Some well-to-do friends of mine purchased at a charity auction recently a chance to play disk jockey for an hour on WBGO in Newark which is, I believe, the most listened to jazz radio station in the world. Since they aren’t that much into jazz, they promptly passed the opportunity on to me as a kind of belated 65th birthday present. I’ve been told to expect a call soon to discuss my “playlist” which can run no longer than 52 minutes. My problem, of course, is how to distill more than 50 years worth of listening into such a short time period. So, here’s what I’m thinking; I’ll choose music that is not necessarily what I think are the “greatest hits” but music that means something personal to me.
For example, in the early 50s when I was growing up on a hill side farm in the heart of Appalachia, the outside world was a long way off. But, a magical thing happened just after sundown every day, after the local low-watt radio stations had signed off for the day. From out of the darkness came the 50,000-watt clear channel stations like WBZ in Boston, WOR in New York, WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville (home of the Grand Ole Opry). Sometime around the age of 12 or 13, I discovered a disk jockey named Sid McCoy on WCFL (The Voice of Labor) in Chicago. Sid played jazz. I was hooked. Sid was a big fan of Dinah Washington who he invariably described as the former Ruth Jones of Chicago, Illinois. So, my first pick is Dinah singing, live, the Bessie Smith tune Backwater Blues with Max Roach, Wynton Kelly and Paul West laying down the groove.
Okay, that’s about three minutes so how much time do I have left? The first jazz album I ever bought (and it probably cost $3) was Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea. The recorded sound is dreadful but it’s a masterpiece anyway so I’ll need something from that. Oh, when I was in college I got to interview Dave Brubeck backstage at the fabulous Keith-Albee Theater in Huntington, West Virginia, around the time that Take Five became one of those rare jazz hits. So, there’s Take Five or Blue Rondo a la Turk.
Then, of course, there is the story I told you earlier about my first trip to New York in 1963 and going to the Five Spot Cafe and seeing Charles Mingus threaten a patron with a butcher knife. I don’t think I mentioned that on my second night in town I went to Birdland, which in recent years was a strip joint called Flash Dancers, at 53rd and Broadway, and heard Stan Getz. At some point in the evening, he said something about a new Brazilian record he had just done and invited a cute lady name Astrid something or other to come up from the audience to sing and that was the first time I ever heard “Girl From Ipenema.”
And–I think this was the second time I visited New York– I went to see Thelonious Monk play at the Village Gate and when the lights came up my former college roommate, who lived in Nutley, New Jersey, was sitting across the table from me.
Okay, okay, I’m hurrying. Let’s see. There was the 40th Anniversary Woody Herman concert at Carnegie Hall which brought together all the greatest saxophone players on the planet, except one. But I saw Dexter lots of times when he returned from Europe–the most memorable being a Carnegie Hall gig with an another expat named Johnny Griffin. They did an incredible number on the Sonny Stitt-Gene Ammons “vehicle” (as Dexter called it) The Blues–Up and Down. It was recorded but it’s nearly 20 minutes long so I can’t play that.
I’m hurrying. I’m hurrying. Oscar, Joe Pass, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee’s last public performance. This is tough.
I do know how I want to end, though. For 20 years or so, Steve Lacy’s mother Sophie was my next door neighbor and chicken soup connection. Steve was a lovely man and a wonderful composer and musician who died way too soon–not long after moving back to the States after living many years in Paris. Before she moved away to assisted living, Sophie gave me all of the postcards Steve had sent her over the years when he was on the road. (Note to self: find a library or museum to give them to). My favorite Lacy performance is the Mingus number Reincarnation of a Lovebird on the Paris Blues album that he did with Gil Evans on piano and electric organ. Couple of old cats in a studio in Paris cookin’ up a little masterpiece. Here’s a snippet.
What do you mean my time is up? My friends are going to have to spring for another hour.
UPDATE: So, what would you play in your 52 minutes and why?