Jazz Radio Commentaries Pt. 3: Rusty Hassan

Rusty Hassan is one of the more venerable and hippest enthusiasts on the DC-area jazz scene.  Dial up most any worthwhile jazz performance in the Washington-Baltimore area and you’re more than likely to find Rusty on the scene, sometimes with his eager young grandson in tow.  Friend and confidante of many musicians, and one of the warmest, most knowledgeable interviewers in jazz radio, Rusty Hassan is one of those cornerstones of the jazz cognoscenti in the DC area.  Rusty has also taught jazz history courses, at Georgetown University and American University, for many years; during the school year some evenings when you tune in his program Rusty will be playing selections that serve as quiz or test subjects for his students.  So its safe to say that many in DC have been educated by Rusty Hassan’s broadcasts, whether they were part of his formal classes, or part of his jazz university of the streets.

After WDCU, the former radio outlet of the University of the District of Columbia and a bastion of jazz radio, was hastily sold in the mid-90s by the university to CSpan Radio, leaving the once relatively jazz radio-rich nation’s capital region with WPFW as its sole jazz beacon, Rusty Hassan was the first of ‘DCU’s fine raft of programmers to land a show on ‘PFW.  He can currently be heard at 89.3 FM (or on wpfw.org) on Monday evenings 7-9pm, where he serves up scrumptious portions of classics and new releases and welcomes all manner of artist interview subjects onto the airways. 

The Independent Ear posed a simple question to Rusty about the whys & wherefores of his jazz broadcasting philosophy.  As you’ll read, it didn’t take much…

Before I get into how I program my show, I think some background would be appropriate.  I started broadcasting as a student at Georgetown University on WGTB-FM in the 1960s.  I became very involved with avant garde jazz, or as it was called then, The New Thing.  Noah Howard was one of the first artists that I interviewed.  I recently dug up the test pressing of his “Live at Judson Hall” Lp that he gave me to play, in tribute to his passing. 

I would play John Coltrane’s Ascension and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz without hesitation [on-air].  I was an early and ardent supporter of the AACM.  Joseph Jarman’s “As If It Were The Seasons” was something I played on WGTB before I went to Paris in 1969.  There I met a lot of cutting edge musicians, such as Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, Leroy Jenkins, and took their recordings back to the States to play on the air.

In the 1970s when I was on WAMU-FM I was part of a dramatic shift in music programming on radio from AM to FM.  I grew up listening to top 40 radio where there was talk and commercials between each song.  Jazz programmers such as Symphony Sid and Mort Fega in New York, and Felix Grant in DC, worked in this format.  On non-commercial FM stations we were allowed to play long pieces and blend sets of music in ways that could be very creative.  The so-called underground radio format worked as well for jazz as it did for rock.

When Duke Ellington passed, the program director asked me to do a four-hour special tribute.  I mixed in interviews with Duke that Jack Towers provided.  When Martin Williams called in to complement the show I knew I was doing something right. 

In the latter part of the decade WAMU asked me to submit program listings for the monthly guide.  Primarily using [artists’] birthdays I did a series of musical biographies of major artists; some, like Miles, would get two shows.  Then I did a parallel or contrasting careers of artists such as Gigi Gryce and Ernie Henry.  The one I did on James Moody and Sonny Stitt was aired just days before Stitt’s passing.  I gave Pam Stitt the tape of that show.  [Editor’s note: Sonny & Pam Stitt’s daughter Katea Stitt is Music Director at WPFW and a longtime station programmer.]

Interviews have been an important part of my programming.  On my show on WAMU in the 70s and 80s I interviewed Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Sun Ra, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Hutcherson, Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan among numerous others.  Although I started interviewing jazz greats before Fresh Air came on the air, I consider Terry Gross as a good role model on how to conduct an on-air interview, recognizing that hers are edited before they’re aired.  She knows how to elicit information that is masterful.  Check out her discussion with Sonny Rollins as an example.

One of the more memorable interviews I had on WAMU was with John Malachi, the pianist with Billy Eckstine in 1944/45.  He had a great story about jamming with Charlie Parker on “Cherokee” after a performance with the band as he was leaving the studio.  I thought I have to get more of these great stories from my close friend, but he died of a heart attack two days later.

WAMU dropped my show in 1987.  The next decade was a wonderful ten years on WDCU Jazz90.  The license for the station had been given to the University of the District of Columbia by Georgetown University when the Jesuits were upset with the radicals running WGTB.  So here I was broadcasting on the same spot on the dial, 90.1 FM, that I had been on in the 1960s.  Again I had complete freedom in choosing music and how I programmed it.

When WDCU went off the air in 1967 I was the first programmer to come over to WPFW.  I have had a strong connection with the station from the beginning.  I attended planning meetings before [WPFW] came on the air [33 years ago].  I was a frequent guest on the air and hosted fundraising concerts (WAMU management never made an issue of it).  Legendary WPFW programmers such as Jerry “The Bama” Washington and Nap Turner were friends of mine beforee they got shows on the station.  So WPFW has been an important part of my life for 33 years.

Next time: Rusty Hassan talks about how he programs his shows.

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