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Jazz Revolution vs Radio Station Slashing Jazz

September 21, 2012

by Nat Hentoff 

In the history of jazz, as far as I’m aware, there’s never before been a sizable jazz community in an American city waging war against a public radio station gravely slashing its jazz program. On July 2, Boston’s prestigious WGBH FM, a co-creator of a number of national NPR programs, entirely removed Steve Schwartz’s show (on the air for nearly 27 years) and cut the Dean of New England jazz radio, Eric Jackson – a major WGBH asset for more than 30 years – from 8 PM to midnight Monday through Thursday, and 9 PM to midnight, Friday through Sunday.

In a protesting editorial, the Boston Globe (“Hot Air, Not Cool Jazz”), quoted Wynton Marsalis that jazz, “is music that really deals with what it means to be American” to justify the Globe’s stinging conclusion: “WGBH diminished its soul” (June 30, 2012).

What made this so shocking a decision to the jazz community in Boston and its environs is – as I documented in “Make Room for Boston in Jazz History” (JAZZed, July 2012) – the vigorously growing jazz interest throughout the city in its cultural and educational institutions.

WGBH’s management axed jazz to make more space for news and public affairs programming in its competition with Boston’s WBUR FM’s abundant focus on that fare.

As John Poses warned in “Crying the Blues” over cutbacks to jazz radio (the Columbia Daily Tribune, July 15, 2012): “in herd-like manner, (this move) could give license to smaller-market stations from around the country to do the same; ‘If WGBH is doing it, maybe we should, too.’”

A very early sign of the reactions ahead in the ancestral home of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere was a jazz funeral held outside the Boston Studios of WGBH by jazz musician and bandleader Ken Field.

With only a week’s advance notice of the funeral he had posted on Facebook, “there was,” he told me, “a lot of press, a lot of instruments, a lot of people. Passing drivers honked their support.”

Making this Boston boy, who grew up on Boston jazz many decades ago, envious I wasn’t there now, Field added that he began the funeral with “a slow dirge-like performance of ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee,’ featuring solos by local jazz luminaries and ending, as in New Orleans, with a rousing up-tempo finale of the same piece with a little hope for [these musicians’] work continuing somewhere, somehow, into the future.”

There’s a lot more than little hope for this Boston jazz rebellion to gain momentum while acting as an inspiration for jazz families in other cities where public and other radio stations will have stopped or greatly reduced swinging.

Heralding a powerful force for the continuation of this rebellion, on June 20, at Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston’s South End, the national Jazz Journalists Association named “JazzBoston jazz hero,” executive director of JazzBoston, Pauline Bilski for her leadership – as I reported here – “in shaping JazzBoston into a unifying force and powerful advocate for greater Boston’s entire jazz scene.”

I was among those who nominated her for the award.

She had already scheduled an open meeting on July 31 at the prestigious Boston Public Library, already involved with JazzBoston, “to bring together” not only the city’s jazz family, but also “our national allies in the broader arts community, and potential allies outside the arts world,” as well as “potential allies in Boston’s academic, business, and city and state government sector.”

What actually happened at that July 31 super jam session wasn’t just jive. A Boston Jazz Radio Master Plan came into being with the infectious thrust of a Dizzy Gillespie solo.

My source for this news of that historic jazz regeneration is Richard Vacca, author of the first ever history of Boston jazz which I reviewed in my debut column for JAZZed.  First, dig who was there:

“The room was crowded with musicians, educators, writers, broadcasters and representatives of cultural organizations, including the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Harvard’s Office of the Arts, The Arts and Business Council of Greater Boston, the Boston Music Coalition, Boston Free Radio, and others with a stake in the health of Boston jazz.” (news.jazzjournalists.org August 2, 2012).

I expect the management of WGBH was somewhat disturbed at the range of such multidimensional concern over what was “just jazz.”

My sense, however, is there isn’t too much optimism that WGBH will change its mind. I’ve had extensive experience in and about the radio business, including public stations, to expect that the anticipated higher ratings for more news and public affairs programming will prevail at WGBH. But what was vital about this planning session were such longer-range goals as: “bringing live music into the schools, and supporting the music teachers working there (including JAZZed readers).”

There was a generational divide, with older members there wanting one or more radio stations taking the place of WGBH, while “some in the crowd spoke to the need of having music, and the jazz talks the go with it, streaming to their digital devices.”

After all, even this 87-year-old reporter who still writes on a typewriter realized that, as Dick Vacca reported, most of the attendees probably heard “about the meeting in a blog post, or on Facebook, or by e-mail.”

So, “if JazzBoston or anywhere else, wants to identify and mobilize supporters for events such as this, they’d best do it through social media.”

No, through any and all media. If I had carrier pigeons, I’d use them, too.

Vacca ended the report: “The Boston jazz community – there is no doubting there is one – has the right to be proud” of this jazz rally.

“Now the work starts, and people in other cities where music programs are under fire will be watching the Hub’s progress.”

A blogger, John Carroll (“Campaign Outsider”) focused on what he called “threads in the room” during what was also a tribute to those present, Eric Jackson and Steve Schwartz: “One thread was the sheer love of jazz in the room. As one audience member said, talk radio (now increasing at WGBH) focuses the day-to-day and makes us all live inside our own heads.   Music makes our life different, humanizing and connecting us.”

Later, jazz musician and bandleader Ken Field observed: “I don’t see the logic in having two NPR stations here in Boston both broadcasting primarily news and talk. There’s an opportunity here for one of these stations – or another – “to take on the arts and culture part and really focus on it… The community is not served by having two stations doing the exact same thing, leaving huge gap when it comes to jazz music, which is, after all, a uniquely American art form.”

Interestingly, in an indication of the intensity rife in the room, Vacca recalled that “Tom Lucci, president of the Board of Directors at WICN-FM in Worcester (a National Public Radio station) noted he’d bring his station signal into Boston if the FCC permitted it, and he’d be open to finding ways to bring some programming in via some other arrangement.”

What struck me as I dug into this story is the contrast between the members and supporters of the continually growing and multidimensional Boston jazz community with the looming obituaries of the jazz scene, not only in Boston, that I continue to hear and see. Such regrets as: “The audience is diminishing, evidenced by the decrease of sales of jazz recordings.” (Check Amazon and other websites for contrary results). Also, complaints that, “there are fewer and fewer of the young interested in jazz.” How, then, do we account for the large and rising numbers of high school, college, and university jazz courses and bands and such numerous student ensembles are across the nation competing in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual Essentially Ellington contest and the similarly enthusiastic national student involvement in the Charles Mingus jazz rivalry sponsored by the Manhattan School of Music?

As Sidney Bechet told me many years ago, “You can’t keep this music down as long as people are able to hear it.”

Certainly WGBH unintentionally is proving just that. Through the years, wherever I was invited to talk about jazz and bring some recordings into schools – including elementary schools – the kids, though the music was new to most of them, got excited. Some got up to dance. In one 2nd grade New York classroom, so did the teacher.

I‘ll be very interested in hearing about the reactions of jazz communities in other cities to how their sisters and brothers in Boston are refusing to allow jazz just fade away from the air there.

Nat Hentoff is one of the foremost authorities on jazz culture and history.  He joined Down Beat magazine as a columnist in 1952 and served as that publication’s associate editor from 1953-57.  Hentoff was a columnist and staff writer with The Village Voice for 51 years, from 1957 until 2008, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Jazz Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, among many other outlets.

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