these years I’ve been on listener-supported radio.

It’s also my teaching, the classroom… Playing stuff for the students to get their reaction to it. This is why I can’t do online teaching. I wanna have a face-to-face interaction with the students. One of the things that really made it for me, back in 2010, I was recruited to teach an undergraduate Jazz History course at Georgetown, after participating in a forum that Maurice Jackson had put on in conjunction with a concert with Charlie Haden and they asked me to teach the undergraduate class. I was already teaching at the University of Maryland University College. On Tuesday nights, I’m teaching at UMUC at 7:00, Georgetown it’s four to 5:30 Tuesdays and Thursdays, stealing time from my full-time job to do two classes.

I had [saxophonist] Braxton Cook in my undergraduate class. He was at Georgetown at that time. I’ve had really bright students at Georgetown, really into the music, very interactive with me. University of Maryland-University College is working adults, African-Americans in their 50’s, people in the service and stuff like that. One time I was covering Cool Jazz, playing Birth of the Cool with Miles Davis, with Lee Konitz, and covering that era and [saxophonist-bandleader] Brad Linde had Lee Konitz at Blues Alley with a big band, with Lee Konitz as the featured soloist. I make the students give me performance reports, but I don’t give them specific performances to go to. They have carte blanche. By the end of the semester, they have to give me two performance reports.

So I went to see Konitz, and here’s the Georgetown students coming up, “Oh, great show. I’m glad to see you here.” This African-American woman comes up to me, she’s from the other class. She’s like 50, she works at the post office, I thought she was into neo-soul stuff, whatever. She comes up to me, she says, “Wow, this is great. Do you think Mr. Konitz will sign the picture of him in our textbook?” I said, “Sure, why not?” Now, I meet Lee at the One Step. I re-introduced myself up in the little dressing room. I said, “Would you do me a favor and sign the photo?” He looks at it, “Boy,” he says, “This is an old picture.” I got to see Lee a couple of times since then, and thanked him again.

That really made it for me. That here’s this 50-year old African-American woman coming out to hear this 83-year-old white guy playing the alto sax. It got to her. She became more open with her musical tastes. That’s what I try to do with the classroom, with the radio show; develop an audience for this music that I love.

Up to this point, and I guess throughout your tenure at all four stations, had you worked with any particularly memorable or influential radio program directors or general managers, who were influential on you in terms of what you did on the air?
That’s a great question Willard. The most interaction that I had was with Wiley Rollins, when he came over to DCU.

What made that working relationship so successful?
Wiley, he’d sit down and talk to you in terms of what to do. Earlier at WAMU, there was a guy who sat down with me a while, wanted to tweak what I was doing. Establish the show earlier on, rather than playing a long cut, things that I’d neglected, regressed back to and stuff like that. But Wiley’s point about, “Well, you may wanna play that rare [recording] find and say, ‘Look what I found’ but the sound quality’s so bad that you’re just gonna turn people off. Find the alternative. Find the same artist doing something that won’t turn any of the audience off, in terms of bad radio.”

The thing that I find now is a lot of people just [announce] the main artist. To me, it’s important with jazz as a soloist art form, that you tell the folks who’s playing bass. For a quintet or sextet, that’s not gonna take too much time to run down the whole personnel. You don’t need to name everybody in Ellington’s band, of course, but you wanna be informed about the musicians who are participating in the performance.

What is your overall radio programming philosophy?
I want to just share the music of artists who have been my heroes over the decades that I’ve been doing this. This is an art form that has been marginalized in terms of record sales and audience participation, but it’s an important art form. People should be accessible to it, and open their ears up to it to hear it, so I do the programming on the radio and I do the classroom work to make sure that there are people who understand that this is an important American art form rooted within the African-American community, that has a lasting value and is entertaining, as well.

How else have you combined your radio programming with your teaching?
For years now, I’ve had a listening portion to the mid-term or final exam. I play all of the recordings that are gonna be on that exam, on the radio. Students have an opportunity to hear it on the airwaves, and other folks can take it like it’s a blindfold test in a way. Of course, with your artist identified at the end of the set. I’ve been doing this since the ’80s. I started teaching at American University, I said, “Well, I’m on the air, I want people to identify the artist on these recordings. If I do it a week or so ahead of time, they’ll have an opportunity to listen to these recordings so that they know them.

So it’s optional?
Well, optional in terms of they can listen or they can listen to it elsewhere, but –

When you’ve taught jazz courses, how has the course work interacted with the overall jazz scene in DC?
Because they have to do performance reports, they have to go out and hear artists and come back and do a review… so they’ve been introduced to the jazz scene in Washington. Because they have to identify who’s performing and what they played, and what they thought of it, usually they have to go up and talk to the artist a bit to find out some things. Most of them do.

Willard Jenkins: What would you say is your overall philosophy in teaching jazz courses?
Rusty Hassan: I teach it from a historical, cultural perspective, emphasizing the history of the artists and the roots of this music within the Black community. Rather than being very technical about the elements of the musical performance. A case in point: when I started teaching at Georgetown one semester, this Asian-American woman came up to me. She said, “Well, I don’t know whether I should take this course or not, I see you have a lot of musicians in your class.” I said, “Well, you’re exactly the person I want in the class. I wanna open you up to this music. So, don’t be intimidated, we’re not gonna kill you with technical terms about the music or anything like that.” After she handed in her final exam, she said, “Well, thank you for making this so accessible. I learned a lot and I will continue to listen.”

Willard Jenkins: So basically, your philosophy is cultivating more jazz enthusiasts?
Rusty Hassan: Absolutely.

Down through all these years of being so immersed in the music, what has been your family’s relationship with the music?
When I first met Sandy, she had some fabulous recordings in her collection, including “Ascension” and “Fire Music” that were given to her by Marion Brown, when they were both students at Howard. So she had these recordings, she had Eric Dolphy, one of her favorite recordings. That was an immediate, “Wow, you’re into the music” type of thing, but as I was raising my family, I took my kids out. I took Aisha and Kenja out to hear performances. Both of them saw Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, either at Blues Alley or the Kennedy Center. One time, there was a whole week of performances that we did with Wynton Marsalis at various facilities, and WDCU sponsored him, we were the emcees. At that time, Aisha was working at an athletic shop in Georgetown, she was about 16 at the time. I took her to see Wynton that night.

I was supposed to tape something with Marcus Roberts, we were up in the little dressing room. Aisha and Wynton were on the couch laughing, joking over Jet Magazine. Then this white woman was in the room. She said, “Well, who are you?” Aisha looked and said, “I’m his daughter.” Not to me, to Wynton. This woman believed it. She said, “Oh, have you eaten yet?” Wynton played along with her, he said, “Well, I want you back before the set’s over.” Aisha went over and she said … What it was, was the woman was hitting on [bassist] Reggie Veal and she came back to Reggie, she said, “You gotta lose her.” The woman kept pumping her for information. She would bite into the hamburger, she told me, she said well she’d make up stuff, but Wynton played along with it, and he stayed in touch for a while in terms of how Aisha’s doing.

Some years ago, we were both judges for the Silver Spring Jazz Festival, the year that Paul Carr‘s Jazz Academy of Music won. I got to show [Wynton] the pictures of our grandkids and stuff like that. So, my girls went out to experience the music. I took Kenja to see Frank Wess where we had a conversation with his pianist about some science project she was doing in Junior High School. Then when my grandkids came along, well you saw me with Caine, every place. From the time he’s a year old and I’m holding him while I’m introducing Randy Weston at the Freedom Plaza Jazz Festival. To seeing Randy a couple of times after that or Sonny Rollins, or whomever. I got a great photograph of my granddaughter Truly with Geri Allen at the Kennedy Center. I’ll always treasure that, now that Geri’s passed on.

Has that made a difference for them?
I think so. They listen to the music, and it’s not their main music, but all of them have grown up with it.

Rusty Hassan can currently be heard Thursday evenings 10:00-Midnight as part of WPFW’s M-F Late Night Jazz strip (full disclosure: this writer holds down the Wednesday Late Night Jazz slot 10:00-midnight), at 89.3FM in the DMV, streaming live at Don’t sleep!

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A Life in Jazz: Rusty Hassan (Part One)

This year marks the 50th year in jazz radio for a true jazz warrior, DC’s own Rusty Hassan. Currently heard regularly on WPFW 89.3FM in the DMV, the Washington metro region’s Pacifica station, on his Thursday Late Night Jazz show 10:00pm-midnight (full disclosure: this writer is heard on the same time slot on Wednesday nights with Ancient/Future Radio). Rusty Hassan is a distinguished fixture on the DC jazz scene, known by musicians and fans far & wide, someone who has contributed immeasurably to this community since landing here as an undergrad at Georgetown University.

In 2017-18 DC JazzFest conducted an oral history project through funding from the DC Oral History Collaborative, ultimately for oral history interviews that will be available through the DC Public Library system. Rusty and this writer collaborated on several of these oral history interviews, but the first in our series of interviews was my one-on-one with Rusty himself. In celebration of his 50 years in jazz radio, here is Part One of an edited version of our oral history interview.

Willard Jenkins: Please give us your full given name.

Rusty Hassan: My full given name is Hugh Joseph Hassan lll. Right after I was born my aunt, when she saw my bright red hair at birth, she tagged me with the nickname Rusty because she didn’t want me to be called Red.

How did the name Rusty stick with you all these years?

It just stuck. I was just Rusty with my family and my friends.

So as a kid you were known as Rusty among your peers?

Absolutely. It was only the nuns in my grade school who would call me Hugh to be proper.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Bound Brook, NJ but I grew up in various parts of Greenwich, CT. The reason I was born in Bound Brook, NJ is because my mother was from New Jersey and she met my father who lived in Connecticut. I lived in Connecticut until I went to Georgetown University and Washington, DC became my home.

Where did you spend the majority of your childhood?

The majority of my childhood was in Greenwich. Right after I was born my parents lived in a section of Greenwich called Glenville, where my father had a tavern and his sisters and brother-in-law had a liquor store. It was a multi-family home in the Italian section of Glenville and in 1950 after my twin brother & sister were born in 1948 they moved to public housing in Riverside, which is part of Greenwich also, called Adams Gardens. This is Greenwich, CT so the projects are not the projects; it was very nice public housing to say the least. I loved that because there were lots of kids there to play with. When I was 11 we moved to a single family home. I lived there until I graduated from college; I spent the summers there in Greenwich.

Where are your mother & father’s respective families from?

My mother’s family is primarily German Catholic, but part of the family came from Luxembourg and that was always a trip to the map to find out this little country in Europe where parts of the family came from. And my father’s family was Irish Catholic – in spite of the Arab-sounding last name. His mother, Hannah Dailey, came from County Cork so he was on his mother’s side first generation Irish American.

Did either of your parents have an interest in music?

My dad’s interest in music was primarily things like Mitch Miller Sing Along With Mitch, or even though he was very Catholic, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; he was not hip in any way.

My mother however… I discovered when I got into jazz around the 8th grade I discovered an album of some 78 rpm records in a book form, and it was Jazz at the Philharmonic playing “Body & Soul” and “Rosetta.” It listed Illinois Jacquet, and the pianist was listed as Shorty Nadine, who I later discovered was Nat “King” Cole. So my mother in her youth certainly had an interest in jazz. One of the 78s was Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball.” It was like a gold mine for me to discover these 78s! But it wasn’t the music being played in the house.

Are there any musicians in your family?

My father had a violin, he took violin lessons as a kid, but he never played in the house, he just showed it off. There was music in the house because we had radios. In the 50s it was fascinating because the diversity of music that you’d get on AM radio was mind-boggling.

Greenwich is a suburb of New York City, so we had the New York stations: we had WMCA, WNEW, WABC, all of them playing Rock & Roll and Top 40 radio at the time. In the mix along with Elvis Presley singing “Don’t Be Cruel” could be Fats Domino doing “Blueberry Hill” or Louis Armstrong doing “Mack The Knife,” or something along those lines. So I was listening to radio and listening to music and I was drawn to a lot of instrumental music. Around that time instrumental things would make their way to Top 40 also, so I’d be drawn to that.

During that same time I was into model airplanes, so I would make particularly World War ll fighter planes and bombers and things like that. New Year’s Day 1958 I’m making a model airplane, twisting the radio dial around and somebody played the entire Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and I just got drawn into that! Hearing the jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose”, hearing Johnny Hodges and Lester Young… I didn’t know who I was listening to, unless they announced it, but I said ‘wow, this is something!’ And I discovered the records at Woolworth’s. I went right out and bought the 2 volumes of the LPs of this 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

Was there any music influence on you outside of your home?

I had a classmate in 8th grade – we went to high school together 9th grade through the 12th grade – his name was Norman Fettig, his nickname was Butch, he had an interest in jazz also. His older brother was in the Air Force and left behind jazz albums. Among the jazz albums was “For Musicians Only,” Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt; “Ellington Indigo,” “Ellington Jazz Party” with Dizzy Gillespie as a guest artist… So we’d be listening to those records at his house and I’d say “oh, I’ve gotta find this one, or I’ve gotta buy that one…”

So between me and Butch we fed on each other in terms of our interest in jazz and as we got into high school and got a little older Butch was like the plotter in many ways… “Come on, let’s do this,” so went to what was called the Daily News Jazz Festival at Madison Square Garden, it had to be 1962. On the bill was Dave Brubeck –who was really big at that time, with “Take Five” being a hit record – Carmen McRae, Sonny Rollins performed with Jim Hall [on guitar] right around the time “The Bridge” album came out, Maynard Ferguson – who had an album that was really hot at that time called “Maynard ‘61” with a tune on it called “Ole” that Slide Hampton arranged. Chris Connor sang with him. That really expanded my horizon with all these artists!

When we got our driver’s license that year we would drive into the city a lot, we were two white kids in Small’s Paradise checking out the music there. In 1963 we told our parents we were going to spend the weekend at each other’s house and we drove my ’54 Studebaker across Connecticut to Newport, so we were at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963.

Herbie Mann performed with a very eclectic rhythm section – he was into Brazilian and Cuban music. I remember [Carlos] Patato Valdes was in that group as a percussionist. In the evening concert they announced that John Coltrane would be recording, but Jimmy Smith performed before that and Jimmy had people dancing on their chairs and he didn’t want to stop, he was cookin’! And when he was finished they brought on John Coltrane and he came on performing “My Favorite Things” with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Roy Haynes. My friend Butch was pulling on me saying we had to leave, but I didn’t want to leave listening to Coltrane, I was just transfixed, it just grabbed me.

How old were you at the time?

I was 17.

Were you conscious of segregation and discrimination growing up in Greenwich?

No, I was really oblivious because there were maybe one or two black families in the housing project. The Catholic schools were all white. I became more conscious of race through the music. Getting into jazz, delving into the history of this music as an African American art form… We were blessed with a great public library in Greenwich that had a music section where you could check out albums, so I was able to get “Relaxin’ With Miles Davis,” Modern Jazz Quartet “European Concert” at the library, and books on jazz. So I’m reading up on the music while listening to it; beyond the liner notes I was able to read books like Jazz, It’s Evolution and It’s Essence by Andre Hodier and it questioned whether Art Tatum was a genius. I said to myself “wait a minute, with people like Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller around, who sets the standards for genius?

Many years later when I was at a luncheon with Dr. Billy Taylor when he was doing a lecture at Georgetown University, and I’m talking to somebody on my left, I’m overhearing Billy talking about that very same article and how the musicians all pulled his coat. My education about this music that was created by black Americans, and seeking out the music to hear these artists, made me conscious of race – and through the news media reporting on the Civil Rights movement and stuff like that in the late 50s and early 60s.

My buddy and I contemplated whether we could come down to the March on Washington in August. But I knew a couple of weeks later I was going to Washington to go to Georgetown University. It wasn’t until I got to Washington that I really became more aware of race and racism and segregation and on a more personal level.

You mentioned that you and your friend slipped into New York to go to the jazz festival at Madison Square Garden, then you mentioned Newport. During that same general time frame were there other opportunities that you took advantage of to hear live music?

Yes. In fact, in 1960 or ’61 – one of our classmates father was principle at Stamford High School, I went to a Jesuit high school – Fairfield College Preparatory High School in Fairfield, CT, about 20 minutes away from Greenwich. This guy’s dad had his son at the Catholic school because he didn’t want his son attending the school he was principle at. But when they presented the Dave Brubeck Quartet he said ‘bring your friends.’ Dave Brubeck lived in Wilton, CT at that time. So I got to see the quartet, with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, and Eugene Wright… I was 13 or 14 and this was prior to those festivals. Backtracking even further, when I discovered my mom’s 78s I was 12 and she saw my interest in music so she took me to see Lionel Hampton at a local junior high school, playing all of the instruments that he did!

Was that your first experience with live music?

Yeah, absolutely.

What effect did that experience have on you?

It was great, it was fascinating, I told myself I had to have more of this! It stoked the fire. Hearing the Benny Goodman concert on radio sparked me to really search out the radio dial.

What age were you when you heard that Benny Goodman broadcast?

I had to have been 12, New Year’s Day 1958. I discovered Symphony Sid’s show, and he was playing things like “Maynard Ferguson 1961” and Stan Getz “Focus” with “I’m Late, I’m Late”… these are things I was discovering at the time. The third album I bought was a Royal Roost album called “Diz and Bird” and I found out later that it was a live recording of a concert, with no identification of the musicians – which really upset me at the time! I knew it was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and just what Parker and Gillespie were doing cut through to me; it was like the ‘wow’ moment! It was like ‘what are these guys doing!’ They were playing “Groovin’ High” and “Night in Tunisia” and just Parker’s work was fascinating. I discovered that one of his key recordings – his first as a leader – doing “Now’s The Time,” “Ko-Ko,” “Billie’s Bounce”… was recorded on the day I was born!

Would you characterize yourself as a bit different from your peers in wanting to know the background of these things and discovering these various jazz facts?

In high school there was a coterie of us that were really into jazz and during the lunch break we would talk about jazz. There was a nightly radio show by a guy who just talked, his name was Jean Shepherd and he talked about jazz sometimes. He actually did a narration on a Charles Mingus album called “The Clown.” He would narrate stories and philosophize. So there was a group of us who would ask ‘what did Jean Shepherd talk about last night?’ Somebody would talk about checking out Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk, with Monk as a sideman on an Art Blakey record, and it sounded pretty way out, but… wow! So we’d go back and check out these recordings.

During those times were you and your jazz-loving peers viewed as being different by the rest of your peers?

Yeah, I would say so; most of the rest of our peers were listening to rock & roll.

So how did you high school jazz lovers come together?

Talking outside of class, about a dozen of us. I had this Maynard Ferguson Hollywood Party album with Shelly Manne playing drums, it was a West Coast album but it was cookin’. Playing that for one of my other friends who weren’t really into the music and the response was ‘I don’t really like music without words’, just couldn’t get into it at all. And then there was the progression of some of the folks that were into jazz when Coltrane became a fixation for me…. When I was in college and home for the summer I’d play Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” and “Afro Blue” just blew me away, and some of my friends would say ‘no, that’s too way out for me, I can’t get into that.’

Were you considered oddballs?

This is the time when Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road had been out for a few years and that was about the Beats. We were considered hipsters, the beatniks. This was before hippies, this was ’61-’63. We missed the Beat Generation but we were identified as the hipsters of the school.

Did you guys consider yourselves advanced musically for that time?

Absolutely, and so much so the perception of us that came through was… When I graduated from high school the yearbook had captions under our pictures and the caption under my yearbook photo went something like this: ‘Prep’s angry young man, rides in an out of this world Studebaker, disciple of Kerouac, wastes his time reading dirty books, and it’s all pseudo.’

So what were the dirty books you were accused of reading?

[Laughs] I have no idea, maybe Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or something. One of the guys who were into jazz who I wasn’t really that tight with, when I saw him at the 50th anniversary I asked him whether it was he who wrote that caption, because when my mother read that she had a little fit, ‘oh, how embarrassing…’ I thought my mother had tossed my yearbook, and then many years later when I’m home visiting as an adult, she said ‘guess what I found, our neighbor when she was moving found your yearbook, you’d left it up there for 30 years’! For years I was blaming my mother for tossing it!

As a kid were you active or interested in any of the other arts besides music?

Yeah, I got active in the drama society in high school and I was doing mostly stage work, but I acted in one of the plays in a very bit part. I was not athletic enough to play baseball or football, so I ran cross country and got my high school letter doing cross country, I was able to run rather well back then.

Considering what you said about the influence of radio and listening to Jean Shepherd, Symphony Sid and others, what kinds of radio programs did you enjoy and what was it about those programs that you enjoyed?

Jean Shepherd with his narrations and his story telling, and his sense of humor I really enjoyed. But even more so discovering jazz radio through Symphony Sid, and also Mort Fega had a jazz radio show in New York and I got to meet him at jazz conferences and that was a thrill. And then discovering Billy Taylor, who was at WLIB doing an incredible show.

So you pulled in all of those shows from Greenwich?

Yeah, listening to New York radio, and then becoming a friend of Billy Taylor later on in my adult life; discovering the music through radio was really a joy to me. Frequently going through Caldor’s or other department stores and just flipping through the record bins. I think beyond hearing the “Relaxin’ With Miles” from the library, I’m flipping through and I find “Birth of the Cool” and it was fascinating, but a little bit too subtle for me at the time, I guess it was an acquired taste for an adolescent.

But then going back and picking up [Miles Davis] “Friday Night at the Blackhawk,” from his hard bop phase, and really getting into that album, playing with Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I would play that one over and over again, and then seeking out “Saturday Night at the Blackhawk” when I had the money. Eighth grade… Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert, then Diz & Bird…

How did those records stoke your interest in actually collecting records?

I’d play those over and over then I’d say ‘I need something else now.’ I’m trying to figure out how did I discover Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie… it must have been something I heard on the radio, “Diz & Bird,” got me into bebop. Then it was about what’s coming out new at that time, from hearing it on the radio. Symphony Sid would play “Ole”… well that’s Maynard Ferguson ’61, so I’d get that – I was about 15. Buying records supplanted buying model airplanes very quickly!

Did you have a job as a kid or did you have an allowance that enabled you to buy records?

In the summertime I was a caddy at a golf course, when I was 13 or 14, I started earning money, not a whole lot but it was enough to buy records.

How much were those records at that time?

$3.98 for mono, $4.98 for stereo.

How old were you when it became clear that this was an obsession?

I guess when I was about 14 or 15. Last year of high school, first year of college was really when Motown was beginning to breakthrough in terms of pop music… with Afro-American music being played on Top 40 radio, the Motown sound… And I really got into what became called the Soul sound – Otis Redding… So by the time I’m in college I’m listening to other genres that are interconnected with jazz and enjoying it also.

When you started collecting records, what were you playing them on?

A little portable stereo, and my parents had one of those consoles about the size of a table, so I’d come out there and play them sometimes. When I was in high school I had a little portable stereo in my bedroom, listening to records while doing my homework. I focused more on that than the Latin I was supposed to be studying. I graduated from high school in 1963, from Fairfield Prep, a Jesuit high school. I applied to Boston College, Georgetown, and University of Connecticut. I got into Georgetown.

What was your next step after high school?

After high school, I got accepted to Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I came down to Washington in the Fall of 1963, took my albums with me. At first, I didn’t even have a record player in the room. Gradually, I started checking out the jazz scene in Washington. I didn’t go there at first, but I saw an ad for an unusual sounding name for a group, the JFK Quintet [ed. Note: saxophonist and tireless John Coltrane transcriber Andrew White was a member of that band] at the Bohemian Caverns. Ultimately, I would discover that club. In 1965, my roommate Toby Mason and I, went to go see Ramsey Lewis at the Bohemian Caverns. There was a big truck outside. We went in and they were recording, and Ramsey did this R&B tune called “The In Crowd”. That got released the following summer …

So you were there for that classic recording.

I’m clapping on The In-Crowd! But what really, really sticks with me from the Bohemian Caverns, was when I went by myself to see the John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones.

What year was that?

’65; the performance was so intense… And when Coltrane finished, he was walking by and he had that expression that’s like on the cover of a Love Supreme… I let him walk by me. I couldn’t say anything I was tongue-tied. Later on, as I got to know McCoy Tyner and I told him that story, he laughed. He said, “John was really friendly. He would have talked to you all night just about music. Don’t talk about sports.” My freshman year I didn’t get out to hear too much music. My sophomore year, I did.

When you got to DC, how would you describe the jazz scene when you arrived to attend Georgetown?

It was exciting in many ways. Going to the Caverns and see John Coltrane… There was actually a bar that I went to. It was 18 drinking age for beer at that time in DC, and there was a bar that had a jazz jukebox. It had Coltrane on the jukebox, it had Modern Jazz Quartet, the Crusaders. It had a crusty bartender who owned the bar, named Joe Cohen. That was sort of the hang out.

What the name of that place?

It was called the One Step Down.

And where was it located?

It was on Pennsylvania Avenue, 2000 block… It was only later in the ’70s when they started presenting live music, and I’m trying to remember. I think maybe it was Lawrence Wheatley who persuaded him to allow him to do some jazz workshops there, and they started dealing with some local artists. Somehow, this woman came down from New York, and I don’t know how she wheedled her way into it, but she came in with Joe. Her name was Ann Mabuchi. She said, “We should start bringing down people from New York.” So in the ’70s, she would be booking Lee Konitz… Any major act that wasn’t playing at Blues Alley would be playing at The One Step Down. This is a decade later. This is like in the ’70s now.

When you first started going to The One Step Down what was the scene there?

When I first started going there, it was because of the music on the jukebox.

Did it have the same physical configuration as the place that eventually presented live music?

Absolutely. All they did was move some tables around. It was not even a stage that they had. It was space next to the bar.

What else was happening on the DC jazz scene at that time?

On the DC jazz scene you had the Cellar Door, Blues Alley opened up I think in ’65. You had a place called Shadows on M Street. The Modern Jazz Quartet played there. You know, you had all these clubs playing jazz. Interestingly enough, Blues Alley when it started, had a separate room for the bar. So it was an even smaller club, and they had a house rhythm section accompanying the artists coming through there. Bass player by the name of Billy Taylor who was the son of the bass player named Billy Taylor who played with Duke Ellington. They would have acts like Marian McPartland. In fact, I did an interview with her when she was playing at Blues Alley.

Then in the late ’70s, John Dimitriou came in, who owns Jazz Alley in Seattle. He came as a manager for a guy named John Munyon who bought the club. They opened up the bar area, pushed the bar back up against the area, and made it a whole wider space. Started booking hard bop, Art Blakey, the Heath Brothers, and stuff like that. This is around the same time in the ’70s that Ann Mabuchi’s bringing people down from New York, booking national acts there at the One Step Down.

In the ’70s, when I moved into this neighborhood, there was a guy who lived over on Hamlin Street, named Bill Harris, guitarist, who did a solo jazz guitar album, who started off playing rhythm and blues earlier on. He would have a party every Labor Day, and bring in guitarists like Kenny Burrell, to play in his backyard. His dream was to have a club, so he found a spot at 18th and Rhode Island Avenue NE, and he opened it up and called it Pig Foot. The irony of Pig Foot, it’s named after the Bessie Smith song “Give Me a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer”. Further down the street were two other clubs that were black-owned: Mr. Wise, and Moore’s Love and Peace.

Were these places in competition with each other?

Yeah, of course, but it was a friendly competition. It was like you go from one spot to the other to see artists. I wanna backtrack a little bit to get the chronology back to the ’60s, when I’m …just getting to DC, and discovering these places, like the Bohemian Caverns in the ’60s. Going to the One Step Down for the jukebox. Then hanging out with Carolyn to go to the Howard Theater to hear the R&B acts and soul acts, and Motown acts. I was looking at the music as a connection. I’m into jazz, and at Georgetown right off campus, there were two restaurant bars. One was the very tony 1789. The 1789 had the downstairs beer garden called the Tombs, and the upstairs restaurant was very classy. Right next to it was a lunch counter bar type place called T Hands, owned by Lebanese immigrants with affordable food and beer. One day, I’m drinking some beer and hanging out with some friends, we’re talking and having a grand old time. A guy walks in and he’s ordering something from the counter, and he’s holding albums. You know how we jazz fans are, hip and in the know.

I asked about the albums, we were talking and he had some pretty good stuff under his arms. We started talking some more. He said, “Well, I just play these on my jazz show on the campus station, but I gotta give up the show to take a class. Why don’t you do it? You know enough about this stuff.” I said, “Well, I never did radio.” He said, “Well yeah, come by next week. I’ll show you what to do.” It was very serendipitous. That’s how I started doing jazz radio as a student at Georgetown on the FM station that the University had at that time.

At the time, were you acquainted at all with many DC jazz musicians?

I was starting to meet them, but not quite yet. But then when I got the radio show going …

A fixture on DMV live music scene: Rusty backstage at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival with guitarists Russell Malone & Bobby Broom


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Standing up for artists beyond the bandstand

I referred to you as an artist manager, you prefer Artist Development Mentor and Rights Activist. Please detail your work in that regard.

I officially became an artist manager in 2003, when I was working as a festival programmer in Detroit for Movement (Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival). I met a number of incredible artists who needed help getting their music out there to international markets, and as I worked internationally most of the time, I could provide a good route to markets outside the US for a number of artists. When I came back to the UK, I brought the artists’ demos and albums, then eventually got them out there. Amp Fiddler was my first bonafide management client, who I was with for 12 years, and over the years I worked with a number of artists across soul, hip hop and jazz, including Amp, Incognito, Tortured Soul, Stephanie Mckay, John Arnold, Ayro, Sixto Rodriguez, Shuggie Otis, Marc Cary, and KING, to name a few. Prior to that, my background had been in live event production and booking, and cataloguing reissue labels intent on documenting the black roots of modern dance music and marketing it to a dance generation. I worked on notable reissues for Strut records as well as working on curated presentations and tours with artists as wide ranging as Marlena Shaw, Martha Reeves, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, The Detroit Experiment, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Sly and Robbie, Grandmaster Flash, Leon Ware and more. I got into all of this when I was finishing up my PhD in the mid 1990s, and supplemented my research by DJing and running clubs in Scotland centered around jazz (where we would bring artists like Weldon Irvine, Charles Earland, Wilton Felder, Reuben Wilson, Gil Scott Heron, Jalal The Poet,and more). I also worked extensively for the Scottish Jazz promoter Assembly Direct managing their festivals and regional tours, as well as working in the booking and marketing departments of London’s infamous Jazz Cafe.

In all manifestations of my career, I came across rights issues for the artists. Whether it was unpaid royalties, copyright infringements or basic bad deals.

There’s been a trend over the past few years for the manager to effectively be the dumping ground for all roles that don’t fit into a traditional industry bracket, and as an independent manager, I realized I could only ever really effectively help one or two artists at a time. But because I have spent a lot of time over the years helping a number of artists sort out royalty and copyright issues, and I also work with more and more entirely independent artists, I see a bigger problem at play. When an artist brings a piece of music to the world, many different copyright revenue streams are created, but our industry is still woefully backward in recognizing what this means to the artists. When I can talk to an 18 year old artist and they have nearly identical issues as an 80 year old artist, there’s still a few issues we need to address as an industry. So I felt I needed to make a very deliberate shift away from the traditional idea of a manager and move to a more service based artist development model, while advocating for clear and transparent rights management in our industry.

Right now, I have more than 25 consultancies in place, some pro bono, some paid, but already in 12 months, I have managed to reunite, maintain or register 20 plus artists and counting effectively where they need to be, as well as get rights and equity back for some more seasoned artists with multiple releases.

You’ve apparently identified rampant disparities in rights issues where jazz artists are concerned. What disparities have you determined to remedy?

I could literally write a thesis on this, but I will try here to give you the broad strokes. There is still an inherent lack of understanding with a lot of artists who record their own works, how they actually access their mechanical income. Every day, I can talk to a US Jazz or hip hop artist who will tell me “BMI collects my mechanical income, I am a publisher there” – this is not what BMI, ASCAP or any other performing rights society does. This is the most fundamental building block of a musician/composer accessing their income. Next you have the age old problem of neighboring rights. This issue for 50 plus years has hit US artists and in particular US Jazz artists the most. The lack of America being part of the Rome Convention, and it taking the US over 100 years to join the Berne Convention that gave international performers moral rights in other countries have hit the musicians here hard. A lot of the practices that are common in the US music industry are prohibited by European Copyright law, and across the industry here (but I find it rife in Black American music). It is frequently exploited by independent and major labels who negotiate these rights away from the performer. In the rest of the world, these rights are unalienable, and can only be transferred away in death and bankruptcy. I’ve been living in New York six years now, and I find that a lot of my colleagues in Jazz either don’t understand this stuff, or think it doesn’t affect them. But given the historical predominance of physical product and European sales in Jazz, it affects our beloved US jazz musicians even more! This will be more and more problematic as the new laws come in in 2020. There will be more than 6 PROS, numerous mechanical intermediaries, and more and more digital steaming platforms offering direct access and generating new rights for the artists. We need to address this now. It’s not streaming that has ” killed” the jazz markets, it is all of the above.

With the US having a very different Rights system, unless you know how to navigate clearly around registering your data, or what societies to join and which mandates for which markets you should sign, it’s easy to leave money sitting on the table. In addition, many of our jazz artists young and old have money sitting in industry black boxes, generated from performances and other digital rights. For instance, AFM, SAG, AFTRA frequently have money that the artists are owed for performances. This fund deals with royalties generated by non-featured artists which are paid through to them via Sound Exchange. Problem is, they don’t have an efficient mechanism for connecting the non-featured artist to the performance. A lot of artists leave it sitting there because they either don’t know about it, or they are not given the correct information when they get to the union to pickup an unclaimed check.

The more controversial aspect is the type of deals that artists are still frequently seeing in jazz from “reputable” independent labels, that are more akin to the deals which were getting done between the 1950s and 1990s – many artists old and new are still suffering because of exploitative deals from labels who either simply don’t know or don’t want to know better, or ones who simply don’t care. As we have an aging group of professionals as well as artists in jazz, a lot of the same people who were making bad deals in the 1990s are still making bad deals today. There’s been a big outcry this week about Tommy Boy Records hitting De La Soul with a 90/10 deal, and an entire industry has stood up in De La Soul’s defense, including major streaming platforms such as Tidal. In Jazz, we frequently see 80/20 even 90/10 deals for perpetuity, and worse, like labels insisting upon taking an artists publishing or performance generated income on top. These are barbaric deals and a huge part of the reason artists are starting to abandon traditional labels and platforms to do it themselves. As an industry, we need to talk about this.

What is your sense of artist’s need to record their work and what is necessary to maximize the potential benefits of recording their work?

I think it is so important for artists to document their work by recording, both in the studio and the live arena. The liner notes, the credits… This stuff is so important.
Also stuff like where you record. Like every US artist would instantly make more performance income if they didn’t record in the US, but recorded in a territory governed by the Convention of Rome.

We have more and more technology at our disposal to manage recordings and meta data efficiently.. I also don’t think this necessarily means having to move away from th expertise of producers and high quality studios and such, but we do also live in a time now, where you can literally record an album at your kitchen table, and be nominated against Beyonce for a Grammy!

The key to maximizing and generating revenue from these endeavors is meta data and knowing where income is generated and how you collect it. There are both traditional and new ways to do this but it has never been easier to input metadata correctly and get it where it needs to be, and get transparent reporting as it is all binary driven electronic information.

DIY platforms these days have tech that far out strips anything a label can do for an artist directly. One of the biggest problems for signed artists is that often the responsibility for registering metadata is with the label, and as most labels are entirely self-serving, they are not going to care as much as the artist about the other revenue streams they cannot collect. The more unscrupulous will also take advantage of this. I am currently battling one label right now. We discovered that label had registered one clients’ copyrights with the US copyright office with themselves as the exclusive copyright claimant, despite the fact it was a license deal and not a buyout. This is hugely problematic, even if it initially stemmed from a place of ignorance rather than exploitation by the label. The hardest thing in a copyright claim is to prove someone doesn’t own something, rather than proving that you do.

We have many established artists who struggle with all of this, and we have a growing number of new artists, some even coming out of music school who struggle too. Something is wrong with this picture.

The other key factor is acknowledging that release cycles are no longer a 3-month game based around coordinated release of product and formats. Modern day release cycles are long-lead with sales and promotion a continuous flow, not the purchase driven model that we have become accustomed to.

With or without the labels, the artists can now drive plays from virtually every fan interaction. Record labels need to be working hand in hand with their artists to understand this data and grow from it. If we invest in this as a community, we foster creativity and gain traction from the intel we amass.

Labels need to stop thinking like companies selling music and start thinking about their agency in nurturing an artist’s creativity and help them streamline their meta data so they can gain every revenue stream available to them.

Music discovery and consumption have never been more immediate or closer to each other. In the US Jazz industry, there is still a tendency to work to an 8-12 week release cycle (which is partly why more and more artists move away from this practice.) When you work this way, you fail to benefit from the fact that you can now monetize engagement as much as the consumption of music.

Is it your sense that artists benefit more readily from recording their own product, or would a more equitable relationship with a recording company be more in their favor?

I love that you asked this question. Yes yes and yes. This is the very same question Arthur Taylor posed to many of his peers in Notes and Tones – artists we all love, like Ron Carter, Randy Weston, Charles Tolliver, Hazel Scott, Betty Carter and more were discussing exactly this at that time around 1969-1971 because of the disparity between fair record deals and getting their music out there.

What a lot of people may not realize these days is a lot of artists even signed to labels are not just having to walk in with a demo to get a deal – they are already a lot of the time front-ending the recording costs and taking finished masters to labels in a hope the label will take it. But yet they still often get faced by these outdated and unfair deals. They get told “now you have to pay for radio and PR” and then after all that, if it doesn’t work, the artist becomes the perfect scapegoat for why it didn’t work. We get told such things as “no one buys jazz anymore” Which is completely untrue, but we have to trust people who think this way to sell the music. We also get told “radio needs CDs” or “send 500 cds to press”, but the sales cycle has changed, digital nearly always comes first these days, and the opportunities in the US for coverage in jazz media and radio are diminishing every day. But we have other areas of growth, and we have artists’ apps which now help us monitor just what our labels are doing, so there is definitely a movement to going where the love is.

I know some people will think that my views are anti industry but I strongly believe in all the good that has come from traditional areas like A&R, production, label and publishing culture, and I hope the independent sector doesn’t get too detached from being able to access these areas of expertise. But you’d be hard pushed to find a jazz label in the Mecca of New York, which still upholds these values themselves, or are even capable of bringing them to an artist.

The model has to shift to a license-driven cooperative model of artist development, where artists retain their rights, in order for labels to remain viable, otherwise we just perpetuate a highly flawed system which no one is taking responsibility for.

Talk about some examples of artists who have taken necessary steps to remedy this recording connundrum.

My company, Intrinsic Artists, set up a project called We Roar, which is currently Fiscally Sponsored by Fractured Atlas. We have been offering pro-bono services to some of our most beloved jazz artists to help them rectify collection issues, particularly on neighboring rights. In partnership with a company in the UK called Traxploitation, we have commenced working with notable names such as Gary Bartz, Reggie Workman, Roy Ayers, Tarus Mateen, Marc Cary, Cheick Tidiane Seck, Marlena Shaw and Jimmy Cobb to reconnect them with missing income. Thus far between Gary Bartz and Reggie Workman alone, we have registered in excess of 1000 featured, sideman and sampled performances in the international markets, as well as assisting them reclaim missing payments sitting at the various US unions. With Roy, there are over 1500 titles we are in the process of registering and the list keeps getting longer of artists who need this type of help. The work we have done to date gets them into the distribution cycle for June internationally, so a lot of them will see royalties going back 6 years for music they have never seen income on. We are working to have even more fully registered for the winter distributions. Each year that gets missed, the artists lose a year of money. For someone 6 decades deep in the industry, that’s a lot of money!

We are also working closely with many established and up and coming artists such as Canadian Harlem-based drummer Curtis Nowosad, vocalists Emily Braden and Jackie Gage and our collaborative recordings borne from The Harlem Sessions. Truth be told, none of these artists are cutting corners- they are renting recording studios, paying their musicians, and trying to raise funds constantly to pay for Pr and marketing. Some who are more adept to other digital techniques use them in the home studio. Some sample their live recordings. The possibilities are endless, but the investment is huge, which is why the issues and obstacles truly need to be addressed.

Finally, we are in the process of helping certain artists get their masters back from deals which have either expired, or where the labels have stopped accounting to the artists (which should never happen). We recently got Marc Cary’s first album back, which we are slating for a remastered issue in 2020, and we are working on many many more. There’s nothing worse than hearing multiple jazz artists every day who you love from every decade tell you a tale of a label who stopped accounting to them, or someone who got in the way of them getting their money or did a bad deal which they couldn’t afford a lawyer to look at. A lot of the same labels still exist today and they are still doing the same thing. A lot of them are indies. Difference is now, we have technology and user-generated forums which help the artists measure the extent of the problem better, before wading in with lawyers and auditors. I have to stress, I speak from very specific artist experiences, rather than approximately an average idea that every label operates this way. But many do, and that’s another piece of the puzzle we are trying to help resolve so our artists don’t suffer so needlessly in later life.

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Jazz Girls Day DC

For this year’s edition of the annual Washington Women in Jazz Festival ( March 10-31), trombonist Shannon Gunn, a native of Richmond, VA and graduate of George Mason University recognized as one of the DMV’s finest exemplars of her instrument, is producing a wonderful new component: Jazz Girls Day DC. Clearly the program begged some questions, to which Shannon Gunn graciously agreed to respond.

What would you say is the overall mission of Jazz Girls Day DC?
Jazz Girls Day DC, in partnership with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, empowers young girls and non-binary gender students to have the skills needed for self-confidence in the performance of jazz.

Kevin Allen, Music Director at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, approached me with the idea in the late summer of 2018. “I was looking for a way to expand our Jazz in the Sanctuary concerts at John Calvin Presbyterian Church. After reading Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes’ purpose, “…uplifts women in jazz, creates networking opportunities, and provides a positive role model for aspiring jazz musicians in the DC area,” I thought it was a perfect idea. It also aligns with our church’s goal to be a part of the surrounding community.”

Jazz Girls Day DC will take place on Saturday, March 30th, at John Calvin Presbyterian Church at 6531 Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA 22003, starting at 11:00 am for the workshops. There is ample free parking on site.

What can participants expect from the workshop experiences?
Jazz Girls Day DC is open to Middle and High School students who identify as women or gender non-binary.

We will start with a listening session and mixer where everyone can meet each other and eat snacks. Then we will have workshops on improvisation, vocabulary, and scales, a student-only jam session, and a free culminating concert open to the public. Students will have the opportunity to network and meet other students like themselves. Stacey Williams, the “Jazz Cat Herder,” will also give a brief workshop on building confidence in the business of music. We have a stellar line up of faculty this year, including:

Amy K. Bormet, Piano
Karine Chapdelaine, Bass
Tina Raymond, Drums
Charmaine Michelle, Trumpet
Shannon Gunn, Trombone

The final concert at 4:00 pm will feature the faculty and any of the students who wish to perform.The concert is free and open to the public.

For more information, contact Shannon Gunn at 571-318-6278 or jazztothebone [at]

What’s the overall history and purpose of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival?
Created by Amy K Bormet in 2011, Washington Women in Jazz hosts an annual festival (WWJF) each March to celebrate the women of the DC jazz community. Bormet and her colleagues develop, promote and lead a wide array of concerts, jam sessions, lectures, panels, discussions, and masterclasses. A highlight of the festival is the Young Artist Showcase, where high school and college women are given a platform to perform and connect with professional jazz artists.

Check out other happenings with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival here:

Do you see these activities as dovetailing with the renewed efforts at achieving gender equity and gender justice in jazz?
I have learned from my research on women in jazz that middle school jazz bands typically have 50% women, then in high school it drops to 14% women; and then at the college level there are only 9% women in the school big band. I am not sure of the reason for the drop off, but I want to make sure that gender does not play a part in it. I feel like the best way to help this is to instill self confidence in the youngest students who wish to pursue jazz. Jazz is just as much a “mind set” game, like golf; by instilling a strong foundation in skills, they can strive for excellence without boundaries.

Don’t miss Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes, Friday, June 7, 6:00pm (free) at the Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian National Museum of Art, part of the 15th annual DC JazzFest (complete information:

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Anatomy of an independent record store

Back in 2010/2011 when I was engaged in an oral history interview project for the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, accompanied by Weeksville’s resident cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott (now director of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago), and Kaitlyn Greenidge, I conducted a raft of oral history interviews with men and women in the jazz community and beyond. Our territory was Central Brooklyn, specifically the Bedford-Stuyvesant community. [Here it should be noted that among previous interviews from this project published in the Independent Ear were illuminating conversations with the late Dickie Haversham-Bey, proprietor of the legendary Brooklyn jazz club the Blue Cornet, and more recently some of the principles behind the legendary performance/live Blue Note recording session Night of the Cookers, all available in our Archives section.]

For those not familiar with Weeksville, historically it was the first African American settlement in the borough of Brooklyn; some of the historic homes have been preserved on the Weeksville grounds. Among the musicians, arts & social community activists we interviewed for that oral history project, one of the most colorful was Joe Long, proprietor of the classic independent record store Birdel’s. Can you name another community record store whose clientele ranged from Randy Weston and Miles Davis, to Biggie Smalls and Jay Z? Birdel’s was the place. Here’s our conversation with Joe Long.

Willard Jenkins: We read about your record store, Birdel’s, in the New York Times.

Joe Long: That was the second piece about our closing.

WJ: When I read that piece it reminded me of record stores I used to frequent as a kid, before there was any Tower Records; the kind of record store in the neighborhood where the records would be behind the counter on the walls. Talk about the history of Birdel’s.

JL: I came to New York from North Carolina in 1954. The reason I came to New York was to better myself with a decent job to help my mother prolong the education of my sister that was in North Carolina College in Durham. She had won a 2-year scholarship, she was valedictorian. I came out of high school at the tender age of 16 and I said I would work to help her to get through her junior and senior year of college. That’s what prompted me to leave North Carolina to come to New York.

In 1954 my sister that lived here worked at Rands Dry Cleaners and she had a position for me when I left North Carolina. I came straight to Brooklyn and we lived on Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at that time. I worked at Rands on the line sorting clothes and I learned that quickly, and then I did maintenance [work] with them. I was always an enthusiastic person for music, I really loved music. In my sophomore year at home I bought a Victrola called Airline from Montgomery Ward. Remember those big boxes with AM and FM radio, shortwave and everything? Airline was the brand.

I bought that radio so we would have music in the house and in the community. Victrola, they called them at that time, cost me close to $200 and I paid down like $25 then $5 a week until I was able to pay for it; back then they wouldn’t give it to you until you finished paying for it.

Everybody would come to my house and we would party on the weekends because I had the only Victrola in the community. I was working at the 5 & 10 cent store H.H. Kress, and by me working there I had access to the music – it was 78s during those days and I would bring home these 78s and we would have our little thing. My father was a janitor and after his [work] day finished they would always give us the popcorn and we would distribute it in the community… the cookies and things… So we used to have a good time.

When I came to Rand Dry Cleaners, they had 155 stores across the metropolitan area – Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island. I would always come down to Birdel’s and buy my music. During that time they were located on Fulton and Throop next to the Apollo Theatre; we had an Apollo Theatre here in Brooklyn too that had acts and music and things. During those days I would come in evenings after work and buy music. Birdel’s relocated down on Fulton & Nostrand.

During those days – this was in 1956-57 – the groups were making records and the entertainers that were a part of those groups would come by the store. The bass singer from the Heartbeats, Wally Roker, we became close. Wally used to say to me “Joe you know music, why don’t you ask Birdel for a job.” I would tell him I already have a job, why do I need another job? During those days the record stores were open until midnight. You had the junkies out there and the drugs and all, but it wasn’t like today, you could feel more safe.

We had the Bickfords during those days, something like Chock Full ‘o’ Nuts [coffee shop]… We had a Bickfords two doors down from Birdel’s on Fulton Street and I used to go down there. Wally would say come on down there and we would talk and he would say ‘I’m gonna tell Birdel to hire you and maybe you’ll like it…’ I said ‘well ok, I’ll give it a try.’ So I spoke with Benjamin Steiner, the owner, and his wife was named Birdie Steiner and they had a guy named Lefty and another fella named Shorty that used to work full time. So I would come in the evenings, and I started to work there and I liked it.

So then I went to Rand after two years and I tell them I’m gonna quit. They didn’t want me to quit because I had learned all the locations of the stores throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Staten Island, so they really needed someone with the trucks to help get around. So I told them I’ll give you a coupla weeks notice and then I’m going to leave you, and then I told Birdel’s that I would come with him full-time. I really liked the [Birdel’s] job. I worked part-time at Birdel’s in the evening and that gave me an idea of whether I would want to get into the music business. I liked it so much I told him I would work with him and I would give him ten years; I’m a young man, I said I’ll give you ten years.

He was talking about retiring so I said if you don’t want to sell me the store in ten years I’ll go ahead and get my own business. So he says ‘ok, we’ll see.’ I worked with him and I really liked it. He saw the head I had on me… during those days you bought records by numbers. Once I saw a number I was just like a computer, the number would stick. Right now I can call off numbers from 1954-55 on record labels that we ordered by, and he liked that.

So he would say to me ‘you’re gonna get this store, I’m gonna sell you this store…’ In 1963 I told him I was ready [to buy the store]. In ’64 blacks at that time were a little more on the edge of wanting to do things for self; you had the Black Panther party, the radical Brooklyn guys that really would do things to get attention. God rest Sonny Carson’s soul, he was one of the guys that really was out front. So Birdel’s got a little leery during that time and he was saying that he might have to sell before.

So when the time came and Martin Luther King got killed and the riots came, that really was the icing on the cake; he said I’m gonna sell and get out. During those days SBA small business loan was loaning minority people money and it wasn’t that you had to have a good foundation or background or good bankroll… if they saw the potential in you and you were able to take the business they didn’t mind loaning. That was one of the reasons I was able to get a loan for the business. Birdel had quoted me a price and I went to SBA and they offered me the money so quickly that when I went back and told [Birdel] I had the money that’s when he wanted to up the price $10,000.

I told him ‘Ben you promised me the store and you promised me a price. I worked for you over ten years and never stole a penny from you because my mother didn’t raise no thieves in North Carolina, and I’ve been honest. I had a tendency of working with fellas that would always be stealing and I used to tell them ‘man, you don’t steal the man’s money because one day you might need the man for reference, but if he fires you for stealing you won’t get good references.’ So I said I’m gonna tell you to quit stealing and if you don’t stop stealing I’m going to the boss because I don’t want to work around thieves and I don’t want him to think that I’m part of what you’re doing.’

So at that time he says to me ‘ok I’ll talk to my wife and see if we want to stick to the original price.’ The drugs are flourishing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, especially on Fulton Street and there was a guy who had a store on Fulton Street who was dealing drugs and he wanted the location on Nostrand Avenue and he was the one who offered [Steiner] the $10,000 more than I would pay – because I knew what he wanted to do.

I told Ben, you go home and talk to Birdie because I’ve worked with you you all these years and I’m not looking to just walk away; I put my blood, sweat and tears here and if you don’t sell me this store I’m gonna burn it down. Its just that simple, I said I’ll burn it down, you won’t have it and I won’t have it, you’ll get the little money from your insurance or whatever, but I will burn it down. He went back and talked to his wife; he knew that I was serious. He knew that I wasn’t playing.

During those days I had two fellas – a guy named Mitch and a guy named Jeff, we had a little social club together. I told them once I buy the store I’ll bring you all in. During those days when black folks were on the other side of Fulton Street you didn’t have the idea of coming across Atlantic Avenue to say that you wanted to be a part of Crown Heights.

After he went back and talked to his wife they finally made the deal to sell me the business. When I took on Mitch I said my whole vision was to have a chain of independent retail [record] stores. One of the reasons I saw that change I knew that during those days music was popular with the blacks and you had good radio stations that played this music and it wasn’t a thing of wherein you were selling tickets for different programs – gospel programs… all these programs were a help to build Birdel’s up. So when I finally bought the store and we closed the deal, Birdel said to me ‘Joe, you’ll make a lot of money here.’ I said to him ‘Ben, I might not make no money because you made the money, I worked for you and I know you made good money and when we as a race of people find out that one of us own it they tend to not purchase and support like they should.’ I told him that but I wasn’t worried about survival out here because I knew what it took to survive.

When I took on Mitch I said ‘Mitch I want to do a chain and we got as far as three stores. The only people that were competitive to independent [record] retail at that time was E.J. Corvettes, Mays Department store, and Sam Goodies; but Goodies was a part of the record clan that could sell records out of town, so they could sell [at] list prices, they didn’t have to give you a discount.

So as I would build up a store I would put my partner Mitch in there and he had a head and wanted to be Mr. Big Stuff and he didn’t want to work and every time he would go out and hang out, I’d put the workers to work and he’s gone. I told him ‘we can’t achieve a good business if you’re not there, because these people we’re putting in here are gonna be stealing.’ I knew they weren’t gonna take it all, but at least give me the majority, don’t take 60/40 – give me 70/30 or 80/20, but they weren’t doing that so I kept him on, I told him I would give him five years to learn the business, but I kept him on another three years and he still didn’t learn the business.

So then I sat down with him and I said ‘look, we’re gonna have to [end] our partnership. He didn’t want to give it up because now he didn’t have nowhere to go. We had three stores so I told him, I’ll keep Birdel’s on Nostrand Avenue, I’ll give you the tape center on Fulton Street, and we had another store on Flatbush and Prospect, and I said we’ll sell that to my brothers, because I had two brothers working here. That way we’ll all have a store, you can do what you want and I’ll do what I want. But if you want to keep the Birdel’s name for the Birdel’s Tape Center you’ll have to pay me because the name was incorporated, and I told my brothers the same.

My brothers didn’t want to give up their jobs; one worked for the transit authority, the other one worked for an insurance company. They didn’t want to quit their jobs and they put their wives in there to run [the store] and I knew it was gonna be a failure. Women have come a long way from those days, but during that time I could see they weren’t the people to have in your business to carry the load – and I’m being honest, this is what I saw. They hung on for about 3 years and I said [to his brothers] ‘if you don’t want to give up your jobs I’m gonna have to take the store back. If you don’t want to give up your jobs I’ll sell it.’ Eventually I took it back.

I was trying to let Mitch know that I carried him for eight years – I promised you five – and now I want out. I’m divorced now, but during that time my wife said to me to get rid of him and pay him, so I paid him. When I finished paying him [his store] lasted about a year then he went out [of business]. We had a rider in the contract that said if he was to go out, he head to come back to me and see if I wanted to buy the business back. He didn’t do that, but it was alright with me.

Right then and there I started building Birdel’s internationally because I knew the Japanese clientele liked vinyl, people from Germany liked vinyl, and all these people were tourists that would be coming into New York. Harlem was a little more well-known than Bedford-Stuyvesant and they would go up to Harlem – they had the Record Shack, Bobby Robinson with Bobby’s Happy House, and then Rainbow; we all worked together, we were like a network. So when they would come up to Harlem they would tell [record tourists] ‘you need to go over to Birdel’s in Brooklyn.’ And all you had to do is get one [tourist] to see what you do and what you had, and it became like wildfire and [tourists] started to come into Brooklyn. And then we became internationally known because the Japanese would come and they would tell somebody, and England would tell somebody… and they’d say ‘go to Birdel’s’, they forgot about Harlem [laughs].

That’s how I became really popular. It took years to do this, it didn’t happen overnight because vinyl took a decline; when I came into the business it was vinyl, then it became mono/stereo with records and stereo was an elevation of the sound that was better, then it was 8-tracks, then cassettes. All of these trends I grew up in with the different modifications in the music business.
All of that modification with vinyl (mono-stereo), the record manufacturers felt as though now there was a decline in the music as vinyl. They would put out a vinyl album and they would tell the public that it was going gold. During that time gold was if you sold 10,000 units; 100,000 units would be platinum. They weren’t really selling that amount because it was all a number game; they would ship the amount to these stores and in essence if they didn’t sell them they would get them back in return.

So we had a cutout house in Philadelphia that I would go to and buy this product on vinyl. I could buy that same album for $1 from the cutout house and I could in turn sell it for $1.98 or $2.98 – most of the time I would put $2.98 on it – and this is how I built it up, because now the record is only 6 months or a year old and people still want it. So that’s how I started building up the vinyl trade, and this is how the word got around to go to Birdel’s, get the music in vinyl because one thing about it was if I didn’t have it, nobody had it because I would order for people all over… You have to build a customer relationship and it wasn’t about the money with me, it was about the commitment that I had to my customers. Our motto would be “if Birdel’s don’t have it, ain’t nobody got it…’ They would depend on me because I was like their bible. But it took a lot of work.

When we would have those big conferences, like Jack The Rapper, and the Urban Network, I would go because we got record companies to support us and the independent stores were always the foundation of the record business. If we didn’t build the music during those days – when you had the disc jockeys… before Frankie Crocker you had Eddie O’Jay, you had the Jack Walkers, WLIB, WNJR in Newark, Jocko… These guys were disc jockeys, they made the music… That was before the Frankie Crockers came along and the Gary Byrds… [Deejays] would make the music and we would have them, wherein the big boys wouldn’t carry it because they didn’t know nothin’ about it. They [big chains] would only carry it after we broke the record, so the manufacturers and these companies knew that the independent store was the foundation of the business to build it up, so they had to support us.

We had corporations together; we had Mirror, independent stores coalitions throughout the country and we would meet at these conventions and we would voice our choice. So then they said ‘we gotta do something else now’ and they came up with digital tapes and that was taking away from cassettes, so then they said they had to come up with another configuration, which brought in the CD. They didn’t know that the CD would really be a thorn in their side to the music business. Because what happened was everybody that had a CD could copy it. At these big conferences when the presidents of all these companies would come in they would always call me the troublemaker because I would always be on their ass. You couldn’t butter me up… a lot of these presidents of these coalitions would come in and say I’ll take care of you, but you don’t have to take care of your group. But they couldn’t say that to me, I would say to them ‘you know what, if you all continue to make CDs and worry about bootlegs and get the RIAA and the FBI to work with you to combat this you all will have to quit making the [CD burner] machines. Now if you’re making the machine and these people are buying the machine, what did you expect them to do? This was one of the downfalls – the copying of product.

Then they tried to put labels about $10,000 fines for CD burning… people didn’t pay that no mind and it became widespread. I told them when you come to us about a bootleg we are only the ones who can sell it, you’ve gotta hit the manufacturers where these people are making 100,000 units at a time. So they busted a couple of them – one in Philadelphia, one in Florida and they took 100,000 records, but that didn’t stop it.

One day we were talking at one of those meetings, I said ‘you know what, ya’ll let the horse out of the barn now and you’re trying to get him back in. You have destroyed independent music labels because now everything is geared to the big boys, the artists are going along with them now. You’ve got Burger King, McDonalds and all these companies telling these artists we can give you X amount of dollars and we will book you about ten cities and you’ll be able to make more money, so that cut out the independent.

Then the same thing when the radio stations combined; they got rid of all the little radio stations and they made a big network, and KISS went all over the country and bought up all these stations – forgot about the independent disc jockeys they had, brought in artists that don’t know nothing about the record business and they put them in position that they shouldn’t have been, and the disc jockey that went to school to learn the business was no longer a part of that. Through it all [Birdel’s was] were surviving and they couldn’t understand it. They used to tell me all the time, ‘you know, you don’t ask for nothin’, how you makin’ it’? I said ‘with the master upstairs’, I used to quote scriptures on them in a minute. As long as I’ve got my health, got my strength, I’m gonna make a dollar – and this is what I’d tell them all the time. All of this time that we worked as a coalition to build the [record] manufacturers up, they were always looking to tear us down.

Then they began to like me and they started doing things for me all the time. I was reading an article from 1973 that Nelson George wrote for Billboard; I knew his mother, his mother’s best friend was one of my bookkeepers. I watched Nelson grow up and every time he’d write an article he’d mention Birdel’s.

WJ: You mentioned that you sold tickets to events…

JL: We sold tickets for events all over the metropolitan area – New York, New Jersey… we were like a ticket outlet. Before Ticketron first started this is what we were doing. When Ticketron came I wanted to be a Ticketron outlet. I bought a building on Nostrand Avenue – the old Chase Manhattan building and I got an architect to come in and do a layout for me; I wanted to do three levels, something like Tower Records was on Broadway, a 3-level [record store] with Ticketron. When he laid out the plan for me it would cost close to a million dollars to do the construction and everything. I went to Freedom Bank, I went to Carver’s Bank, Citi Bank… and all of these banks refused to loan me money. It really deterred me about elevating my game because now I can’t get no backing.

They would always say to me ‘what is your equity’ and all of that. I said ‘hell, if I had something I wouldn’t be here! If I’ve got $300,000 I don’t need you! I’m here to borrow money and if I fail you’ve got whatever it is…’ but they couldn’t see it. It was the same thing in 1978; I could have bought that corner on Fulton Street where I was with [Birdel’s] and I couldn’t get no money. When you talk about politics, political people and how they help the independent, grassroots people… it ain’t there. They might talk about it but believe me its not there. I should have been bigger than J&R; I knew those people, Jimmy & Rachel, those are the people that own J&R, I knew those two little people when they were nobody. Nobody came to bat for us, and that is the saddest part. Now that corner on Nostrand Avenue & Fulton Street you can’t buy that for $3M, guy is asking for $10M for that corner now.


WJ: Did you have other people working for you who went on to have their own record stores?

JL: Yep, a couple of them. Not only record stores, I’ve had others come in and learn the record business who went on to be producers. As a matter of fact Biggie [Smalls] I started him, he used to come to my store on Nostrand Avenue and go downstairs… When he first started coming around he used to say ‘Birdel, I hear you got a lotta old 45s and stuff in the basement. Me and my man wanna go down and listen’ – I never knew his man’s name. I said ‘oh man, come on down.’ He used to tell me ‘one day I’m gonna be big and when I’m big I ain’t gonna forget you.’ I said ‘OK Biggie, you ain’t gotta do nothin’ but what you’re doing now… smokin’ reefer out there on the block shootin’ craps, hanging out there at the pool room up at Cambridge Place… that’s all you gonna be…’

He’d say ‘naw, I’m gonna be better…’ I said OK. And when he got big he came back and said ‘whenever you want me to an autograph session [in-store] I’ll do it, let me know.’ At that time the West coast and the East coast [rappers] had that fightin’ thing goin’ on. He came and did that autograph session about two weeks before they were going out to Los Angeles. He and Puffy wasn’t the best [of friends], it was like a front thing… I told him ‘Biggie if I were you I’d stay home…’ He said ‘naw Birdel, I gotta go out there…’ I said ‘let Puffy, he’s the owner of the company, let him go out there and see what’s happening.’ But he went out there and never came back, until he came back in a box.

WJ: Did you have any other young people like that come around the store?

JL: Jay-Z used to come through there, all these guys… Reverend Run, Russell Simmons and all of those young guys used to come through there. Jay-Z or one of those guys off of Morris Avenue came through one time and he was in the store and we wanted to do an autograph session and every minute he’s looking behind his back. I used to tell him ‘what’s wrong man, I don’t have people in here to be scared of, if there’s something you’ve done you better go around there and clean it up, ‘cause you’re out here in the limelight.’ What’s that other boy’s name… Rob Base… These are the kind of guys that I would help. I’ve always been a person that regardless of who you are or what you were doing, I would always try to set you straight.

WJ: What kind of help would you give these guys?

JL: I’d help them financially, mostly with the knowledge and understanding; I fed their hunger, and I talked to them… I used to have little sessions [in Birdel’s], bring the drug guys off the street, and set ‘em down in there on Nostrand Avenue… I’ve had a lot of them come back later in life and say to me, say to the children, ‘you see Birdel’s over there, if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here, he straightened my life out.’ These are the things that I really enjoy because I’ve given so much and I guess that’s why I’ve been blessed like this.

When I said I was going to close that store after 50 years I knew I had done a job. I got support all over the world, not just New York and the States… I got a call from Ghana – and I was in Ghana, sent ‘em product… we took on a family there, me and my sisters. We had a Long Foundation that we helped to support the needy over [in Ghana], we helped put computers in a school over there… So these are the things that I’ve done, but when I do something I don’t need my name in the spotlight because I do it from my heart.

WJ: Do you remember having jazz guys come into your store?

JL: Oh yeah… Cecil Payne, Wilbur Ware, Randy Weston, Paul Chambers, Miles Davis…

WJ: And what would they come in for?

JL: To ask me about music, ask me did I have certain music. The jazz musicians always bought each other’s music during those days so that they could keep up with what was going on. The Blue Coronet was the jazz club down the street before Brownie’s Hideaway around the corner… These were places that the jazz musicians hung out in and played. They had a big place on Franklin Avenue near St. John’s that had played jazz… Randy Weston and all of them guys used to come through and they could play. During those days when they were appearing at the Blue Coronet they would walk up to the store because during those days we were open until 12:00 midnight.

WJ: Did you play music out into the street?

JL: Yes, that was a big help; I had speakers set up on the street.

WJ: You just mentioned a place I’m not familiar with, Brownie’s Hideaway; talk about that place.

JL: Brownie’s Hideaway was a little nightclub spot on St. Marks right off of Nostrand, right where Key Food is now.

WJ: What happened there?

JL: It was like a little spot that the entertainers came in and sang, local talent would come in and sing. Across the street they had The Cove at 704 Nostrand Avenue, then you could go down to Town Hill on Eastern Parkway.

WJ: So I guess you knew Dickie Habersham-Bey from the Blue Coronet?

JL: Yeah, Dickie I knew for years.

WJ: Did you sell tickets at Birdel’s for jazz events?

JL: Any event we sold tickets for – jazz, gospel, R&B, oldies but goodies… all of those things we sold.

WJ: So the jazz guys would come in and buy each other’s records?

JL: Yeah, they listened and if they liked it they would buy it… They supported each other.

WJ: Back in the day the classic record stores would always enable the consumer to come in and listen to something they were interested in. What kind of set-up did you have at Birdel’s for customer listening?

JL: I would play it for them. Most of the time I could look at you and see if you REALLY wanted to buy it, or you just want to hear it. Most of the time the [record] companies would give us a promotional copy [of new releases] so we would have a copy, but not all of the companies. But what I would let you know up front is I’m gonna open this for you, but if you really want to buy it I don’t mind playing it for you. If you don’t want to buy it then I’ll have to seal it back up – I had a sealer – and then I’ll sell it to the next customer.

Most of the time during those days you would always have a 45 or something that came from that album, so we would play the 45 and you didn’t have to worry about the album. During those days, when an artist made a good record they made a good album, it wasn’t about one good tune and you thought about the rest of it being garbage. Ninety percent of all of those records were good albums during that day.

WJ: Did you have a regular policy of artists making personal appearances in your store?

JL: Uh huh, if they were someone in the vicinity I would have them come in there. Jazz artists were funny they didn’t stay like the blues artists or the R&B artists. They would come through there and people would walk in the store and I might say ‘here’s Wilbur Ware over here, a bass player, he played with Miles Davis, or he played with Randy Weston or somebody…’ And they’d say ‘oh yeah…’, and then Wilbur would say [quietly] ‘…I play music, I don’t want to be out there…’ that’s the way they would talk. I’d say ‘man, you’re an artist, let the people know who you are!’

WJ: So jazz artists were too modest?

JL: Yeah they were too modest. But a guy like Miles Davis would come in there and [the customers] knew Miles right away. He would come in there and stay for awhile and say ‘….hey what’s goin’ on, I’m down at the Blue Coronet for awhile, come on down and listen to me – I’ll play something you want to hear…’ I’ve always been a jazz lover.

WJ: Why did you decide to close Birdel’s?

JL: In 1968 when I took over the store I said I would do 25-30 years because I was looking for a change, and I wasn’t gonna look to work the rest of my life, I wanted to be behind a desk calling the shots. When 2007 came I said ‘wow, this is my 50th year in the business and I’ll be 70 years old…’ Maybe we’ll do a 50/70 [anniversary celebration]. So I called up the record companies and I told them I wanted to do a 50/70. They said ‘what do you mean by that Joe?’ I said I want to get a boat and travel around Manhattan and I want all my friends from all these years that I’ve known, not only in the music business – my church family… I want everybody under the same roof and I want to give a 50/70 gala.’

They said ‘we can help you, but we don’t know how much.’ I said, well I’ll get a price for a boat and we’ll go from there. So I got a price for the boat – now they have downsized these record companies so you only have four big ones – Universal, BMG, EMI and another… it’s only four big boys now – and they all came together and said they would give me a piece of money and that’s what I did.

That was the year, 2007, that I was gonna retire. The reason I wanted to retire then is because I could see the vision of the record industry shrinking as far as music is concerned, and especially with the downloads; I fought them too for 10-15 years when they started selling [downloads] and you could put it on your iPod or whatever. I saw then the decline of people coming into your store. If I wanted to stay in this business I would have changed this whole business around.

I brought my nephew into the business to carry on Birdel’s when he finished school at North Carolina Central because he was majoring in business administration. And he learned the business and he worked with me ten years. After that I was ready to move out. But then he met a young lady and she didn’t want him in the record business no more because of the climate you’re surrounded by in the record business – all the entertainers, all the parties… She saw if she didn’t get him out of the business she might have lost him and she really wanted to get married. So she told him she would like to marry him but he would have to come out of the business.

He really didn’t tell me at the time that he wanted to get out of the business. Later on he said that he wanted to get married and Tonya wanted to move to North Carolina and wanted to go back to teaching. So my son is a playwright, my daughter is a doctor – OBGYN – so I said to myself ‘why am I gonna continue to work? I’m set, I have my health and strength, so I wanted to do a few things before I leave this earth – I want to do some traveling, go back to West Africa, and I want to do some other things that I have in mind, so I said maybe with the record business declining like it is now it’s a good time for me to get out.

My customer base didn’t want me to leave, so I hung on for another 3 years and I saw that I wasn’t making no money, all I was doing was paying rent, buying music, and there wasn’t any sense in putting good money to bad money, so I said no use in me keeping my money in here just to satisfy a few devoted customers, because the [customer] age from 16-40 nobody was buying, they were all online. So if you don’t have that customer base there’s no use in continuing. If I had stayed I would have turned the store around to electronics and just had the music for an offset.

I would have kept the gospel and the oldies because that’s what I was noted for; my specialty was oldies. They really didn’t think I was gonna close. I used to say ‘ya’ll gonna miss me when I’m gone…’ They would say ‘… you ain’t going nowhere…’ I’d say ‘watch me…’ One of the guys came in crying, he said ‘Birdel, you told me 3 years ago… I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone…’ They came to the realization that I’m going to close these doors.

WJ: What did you do with all your record stock?

JL: I’ve got stock in storage… the vinyl. I’ve got maybe 50-60,000 pieces of vinyl. I want to sell the whole thing, I don’t want to sell it piecemeal. I had a guy from Ireland that wanted it all but he ran into a problem with the freight and how he would get it back, he didn’t want to spend a lot of money to get it back [to Ireland]. I had another guy from Germany who told me if I took this stock over there I’d be a millionaire overnight with this vinyl. He said they were hungry, they needed this because nobody else has it. I told him ‘man, I’ve been doing this 53 years and I’m tired, let me do what I want to do…’

WJ: As you look back on those 53 years, what thoughts do you have about the music business? There are two different things we’re talking about here – the record business and the music business.

JL: The music business – over those 53 years I’ve been involved in it, the record business has been good to me. The record business has taken a decline. The music business will always live because you have a history here with the music that cannot be duplicated no more. They can sample it they can do whatever they want, but they can’t take away from the originals. This is why music is so important today. What has really hurt the music business part of it is you don’t have radio that is dedicated to play music because now everything is about the dollar. During those early days we as independents could buy time; you could buy a half hour or 15 minutes on a station and play in those 15 minutes what you wanted to play.

Only on WBGO [in the metro area] can you hear good jazz, the same with the oldies but goodies. What I really wanted to do was to buy a radio station. I used to tell people that if you bought a station you don’t worry about the ratings and you don’t worry about the listeners because if you play good music you’ll get listeners.

WJ: I can remember when I was a kid there was a guy in Cleveland who had a record store and he bought up a few hours on the air on WJMO, the black station, and he’d have his thing every Sunday (the “Pleaser” show). Did you ever do that?

JL: I did a little bit years ago. I went to school for radio and worked at WPNN down in Annapolis, MD for a year or two, but I came back to New York. I found that during those days the disc jockey had the freedom, but you didn’t have the support of the owners because they were looking for the dollar, and you’re on staff so you’ve gotta do what they tell you to [play]. The big corporations came in and bought the stations and then they collaborated and put them all together, so then they were in control.

So if you hear this [record] in Atlanta, you’re gonna hear it in Milwaukee, in New York, hear it all over. This is the way they program music now and they don’t play good music. When have you heard a good jazz record on the radio going back to a Miles Davis “Bag’s Groove,” 1957-58? They don’t have that today, so you really have the music that’s there but its not getting the exposure, it’s not getting the airplay.

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