By Mike Guy
Learning about jazz is not a passive process. Typically we don't hear our first Kenny Durham tune and immediately need to hear more. If someone tells us that the player is Miles Davis or John Coltrane, we tell them we like it because it's not cool to admit that we're not sure if we do. Jazz comes to some through parental influence or peer-pressure, but for most of us, we have to make an effort to listen and learn enough to decide. It's like learning about wines that you can’t pronounce the names of, cooking better than most restaurants can or riding a motorcycle. It requires some effort, but once you’ve got it, you get it. Learning about jazz is comparatively more efficient. Your chances of a hangover are less, you're not going to burn or cut yourself, you won’t likely feel the need for tattoos, and there’s a shortcut, jazz radio.
Back in the last century, we learned about jazz by reading, buying LPs, and, if fortunate enough, we lived within the range of a radio station that had a well-programmed jazz schedule. For many of us, that station was WBGH in Boston.
It is rare that I talk jazz with someone from this area that has not enjoyed listening to Eric Jackson’s show on WGBH, Eric in the Evening. I can never quantify what I learned from Eric in the 1980s. Lying in bed, I’d hear noises from beyond my comprehension. Sometimes they'd irritate and drive me to turn the volume down until the next tune. Over time, the uncomfortable started to make sense. When the aha moments hit, I'd get up and write the artist or song down. That would lead me to record stores where I’d spend more money than I should've on the leader's LP, and maybe a couple by the sidemen (if found in the used bins).
The effect of a knowledgeable DJ on jazz radio can't be overstated. Today you can stream more jazz with a free account than you'll live long enough to hear. Content is not an issue, quality and presentation are.
Saxophonist Grace Kelly was born in 1992. When she was 12 years old, she received critical acclaim for her first album. She spent her pre-teen years listening to Eric in the Evening. Some of her first radio interviews were with Eric. Hearing those first conversations between the seasoned jazz DJ and the talented 12-year fan was enough to melt the heart of even the most ardent jazz critic. Over the years, their conversations matured. She's still a fan, but now they speak as peers. Experiencing the evolution of their on-air relationship over 20+ years would have been impossible without WGBH.
Rock, pop, rap, and what they call country these days are low effort propositions. Steam it, crank it and have fun with your friends. Jazz requires that we engage on a different level. To truly get it, you need to do more than tell Alexa to play jazz when you're drinking wine with friends. It requires informed dedicated listening. If you're like me and do not play an instrument, you'll need to either read about the music or have a teacher, like Eric. This is the age of societal ADD, reading is out of vogue, you're going to need a great DJ or 10.
Today, we have the internet. It can provide a jazz listener's education that is far less costly, vastly more diverse and exponentially more time efficient than mine was. Like all older people, I think the hard way was better, but as we all know, romantic delusions aside, I'm wrong.
Today, I listen to the finest jazz radio in the world, at home on my stereo system (it’s sort of like a home theater without the TV), at my desk at work, in my car and even on my phone with the small buttons that I can only see with the readers on. I even listen to Eric in the Evening. He's still on most Saturday and Sunday nights from 9 pm to 1 am.
Now when I hear new noises that appeal to me, I go to the station’s website, click on the playlist, find what I want and then spend time (when I should be working) googling and hearing jazz.
There are hundreds of sources for jazz on the internet, but only a handful with DJs even close to the caliber of Eric Jackson. You need folks like him to lead you down the path. If they’re really good, like with all the cool kids, you won’t even feel the peer pressure. Below are three of the best. I’m sure you’ll find others that you like, but these are a great place to jump in.
WWOZ is the place to start. New Orleans is considered the birthplace of the music. Jazz, in its broadest sense, can encompass many genres at any given time. We don’t question the ties between jazz and blues, but I’d argue that folk, rock, classical, hip hop, bluegrass and the countless subgenres that come and go all have a connection to jazz. WWOZ is the melting pot that it should be. Regardless of your current musical tastes, the OZ will get you headed on your path.
If the OZ is the easy way into the pool, KCSM is the high-dive platform, my favorite internet jazz station by far. The DJs are all knowledgable and entertaining.
Clifford Brown was an immensely talented trumpeter who tragically died in a car accident at 25 years of age. His son, Clifford Brown Jr., is a DJ at the station. The stories he tells from his youth are amazing, and he shares them freely with the listeners.
Alisa Clancy is on weekday mornings. She is an experienced jazz educator and a life-long fan of the music. Her Friday show includes a segment called Desert Island Jazz. She interviews a jazz personality, it can be an artist, producer or another renowned industry person. It is an interview combined with music selected by the guest based on what they'd need when stranded on a deserted island. You don’t need to know anything about Alisa’s guest or have ever heard the music they’re playing. Her interviewing skills combined with the shared interest in the subject creates a dialog that entertains and educates the listener without their ever realizing it’s happening. One week and you'll be hooked.
WBGO is in Newark, New Jersey, but the transmitter is in Times Square. It's the New York City jazz station. You'll hear a bit of every genre of music, but it's 90% jazz. The DJs are top shelf and, as an NPR station, largely commercial-free (as are KCSM and the OZ). When you need to feel like you're in the city, this is a great place to go, especially late at night.
Those of us within the broadcast range of WSCA (106.1 FM) in Portsmouth, or aware of its internet presence, had a jazz radio treat for a while. In the early years of the station, Terry MacDonald had a jazz radio show. His knowledge of the music and its players was a pleasure during the workday. His connections in the jazz world enabled us to hear anecdotes that we'd never otherwise experienced. Recently, a friend relayed a story of his getting a call from Terry informing him that he was doing his first radio interview on the upcoming show. The friend tuned in just in time to hear Terry interviewing Herbie Hancock.
There is a calming, meditative quality to jazz radio that is quite addictive. Be warned, though, bad things might happen. Jazz might move from the back to the foreground of your day. By month’s end, you could end up sitting on the couch and actually listening, no TV, talking, or reading. The next thing you know you're listening to whole albums (CDs) one after another until way past your bedtime. It's a slippery slope, best to start with the OZ.