The Independent Ear

Programming music radio in pandemic times

Several weeks ago, back when this country first took our current Covid-19 global pandemic seriously, with governors issuing stay-at-home orders, one of my jazz radio colleagues wrote a Facebook post asking how we were individually and as stations going about conducting our broadcasts. My comment confirmed that I was one of a number of music programmers at my station who continue to report to the studio to conduct our programs, further detailing why.

In my case, I’m a weekly, late night programmer at WPFW 89.3FM (streaming live: serving the Washington, DC metro region, aka the DMV. For those not familiar, WPFW is the Nation’s Capital region’s member of the Pacifica network, the last bastion of left side radio in the broadcasting world, and all programmers are volunteers. WPFW, whose programming principle is “Jazz & Justice Radio”, has always been the most music show-friendly station in the Pacifica realm, broadcasting a potent mix of public affairs, community affairs, and political opinion talk shows, and music shows encompassing a mix of jazz, blues, old school R&B, Latin music, new school (hip hop, house, club music), Caribbean and African music. It should also be noted that WPFW has no playlist(s), and no studio library; we programmers bring our own choices of music. At the hour of my jazz/jazz-informed music program, Ancient/Future Radio – Wednesdays 10pm-midnight – there are no station personnel onsite, so no “strangers” or outsiders scurrying in and out of the studio conducting station business, and the station has established a strict sanitizing protocol for our programmers. At that hour, my only human contact is the programmer who hands off to me, and the following programmer I hand off to.

So I’ve continued to conduct my program from the WPFW studio. There was definitely some initial trepidation, particularly from my family, but for me my program has become a bit of a weekly salvation of sorts. It’s pretty much the only time all week I venture away from my neighborhood, driving to downtown DC peacefully at that hour from my Maryland home amidst vastly reduced traffic. I’ve also noticed that my weekly show planning is a bit more meticulous and perhaps occupies a tad more of my thought process than prior to these pandemic times. I’ve also noted how many of my fellow WPFW programmers continue to dutifully report to the studio to conduct their programs – also tacitly recognizing that our community radio station, though somewhat powerful in our broadcast reach, does not possess the financial largesse to equip every programmer (and the great majority of us are weekly programmers) with remote programming resources. With all that in mind, I reached out to my fellow WPFW music programmers to check their collective temperatures on programming from the WPFW studios in these pandemic times. Each responded to the same two questions. Here’s what they had to say…

Craig Williams
Program/day/time/theme: Morning Brew – Classic Jazz Edition/Thursdays/5:00-8:00 a.m. I play predominately straight-ahead jazz from bebop to recent releases with occasional forays further afield to other sub-genres within the jazz idiom, as appropriate for any given show. Likewise, I might delve into blues, R &B, gospel and other related genres to augment the straight-ahead jazz. Many shows have a specific concept , two or three. Others, I simply play music I feel my listeners will appreciate.

Why do you continue to report to WPFW to conduct your program?
In no particular order, a) I don’t really feel I have the production capabilities to produce a high quality show from home, b) going to the studio provides some semblance for normalcy, otherwise sorely lacking these days, c) I can still take calls from listeners, and d) I feel given the disinfecting protocols in place, it is safe to do so. I trust my fellow programmers to follow those protocols.

What’s your sense of what you’re providing to our community in so doing?
Even in the best of times, people have so many music and entertainment options. One can play LPs, CDs, streams, internet radio, podcasts, downloads, movies, etc., etc. What local, live, broadcast radio provides, which the other options do not, is a sense of community, and WPFW, as a community owned and operated radio station, provides such community better than any other station in our listening area. It is a true honor, privilege and pleasure to be part of that community, even if it now requires gloves, masks, quantities of disinfectant spray, and knowing how far away is six feet. As always, I try to program a well curated show that brings a sense of education and connoisseurship to the music that both my listeners and I truly love. Nowadays, I also try to play music the audience will find comforting, soothing, spiritual, and contemplative; whatever they may need to help get through these isolating times and feel that sense of oneness with the community. Am I succeeding? Is it working? Judging by an increase in the average number of online listeners and the phone calls I receive while on-air, I certainly hope so.

Jim Byers
Latin Flavor Classic Edition, Sunday’s 6:00pm-8:00pm, Palladium Ballroom-era Mambo, Cha Cha Cha & Latin-jazz

The Station staff has gone to great lengths to plan for cleaning the Studio, and as a Sunday night host there is nobody around except the host just before/after you. So, that helps. More personally…, there’s nothing like the sense of connection with the audience via a live studio broadcast. I made the decision 24 years ago that if it was worth doing, I would do the radio program as if I were being paid. Continuing through the COVID-19 crisis is an unexpected extension of that.

Furthermore, as a programmer I find that the ‘pressure’ of giving a ‘live-performance’ enhances my creativity with what I present to the audience. There are moments of inspiration that occur ‘in the moment’ which – while possibly approximated, cannot be fully realized in a pre-recorded show. If while playing a descarga by the Alegre All-Stars, I hear saxophonist Jose “Chombo” Silva sample a few measures of “You Do Something to Me,” and realize I’ve got the tune in my bag on Georgie Auld’s LP “Sax Gone Latin”… BOOM! An inspired transition! I may or may not have made that connection in a pre-recorded set

As a programmer you always hope that you’re having an impact. While tragic, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the immense value of traditional radio. People are leaning on WPFW to help them cope with the reality of quarantine. On a deeper level, I think that during a pandemic (and also a political era) when everything we once thought of as normal and ‘certain’ has been upended, it’s comforting to have ‘that one thing’ that still sounds and feels ‘the same’. For many, that one thing is WPFW.

Coincidentally, earlier this week I was made aware of commentary about my program by students at Boston College. For the last couple of years, their professor Jason McCool (a former DC resident, and still an avid listener) has incorporated listening to an evening or two or the Latin Flavor Classic Edition part of his “History of American Music’ class. For many, this is their first experience with ‘old school’ curated radio. Weaned in the efficient, impersonal randomness of Spotify, they are universally stunned by the ‘curated listening experience’ of a traditional radio show. They are amazed how the LFCE feels ‘personal’… like a conversation. Most have never listened to Latin music, certainly not mambos from 60 years ago, but they find themselves fascinated by the stories behind the tunes and drawn into the music. Some of the Latino students are transported back to childhood dinners at grandpa’s house with Machito or Tito Puente blaring from the console stereo. Proudly, several of the students have become regular listeners long after their assignment has ended.

I think this ‘outside view’ from new, young listeners provides an insightful window on the impact of all WPFW hosts, especially during this time. The genre or era of music is actually quite secondary to the thirst for an authentic experience, which is what WPFW provides. My hope is that this time at home re-introduces more and more listeners to the magic of Live Radio.

Dr. Nick
Southern Soul Rumpin’, Saturdays 12 noon-2pm, Southern soul/R&B
Management has insured us with the supplies that are in studio that safety precautions are being met. The programmer before me does a thorough job wiping down equipment (I’m there to watch) and I in turn do the same for the show following mine. My drive in and from the station is done with a mask on.

Having been designated an essential employee is not new to me. I spent 38 years as an Air Traffic Controller. My entire career, I’ve been an essential employee. Many years ago, as the Supervisor on duty, I stayed behind after evacuating the tower due to a fire in an equipment room a few floors below. In the event of some major breaking news, who’s going to tell the people? If they’re listening to the radio, they hear it from us first.

The fact that management has given us the choice of doing our shows live or staying at home shows their support for the workforce. We have the choice. I choose to go in.

Chris Deproperty
Don’t Forget the Blues, Thursday, 12noon-1:00pm
I don’t go into the station during the day. I prepare it at home.

Even though I don’t go into the station during the day, people want to hear the Blues, fresh every week, as a diversion from what’s going on, although I do have some Containment songs.

Candy Shannon
Friday Morning Brew – 5:00am-8:00am. Theme: Jazz Matters.

I continue to travel to the station because I never thought about not coming in. As long as I’m well. I’ve been in live broadcasting for so many years, I’ve internalized the stricture that “the show must go on.“ For me, working in the studio is part of the show. I don’t have a studio space at home. Occasionally, l’ve recorded voiceovers in a closet to a portable recorder; not conducive for a 3-hour music program. In this case, ‘PFW makes it doable. Management requires of programmers a comprehensive safety routine including masks and plenty of disinfectant. One person in the studio at a time. That’s usual for me. I relieve one person and one person relieves me. And, an important part of my weekly routine remains intact in this time of Covid 19. Truth – I come in to the station because I can. I enjoy it, look forward to it and would miss it if I couldn’t.

I hope the consistency and reliability of WPFW’s hosts and programmers is important to our listeners. Many of our hosts broadcast from home for excellent reasons. Social distancing is an issue for public affairs program hosts and guests. Technology today makes it possible for the home-based radio show to sound professional. But, someone still must be in the studio to make this happen. I’ve taken a few calls from listeners who express appreciation for my program and the station as a whole. We are what radio does best – a consistent, dependable, regular part of daily lives, with its unique programming and we sound good!

Mojugba Radio, Thursdays 2:00am-5:00am
The theme of the program is actually in the name MOJÙGBÁ Radio. MOJÙGBÁ is a Yoruba word meaning, “I Give Homage.” It’s also a sacred Yoruba prayer and ritual giving homage to the ancestral spirits and to the Òrísá (African Deities manifesting in nature). MOJÙGBÁ Radio also in itself is a ritual, and was spawned from a dance party I started February 15, 2013, out of a vegan cafe in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY. The music (from very earthy and organic, to deep atmospheric and cosmic Afro Futuristic) has specific elements of the African Indigenous Diaspora (soul, uplifting, telling a story/taking a journey, and danceability). The lines dividing the genres of soul, jazz, funk, fusion, house music, Detroit techno, rare grooves, and beyond are blurred completely out with the intention of expansion.

I continue to report to the WPFW studio (for as long as I am able) out of a sense of keeping a live element factor to the program. Being able to interact with callers, even interacting with those on my social media who are listening in real time.

I see myself providing musical healing, uplifting consciousness, much like in the spirit of one of my all time favorite songs by one of my all time favorite artists Expansions by Lonnie Listen Smith & The Cosmic Echoes. I believe that I am here to expand minds, unplug from the matrix, and my intention is to reflect that through the music, not only as a Disc Jockey but also as a Radio Programer. Most important, bringing music, good music new, old, forgotten, seen and unseen, to the music lovers and enthusiasts not only locally but worldwide.

Miles Willis
Milestones, Tuesday mornings 2:00am to 5:00am; A presentation of jazz which features all styles and eras, with the music of Miles Davis as its motif.
My age and ethnicity make me at least statistically more vulnerable to infection, illness and death from COVID-19. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, I continue to broadcast live in studio for solace and relief, in the midst of the near cataclysmic disruption of normality and routine in all other areas of my life. Broadcasting is my ONLY activity that remains largely unchanged since the onset of the coronavirus.

I feel an even greater sense of responsibility and commitment toward our community of listeners. The largely uninterrupted stability and consistency of WPFW’s programming, is most likely one of the few connections to their pre-coronavirus lives that they can still cling to. This ‘new normal’ has highlighted and strengthened the interdependence between us and the community.

Tom Cole
G-Strings, Sunday 9:00am-12noon, stringed instrument music of one sort or another.
I feel a responsibility to the audience and the musicians. People seem to enjoy the show and I like sharing music with them.

Maybe [listeners are getting] a little enjoyment or enlightenment. I hope I’m introducing them to music they’ve maybe not heard before. I also feel it’s important to support area musicians – there’ve been and continue to be a lot of great guitar players from around here. That’s why I think it’s important to announce concerts or club gigs – to give the players some attention and let listeners know what’s available. I hope [live music performances] return some day.

Rusty Hassan
Late Night Jazz, Thursdays from 10:00pm-midnight. Classic and Contemporary jazz
I continue to program my show in the WPFW studio during the Covid-19 crisis because the protocols established make it a safe environment and I gain solace in sharing the music I love with the audience. I come to the studio because I doubt if I could do it from home. My programming style is very improvisational. Although I select the artists I will feature in advance, I frequently change my mind on which recording I’ll play, even if I had a particular composition in mind for days. I can’t explain it. I’ve been programming this way for over 50 years. I couldn’t do this at home with a laptop.

I think it is very important for WPFW to keep the music on the air during this time of crisis. The passing of Wallace Roney really hit me hard because I knew him since he was a teenager. Having the opportunity to share his music on the air gave me solace. Then It was Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, Lee Konitz, Henry Grimes… artists that our audience would want to hear. Although it wasn’t from Coronavirus, the passing of Bill Withers certainly had to to be memorialized and his Soul Shadows with the Crusaders became a theme. Beyond remembering those who have left us it is just as important to let the audience know about those artists who are live streaming and to feature their recordings. I am extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to share the music of those Soul Shadows on my mind and the artists who are performing today who need our support to let the audience know they are still on the planet.

Bill Wax
Roots and Fruits, 2:00pm-4:00pm Saturdays, Classic blues
I have been doing radio for 40 years and throughout that time it was the media that was always there no matter what the circumstances were. This is no different. I believe folks appreciate a live host in times like these. I also get a great deal of satisfaction feeling like I was making a difference for in people’s lives no matter how small a difference it maybe. Plus I do love what I do on the show.

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Job one: audience development

Open Sky Jazz Commentary #1
By Willard Jenkins

A constant refrain from many of us who love jazz music and simply cannot understand why more of our peers (and sometimes even folks living under our same roof!) don’t seem to appreciate the music – or at least not with the same level of passion as do we the deeply immersed – is to search for systemic issues as the culprit.

We talk about what some see as the lack of sufficient venues dedicated to jazz (and Lord knows we currently face the challenge of the aftermath of our current pandemic and what that will mean to our cherished venues!). Others of us talk as though “jazz musicians just ain’t what they used to be”, a living-in-the-past mentality that more than a few of us cling to with great tenacity – ignoring the gifts today’s generation of jazz musicians have to offer. Still others of us see the criminal lack of music education in our public school systems as the major culprit for the neglect of jazz by larger audiences.

The late jazz master Max Roach, (in part inspired by the example of his godson, hip hop pioneering media figure and scenester Fab 5 Freddy (Braithwaite), and other learned folks postulated that the birth and subsequent rise of hip-hop coincided with the draconian Reagan-era cuts to pubic school arts education. The prevailing wisdom being that kids are innately blessed with the will to make music, and when those cuts meant that succeeding generations of school kids would not have such easy access to instruments in the schools as did, let’s say the Boomer generation, they found other means of musical expressions in a kind of found vehicles arena – exploring turntable technology and spoken word expressions.

As I see it, the most critical issue facing jazz music continues to be audience development, the need to grow the jazz audience to a level that includes those additional potential jazz audience members who simply have not been sufficiently exposed to the music enough to become regular and appreciators and even avid consumers of the music.

Having taught jazz survey and jazz history courses on the university level (including Cleveland State University, and Kent State University, my alma mater) I never fail to be amazed at the number of people who simply have not been exposed to this music, and certainly not in ways that would encourage them to become jazz audience members.

Let me give you an example. For the most recent jazz courses I’ve taught, each final exam is an essay test that has included a final question for which each student respondent is guaranteed the maximum number of points – in other words it’s a bit of a throwaway question – but certainly one with an ulterior motive. That question simply asks the students what has this course meant to you? It never ceased to amaze me how many – and these are college students I’m talking about – who respond with words to the effect that, I never knew this music existed! Or, this course has opened up a new world of music for me! That’s the power of jazz to open up the ears of those new folks who are simply not exposed to the music.

Then there are those who, without even investigating the music, think jazz is too complicated, or is somehow old folks music. Yes, I admit that listening to jazz does most often requires degrees of deeper listening immersion than most popular music commands. But why place that familiar stricture that I just don’t understand that music jazz music? On the other hand, there are certainly plenty of folks who have the aptitude for deeper levels of listening.

Some folks think you have to know something to enjoy jazz. I remember a great line from the late poet Sekou Sundiata, who once said when he was young that he didn’t truly appreciate John Coltrane because he mistakenly thought you ‘had to belong to something.’ Yes, there is that kind of insider perspective among some jazz fans. And let’s admit it, there’s also a kind of I know something that you don’t… attitude among some jazz enthusiasts. But please don’t let that stop you from checking out jazz.

In an interview I did with him for a forthcoming book, the jazz critic Gene Seymour said, “Jazz is neither a trip to the dentist, or a complex code whose secrets are out of reach to all but either select or mutant beings.”

We have extraordinary jazz education – perhaps the strongest sector of the jazz community is its global education system – we have more than enough proficient to excellent level jazz artists vying to play this music, from around the world – and we do indeed have a decent amount of jazz venues striving to present this music we call jazz. What we need more than anything is to grow the audience for jazz, if only to engage enough people to support the careers of these young musicians emerging on the scene – at least once we get beyond the necessities of our current social distancing era.

We must further develop the audience for jazz through simple exposure; we must grow the audience for jazz so that there is an expansion, an expansion of the number of venues that will employ the legion of jazz musicians playing this music well who are steadily arriving from education programs, thus encouraging musicians to practice and sustain this art form, to grow the number of stages for musicians to perform – a factor further challenged by whatever brave new world we face once we have gotten beyond the current pandemic. That’s the biggest issue facing the growth of jazz music… audience development!

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Remembering Geri Allen

Geri Allen interview 5/21/99
In the late ’90s I was engaged by Betty Carter and 651Arts to serve as a consultant to the program Jazz Ahead, which Betty was laser-like focused on developing as a learning environment for young musicians, and which at the time was hosted by 651Arts at the classic former Majestic Theatre (now the Harvey Theatre in honor of Brooklyn Academy of Music founder Harvey Lichtenstein) at 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn and in its current 21st century iteration is hosted by the Kennedy Center. In ’99, among the teaching professionals for Jazz Ahead were Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and Geri Allen. This interview with Ms. Allen was conducted with that Jazz Ahead teaching/mentoring/learning environment in mind, relative to how Geri developed her craft.

Willard Jenkins: Where did you begin your study of this music?
Geri Allen: From listening; my dad’s record collection was a source of information for me as a kid, he was a big fan. So I would say hearing that music around me all the time was the organic beginnings of it. I had started playing the piano at around 7, I think from having the music in me that way, although I was playing classical piano and taking lessons in that, I still would always go off on my own and try to figure out things, exercise my ear muscles, without even really knowing what I was doing. I think it was in me.

What kind of records did your parents have?
Charlie Parker was the main staple in the collection. In my classical lessons I was fortunate to have a teacher that wasn’t intimidated by jazz, so when she saw my interest she supported it, she didn’t try to purge it like a lot of [classical] teachers. I’ve heard stories from friends of mine that [teachers] would tell them things like they were gonna lose their technique if they tried to play jazz, they discouraged it and told them it would interfere – I hate this term – with their legitimate technique. My teacher wasn’t like that at all, she was very open, and even though she knew nothing about [jazz] she supported the creative process I was going through.

At what point did you come into direct contact with professional jazz musicians?
In high school; I started as a freshman at Cass Tech in 9th grade. Right away the premier ensemble to be associated with was the jazz ensemble, and there were a lot of really good ensembles. I had already made a decision that I wanted to be a professional musician, and jazz was my vehicle. Even though I was studying a lot of different things I was trying to learn to be a professional, which meant that I would have to cross over genres – at least that was what Marcus Belgrave was telling me. Donald Byrd was another person who was around Cass, his alma mater. He came back and did things with us students; we did “Cristo Redentor” with him live, and he helped us raise money to travel to Australia. And I performed in the madrigal group, in the orchestra, the harp and vocal group (which Dorothy Ashby came out of) and just a really rich environment. But the jazz ensemble was one of the most competitive.

Trumpet & teaching master Marcus Belgrave was a powerful early influence on young Geri Allen

What other professional musicians, besides Marcus Belgrave and Donald Byrd, had an impact on you in those years?
I would say Harold McKinney, Kenny Cox, Roy Brooks… I played in a group called Endangered Species with George Goldsmith and it was a great time for a young person because all of them were available and they were especially supportive of that. If you were there for the music, they were there for you.

Endangered Species was one of your earliest bands outside of school?
I played in Roy Brooks’ band Artistic Truth. Marcus [Belgrave] is the one that I really spent the most time with.

So he had the most impact on your training?

Obviously it was a rich environment for you to learn, in Detroit.
Things like [independent Detroit jazz record label] Strata was going, and the musicians were really self-empowered, and the community was really strong and loved the music. There were places outside of the mainstream circle where music was happening all the time. We used to have a jam session at Northwestern High School, with Ernie Rogers, and we used to be there until 4 and 5 in the morning. All of us aspiring players would be there every Saturday; that was real important to be there. There were a lot of different things that kept you going.

Those organized jam sessions were obviously very important to your development, but those kinds of situations are not available now as much as they were then. Many of the jazz musicians that are arriving now come solely from the conservatory. What do you think is missing from their training if they aren’t able to be involved in that kind of jam session, nurturing environment?
I don’t think it’s unfortunate just for the new generation of players, I think its unfortunate for us as a [jazz] community. I think we all need it, and I think the listeners that are involved in coming out to hear those jams gained a lot from that too. I think the tilt on it generally is that it’s the young players coming out that miss out, and that’s true. Something like Betty [Carter] created [Jazz Ahead] is a [positive alternative, although we really still need those kinds of environments in our community. I think Jazz Ahead is an opportunity for them to rub elbows with the musicians, the great musicians, in the same way we grew up being able to do it. We could do it more often, on a day to day or weekly basis, which is what I think people need to be able to do to perfect their craft, but at least they get a taste of what it is; which will hopefully inspire them to go out and maybe even find ways amongst like minds – even though they’re young too, but we found ways to rehearse at each other’s house and play each other’s music and work things out. Maybe that’ll inspire them to maybe search out the people that are there. In every town there are great musicians and these people really get a lot of energy being able to share that knowledge.

At what point did you come in contact with Betty Carter?
I first met her at Howard University, around ’75-’76, and she had a great band with Kenny Washington, Curtis Lundy, and Khalid Moss. It was really exciting to watch her perform, she inspired a lot of us. We were all there, everybody came away with a real big excitement – she brought that. I remember not really talking to her, but just the impact of that.

Then I met her maybe three or four years later in Pittsburgh. Nathan [Davis] had told her that I was a musician who admired her work. She was sitting on a panel and I don’t think she knew me from Adam, but she invited me to join her on the panel, and I thought that was really generous since I didn’t really feel like she knew my work. But I think she was trying to encourage me. We had an opportunity to talk, we had lunch, and we started developing a rapport. I remember her piano player was late for the sound check for the performance, so she invited me up to sit in, and that was the first time I played with her.

How did your relationship develop and evolve through the years?
She was always really supportive and positive. Once I got to New York it took me some time to get on my feet. I started doing some things as a leader in ’82, which is when I got out of [University of] Pittsburgh; ’83-’84 I started being able to take my own trio out. I would see her at different places and she was always real positive. Her music was always a source of inspiration for me.

It wasn’t until the late 80s that I actually hooked up with her; she managed me for three years under BetCar. So Ora Harris and Betty took care of me and that was a major turning point in my career, in terms of legitimizing me. I did lots of things with her: we did duos, lots of performances just us. We performed in Europe. We did a duo on ”Droppin’ Things” and people started calling she and I to do duo concerts and we did a number of things. I think from that experience, when the idea came up to do the quartet with Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave [Holland] she put me in there. That was a great opportunity for me to be out there with this strong situation, to be on the road with Betty. We did all of the summer festivals [1994].

Even though you were working with Betty with very experienced musicians, there was still a lot of mentoring?
With [Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland] too. They both worked with Betty when they were up and coming players. They both respected her greatly and so they looked up to her in the same way I did. On the bandstand every night there was something unusual that would occur. I came away from that environment with the tools to be a much better player. There were real specific things that she would help me to make it to the next step as a player; that environment was key.

So I guess you were learning from Jack and Dave as well.
Definitely; to play with Jack and Dave, they have that quality that makes you have to rise. I had played with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian in a great trio environment; and I got to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, which was a great trio environment. Playing with Jack and Dave prepared me for that environment. I look forward to that opportunity to play with them again because I came away a better player.

Considering those and your earlier experiences what’s your sense of younger musicians learning from older jazz musicians?
There’s no other way [laughs]. It’s like what is your sense of breathing air…. you have to breath, there’s no other choice. I think that’s why [Jazz Ahead] is important. Most of the cultivating is going on in the universities, so I highly recommend that students today go to those places where great players are [teaching], because that’s gonna be their opportunity to kind of get a feeling of what that experience was of learning on the streets, and of coming up that way. I have always hoped that the scene will kind of turn around and there will be more such environments city to city so that the music can be thriving in the communities again. I know that there’s a demand for it because whenever you play for people that come around and they are really energized by the music, and you hear a lot of wishing that there was more available. With these young people coming up, their excitement has to help fuel that. There’s a great love for the music out there, and its missed, I hear it from people all the time.

Are there other mentors out there like Betty Carter that young musicians can learn about?
I think they are out there, and the more that they seek these people out, the more possibilities there will be for them. But there is a certain amount of homework involved in being put in a position like that. I speak from the standpoint of coming up in a place like Detroit, you were afforded the opportunity if you were serious and if you were really out there trying to get better. The discipline aspect of the arts and music is a necessity, it cultivates more than just your ability to play, it cultivates your personality, it helps you get a sense of what life is.

I know for certain that the public schools created that opportunity for me. I took private lessons, my parents made that possible for me so I’m very grateful for it. But I also had the opportunity to experience music daily in a very disciplined, organized, and inspired environment. I think that’s very fundamental, that every young person through their school system have that opportunity. I just hope there is more support of that, because that’ll make a big difference. Through the public schools you should be able to access the great musicians in the city that are just looking for the opportunity to share the music with young people. Somehow it has to be gotten across that this is a viable thing to do. I think that is a big way the music can thrive again, through the public schools, through searching out these musicians whether they have degrees or not, to come in there and share their knowledge and their years of experience.

How will you and Jack work with the Jazz Ahead student musicians for the June program, what kind of environment are you going to develop for them?
Creativity! It’ll be about making the music, it’s a hands on thing. You get in there and… just the process of polishing things and trying to get them to the performance level is the whole approach to how I learned. I’m going to work through this with great respect for Jack, of course. The ideas that he’ll bring in will be such a great opportunity for those kids. The idea is to use this as a workshop with a performance opportunity. Basically jazz is workshop, you’re in workshop for your whole life, honing your craft so you can get better.

What is the greatest legacy that Betty Carter left here for us?
Self-determination is a big one. She was always a person who was connected with her body, there was like a continuous… Betty was able to always be busy, always working, whether she had a major label behind her or not.

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Clairdee does Lena

The San Francisco Bay Area-based vocalist who goes by one name, Clairdee, is one of several very underrated jazz singers from that part of the country; two other faves from that fertile corner of the jazz world would include Madeline Eastman and Kitty Margolis. For her latest release A Love Letter to Lena Clairdee paints a loving, and at times fierce, biographical portrait of one of the most beloved artists of the 20th century, vocalist-actress-social activist Lena Horne, who certainly wore proudly the label race woman. Seldom considered in the pantheon of jazz singers, nonetheless Lena certainly earned her stripes in that arena, but tribute projects like this one are rare, which certainly prompted some questions for the delightful, exceedingly agreeable Clairdee.

You’ve declared that your “mission is to engage, uplift and build community through music – creating a narrative that inspires beyond the stage.” How specifically are you striving to meet that mission?

Respect, integrity, kindness, and compassion are the principles that guide my life’s journey and these principles are integral to everything I do — performing, my work as an educator, mentor, mother, wife, sister, friend, and as a fellow human being. I believe these principles can build community and bring about positive change. My parents taught me to strive for excellence versus perfection. Quality versus quantity. Purpose versus popularity.

My favorite quote is by Dr. Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel,” which is another way to describe my mission. The music I present is a reflection of who I am. It’s the way I carry myself onstage and off, and how I conduct my business. I want to make people feel good.

One of the more striking aspects of your new release, “A Love Letter to Lena,” are the spoken word interludes. Did you write those yourself, or where did you find those? What was your intentions in terms of including those spoken word interludes?

I believed the spoken interludes would help coalesce the music — bring Lena Horne to life, as it were — effectively putting the songs in context with various events from her life. I wrote the script based on anecdotes and quotes culled from my research over a 10-year period. Rather than me doing the narrative, my producer Jon Herbst and I agreed that having a voice different from mine would be an ideal and unique way to set the songs up. I knew immediately that my friend, actress/director/playwright Margo Hall, was the “voice” we were seeking.


So, I sent Margo the script with notes describing the mood I wanted conveyed in each interlude. When she came to the studio, Jon and I had her listen to the music to get the feel for the project, and together the three of us fine-tuned the script. My instincts were spot on. Margo nailed it!

I consider the spoken interludes, or more precisely vignettes, serve as mini-history lessons. Beyond Horne’s exceptional beauty and the song, “Stormy Weather”, I discovered that many people really didn’t know much about her — particularly her civil rights activities and struggles with discrimination or her close friendship with composer Billy Strayhorn.

Given Lena Horne’s long, multi-faceted and productive career, how did you approach coming up with a workable program of songs related to Lena for this record?

Lena sang a broad range of material and recorded 80 albums. So, there was a lot from which to choose. As in any project I present, I chose songs that resonated with me and fit into the concept of the album — songs that help illustrate the story of the woman — not the star — and her personal struggles, as well as her happiest times working at Cafe Society. With the exception of “Stand Up,” all of the songs on the recording were part of Lena’s extensive repertoire.

You’ve clearly taken your time with producing and assembling this release, when did you first come up with this viable idea and what was your process for putting this record together?

I have admired Lena Horne since I was four years old. My parents spoke of her with great reverence and instilled their admiration for her intelligence, dignity, talent and willingness to fight for what’s right in all of their eight children.

I started thinking seriously about putting together a tribute album to honor Horne back in 2009, which was two years after my mother passed and a year before Horne died. Over the next few years I researched songs, read books, watched video, movies, everything I could find about Lena. Among the songs I originally considered were the obvious standards, “Stormy Weather,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “The Man I love.

Then as a result of the 2016 election, a truly purposed approach to the project became apparent to me. I decided the album would reflect my parents’ hopes for their children through the lens of Lena’s efforts for civil rights and equality. And I decided to include a few songs that people may not be so familiar with. The process was pretty organic. Once I settled on the songs, things fell into place quite easily.

There is a very successful contemporary air about this record, as opposed to your efforts being more along the lines of a period treatment. What was your sense of producing the musical canvas on which to paint your portrait of Lena Horne?

It’s very risky business honoring an iconic artist. People have expectations about what songs should be included or may make comparisons to the original recordings.

I allowed the lyrics and Lena’s story to direct the arrangements and the flow of the project. I never thought about whether the overall feel of the album would be contemporary or a throw back or anything like that. In fact, when we were finished recording, I remember thinking, “Wait! There’s not one swing tune on here!”

Jon and I wanted to create a colorful and varied palette of rhythms, and instrumental and vocal textures throughout the album: rhythm section, tenor saxophone, trumpet, background vocals, and a string trio. I am over the moon to have my dear friend, violinist Regina Carter, featured on Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For”.

Perhaps what helps give the music a contemporary air is the addition of background vocals. The San Francisco Bay Area is a gold mine of great musical talent. And in keeping with the theme of community, Jon and I brought in some of the premier singers and instrumentalists to lend their talents. The background vocals are sung by three members of the a cappella group, SoVoSó, which is an offshoot of Bobby McFerrin’s group Voicestra.


What I know for sure is that the arrangements definitely reflect my musical personality and my love
and respect for Lena.

Overall, what has Lena Horne’s career and her example meant to you and your career development?

Thanks to my parents, Lena Horne’s examples of dignity, excellence, and commitment to fighting injustice are embedded in me.

Lena’s examples show me that it’s okay to follow my own path. That it’s okay to say, “No”. That my ideas are valid and valuable. We’re all in this together. It all comes back to my mission: to engage, uplift and build community through music — creating a narrative that inspires beyond the stage.

“A Love Letter to Lena” is my way of saying thank you to Lena for how she touched the lives of my family and me. It is also a way for me to honor my parents’ legacy and those of the millions of women and men who fought for civil rights. The lessons of their lives are resoundingly relevant right now and it is up to us to continue their work. This is my 21st century call to acknowledgement and action.

Considering the time you took to realize this project, what’s next on your artistic plate?

I envision an expanded evening-length concert designed for performing arts centers that is richly layered with history and multi-media, including vintage footage, photographs, additional original music, and film commissioned especially for the show.


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JImmy Katz also has an intrepid ear

One of the more prolific, keen-eyed photographers operating in the music arena is Jimmy Katz. Doubtless future generations will recognize Jimmy Katz in the pantheon of jazz photographers, alongside Herman Leonard, Chuck Stewart, Bill Gottlieb and other greats of the medium. Though his photography career continues to evolve, more recently Jimmy has seized opportunities to act on his passion for jazz recordings, through his own new imprint Giant Step Arts. At least one of his initial Giant Step Arts releases, drummer Jonathan Blake‘s 2-disc trio date Trion, garnered significant note in end-of-year 2019 critic’s polls – including significant spins on my own radio program, Ancient/Future Radio (Wednesday nights 10-midnight on WPFW in the DMV market, live streaming worldwide at The Giant Step Arts release from tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander is among his most extended form, original work yet recorded, and trumpeter Jason Palmer‘s Rhyme & Reason Giant Step Arts date is likewise among his most engrossing recorded work. With all this in mind, clearly some Independent Ear questions were in order.

With such a successful career as a photographer, what was it about making records that so intrigued you?
As you may know, I have been a photographer in the music business since 1991 and I have shot more than 200 magazine covers and been hired to participate in more than 550 recording projects. I got to work with a lot of my heroes and hear a lot of amazing music, but in this time I also saw the recorded music industry contract. As a lifelong record collector, I always had in the back of my mind, “Would some of these recordings be stronger if the musicians had recorded all in one room in front of fellow human beings?” I discussed this with a number of musicians who said they played better in “Live” situations, rather than in the studio. Musicians said that when playing “Live,” they could be more creative and play with greater freedom and abandon. Right now there are a lot of terrific studio recordings being made but some are quite controlled. It’s wonderful music, but I thought that I wanted to produce projects that would tap into the source of jazz, music that comes out of “Live” venues. Even if they are not the perfect venues to record in, they are often places where inspiration and creativity are at the highest level. Fans know that history remembers the “Great Performances” and many of those are “Live” concert recordings. So as an engineer I try to achieve good sound, but the real goal is to capture “Lightning in a Bottle,” the magic of an inspired “Live” performance. That is the focus of Giant Step Arts.

Almost three years ago I was approached by donors who wanted to have a positive impact on the jazz community. They realized that the record business was in a state of shambles and more importantly that musicians were not being properly compensated. Giant Step Arts, LTD is a unique 501(c)3 (editor’s note: a not-for-profit tax designation) and we don’t sell anything or own any music. We collaborate with each of the artists we choose to work with. For a music project, we pay the leader and everybody in the band for two nights of recording and a rehearsal, but the leader owns the masters, gets digital files to sell and gets 700 CDs to sell, free of charge. I engineer the “Live” dates, I mix and master with the legendary Dave Darlington and the visionary Ann Braithwaite does all our publicity and promotion. Dena (My wife) and I do all the photography and we design the CD packages as well. Within this framework the musicians can create music that is free of commercial constraints and all we ask is that the musicians make a profound artistic statement. In addition, we are not afraid of music that explores themes like social justice, racism, sexism, politics or the environment. Right now we have limited resources, so our projects are by invitation only.

Talk about the recordings you’ve made thus far on your Giant Step Arts label, and why you felt it was important to record those particular artists.
To be clear, Giant Step Arts is not a record label. We do what a record label does but we don’t sell anything. The musicians own the masters and get all the proceeds from the sales of their music. Also, we are trying to promote musicians who have already been validated by their peers, so we are looking for musicians who have a deep connection to other creative musicians of this era. The leader’s mission is to make a bold artistic statement with original material and that has a unifying theme. Jason Palmer, Johnathan Blake, Eric Alexander and Michael Thomas have all been wonderful to collaborate with. They have each put together all-star bands featuring the best and the brightest of this generation and they are presenting profound, original material.

The records you’ve made thus far have been live performance recordings. Will you continue to concentrate on live recordings?
“Live” recordings are the focus of what we do.

What are your recording plans for 2020?
We are releasing another double CD with the trumpeter Jason Palmer that is the music that he wrote for each of the paintings that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston 30 years ago. We are releasing it on March 18th 2020 the 30 anniversary of the theft. Later this spring we are releasing a project with the grammy nominated alto saxophone Michael Thomas that is inspired by new technology and in early summer we will release another project led by the great drummer Johnathan Blake.

We often partner with another New York City not-for-profit, The Jazz Gallery, and on May 21st & 22nd we are recording the powerhouse alto saxophonist Darius Jones who is doing a project called “In August of 1619.” As you know this is when the first African slaves landed in North America and Darius has written an extraordinary suite of music inspired by this event. We are also recording the great trumpet player and composer Marquis Hill in August. His project is called “Free To Be” which will include the fantastic, Jazzmeia Horn, Marcus Gilmore, Joel Ross and Junius Paul. Also in August we will be recording another Jason Palmer project with jazz giants, Mark Turner, Joel Ross, Ben Williams, and Nasheet Waits. With a micro level of support, on February 28th & 29th, we are collaborating on a project with “The Leap Day Trio” which is Matt Wilson, Mimi Jones and Jeff Lederer. It’s going to be the first “Live” record made in the newly opened Cafe Bohemia in 60 years. I am really excited about all of these projects.

What’s your overall sense of the jazz recording industry?
For a number of reasons, over the last 20 years, the income flow to musicians from recorded music has dwindled to a trickle. To make matters worse, if 43 million Pandora streams of “Happy” earned Pharrell Williams $2700, where does that leave jazz musicians who have far fewer streams? Streaming may be great for the streaming businesses and consumers, but with streaming, the individual who has created the music, has often been ELIMINATED from the revenue flow. This makes the act of delivering music through streaming, a profound and seminal event in the history of recorded music. In our small way, Giant Step Arts, is trying to create a model that is different. The income from recorded music may continue to be small, BUT WE WANT ALL OF THIS INCOME TO GO TO THE CREATORS OF THE MUSIC. Also, what we do is easily scaleable, so the more funds I can raise, the more musicians Giant Step Arts can help and the more artistic statements can be completed. I would encourage your readers to check out and to purchase our projects directly from the artists we work with.

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