Jazz Radio Commentaries: Rusty Hassan pt. 2

Rusty Hassan has a kind of mystery about his look in this photo, but though he is indeed a nuanced gentleman, there seems little mystery about this thoughtful, even-tempered man-about-jazz; he remains one of DC’s go-to guys when it comes to the history of the music and his weekly program on WPFW is a pillar of that station’s programming.  In part two of our virtual conversation Rusty discusses the nuts & bolts of how he assembles his programs.

Programming my show involves selecting a mix of new releases, CDs by artists coming to town, and classic recordings by earlier jazz artists.  I have a black leather backpack that I rotate in recordings as artists come in & out of DC and new and reissue recordings become available.  (As I get older. it becomes more and more tempting to use a slip case as [others] do, but I’m slow to change.)  I will often feature an artist on or around his or her birthday and will certainly mark the passing of a musician.  The recent death of Marion Brown had me searching for the Lps that I brought back from Europe in 1969.  I will have selected some of the music prior to the show but even those selections may change once I get to the studio and do my show.

Saxophonist Marion Brown’s recent passing sent Rusty back to the archives

     I program sets of music mixing the new music with classic jazz.  There is a lot of improvisation in my programming and I like having a lot of music to select from, thus the backpack of CDs.  For better or worse I was a pioneer in playing [consecutive] different versions of a song, frequently mixing in a vocal with an instrumental.  I still may do that in a set, but not as often as I used to.  I almost always include “A Word from Bird” because when I discovered Charlie Parker’s music as a young teenager I found out I was born on the day he recorded “Now’s The Time” andd “Koko,” and I took that as my Zodiac sign.  Unless the recording is by a big band I will announce the musicians on a date.  If identified, soloists from large ensembles will get a nod.  Jazz is primarily a soloist’s art form and [The Independent Ear’s] recent post about the lack of information about musicians on recently released recordings raises issues that are important for the artists on the dates.

     Years ago I had a conversation with the late Felix Grant [one of DC’s hallowed, classic jazz radio voices] about programming jazz on the radio.  We had both come to WDCU at the same time.  He had been on commercial radio for over forty years while I had been on non-commercial public stations for two decades.  He said that he was reveling in the freedom he had in playing cuts that lasted overe six or seven minutes.  He programmed his show, however, the way he had for years on WMAL, using a stop watch and scripting commentary in advance.  I continued to play sets that featured performances lasting twice as long and programmed while doing the show [the art of radio programming improvisation].  We both agreed that it was important to impart information about the musicians and to feature artists that were coming into town.

   The recent posts by Arturo Gomez, Jim Szabo, and Miyuki Williams in this series demonstrate that there is a continuity in jazz radio programming that goes back to what Felix Grant was doing in the 1950s and 60s, and indeed back to what Symphony Sid was doing in the 1940s.  The programmers present new music by artists who need to have their recordings heard by a general audience and to let that audience know that these artists are performing in their communities. 

     Craig Taylor in his comments [in response to previous posts in this jazz radio programmers series] raises interesting and important issues about the state of jazz radio in a changed media and technological environment, but he fails to see the answers to the questions he raised contained within the comments of Gomez, Szabo and Williams.  They all stress the connection to their local communities that are important for the musicians that are performing in those communities.  Sirius XM features great jazz but won’t feature the jazz artist performing at Blues Alley or Twins Jazz this week.  I love listening to my iPod while riding my bicycle; the shuffle or genius function does an incredible job selecting music from the thousands of tunes available, but it won’t let me know who is the tenor soloist on “I’ll Remember April”, nor will it introduce me to something new that I don’t download myself.  And it certainly won’t let me know that Mulgrew Miller is playing with Anat Cohen at the Kennedy Center.  The internet has made music easily available for those seeking it out.  Good jazz radio programmers let their audiences know what to seek out.

     Jazz radio has certainly been hit hard in the 21st century.  There are far fewer stations broadcasting jazz but those that continue to do so play an important function in the survival of the music as a viable art form.  Musicians in New York depend on WBGO to inform listeners about gigs while listeners in Denver will hear their new recordings on KUVO.  I still learn new things about the music from Bobby Hill on WPFW or old things from Rob Bamberger on WAMU.  Arturo Gomez put it very well when he said jazz radio is alive and striving.  Jazz radio is important and relevant because it connects musicians and their music to local communities while reaching a different and potentially world wide audience through internet streaming and podcasts.  The economics of doing so on public, listener supported stations make it difficult but not impossible, still important and not irrelevant.  I am proud to have done my small part in letting listeners in Washington, DC hear the music of artists deserving to be heard and will continue to do so as long as jazz radio is “alive and striving.”

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