Thursday, July 5, 2012

Kind of Blue: The WGBH Jazz Funeral

Just returned from a funeral and boy are my arms tired.

That’s not a joke, either. It was a jazz funeral in the tradition of New Orleans bands and second liners who parade in the streets with the coffin of the dearly departed. In this case, the dearly departed was jazz itself. Local public radio station WGBH recently announced the latest in a series of cutbacks over the past three years that have steadily eroded the jazz programming that was once so foundational to the station – and, indeed, to the community.

Eric Jackson, for 30-plus years the premier presenter of jazz over Boston’s airwaves, sees his popular show moved from weeknights to a mere nine hours over the weekend, while DJ and producer Steve Schwartz, with more than a quarter-century of service under his belt, has been terminated outright.

Through the convening power of Facebook, the local jazz community gathered to mark the passing of jazz programming that was truly differentiated in the market – both by the expertise of the jockeys and the breadth and quality of the music played. Organized by Ken Field (Birdsongs of the Mesozoic), this jazz funeral was indeed more commemoration than demonstration. There were no speeches, really. But there was a lot of good playing and a ton of good feeling – and hey, that’s what jazz is all about. The invitation was to bring instruments if you can play, and if you can’t bring cameras or just your hands, ears, and hearts. I brought a sign that said “R.I.P Jazz @ GBH” and waved it in time.

Maybe it’s just a comment on the quality of the musicianship in this city – home, after all, to Berklee and all the people who thumb their noses at Berklee – but everyone who brought something to play was a player. There were no dust-off-that-trumpet-in-the-attic folks who haven’t made an embouchure in thirty years. No slide whistles or kazoos, either. Instead I spied and heard soprano, alto, and tenor saxes; trumpets and trombones; drums in marching and stationary configurations; a vibraphone and a violin; a pair of tubas (I was photographed standing between them); double bass, banjo and mandolin; a flute and a piccolo. And all were competently played.

I’m not good at estimating crowds so I can’t say whether there were 50, 100, or 150 people there. All I know is that we were all squeezed in tightly on the sidewalk. A GBH security person – just doing his job – asked us to keep away from the building and occupy a strip extending no further than five feet in from the curb. This necessarily led to many people ending up on the street, where a policeman – just doing his job – requested that we all get back on the sidewalk. Ultimately, in the spirit of the times, we occupied the entire corner with no further hassle.

The performance began with a solo trumpet rendition of Horace Silver’s “Peace”, long the theme song for Eric’s program. Everyone joined in on the final note, playing as long and loud as they could. The Jews among us were probably thinking Tekiah gadolah, the ultimate, extended blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. This led into a communal reading of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” followed by “Down By the Riverside,” “Rock of Ages,” and a group version of “Peace” conducted by Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon.

Despite the semi-haphazard nature of the gathering, somehow Field was able to assign solos and duets throughout the songs, adjust the dynamics depending on the instrument(s) being featured, and keep people in the same key. Also remarkable were the overall quality of the solos. Needless to say, this is the first time this particular group had been assembled and the audience was right in their faces. At the end of the funeral, a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” began spontaneously and the throng began to parade down the street. This afforded the wonderful circumstance by which we passed the radio studio window where Eric Jackson was doing his final weeknight show. As we passed, he stood before the soundproof glass and waved to us. I flashed him the “peace” sign.

The crowd eventually reached an Irish pub. Hearing the approaching din, someone inside opened the door and everyone, musicians, sign-holders, and second-liners, walked in and kept the music going. Just one bartender was on duty at the time but the patrons welcomed the excitement and entertainment.

Anxious to get home and write this down, I left. As I passed the studio, there was still a small crowd on the corner. I reached my car and turned on Eric’s show. He’s still broadcasting as I type this. Through the years, his show has served as a listening and buying guide for me. He has introduced me to so much good music and so many artists I care deeply about.

I remember in December 2001, the night after my uncle died tragically in a car accident, I was driving to his house where my father and other family were gathered. I had been asked to compose a eulogy and I was going there to share it with them. I was in quite an emotional state, as you can imagine, and I was listening to Eric Jackson. He played a beautiful vocal number about heartbreak and loss. I was so taken with the narrative and the singer’s exquisitely pained delivery that even though I had arrived at my destination before the song was over, and people were waiting for me inside, I stayed in my car to hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, Eric went directly into another song after it was over so I didn’t know what it was. But I couldn’t keep my family waiting for me.

The next morning at work I emailed Eric to ask what that song was (I was working at WGBH at the time). He replied later that night. Not only did he tell me what the song was – “Rags and Old Iron” by Oscar Brown, Jr. – but he also shared with me how when he was younger, whenever a new Oscar Brown, Jr. record came out, he and his friends would get together to listen to it. Many decades later, Eric had made a new Oscar Brown, Jr. fan.

Jazz is about feelings and emotions, and about stories such as that one. It’s about people’s lives, their dreams and disappointments, their yearnings and achievements. For forty years, WGBH has brought jazz to the community. Now, their commitment is all but gone. Eric’s show has been ghettoized to make way for rebroadcasts of talk shows.

Talk we have more than enough of. Jazz we can never get enough of. Hence tonight’s jazz funeral. Of course, jazz is not dead; not even at GBH, though it definitely is on life support and it’s only a matter of time before they pull a Kevorkian. But the most important aspect of tonight’s event was the evidence that the jazz community is not dead. There are musicians and listeners aplenty, and they need each other – now more than ever. If tonight is any indication, we’ll be making beautiful music together for many years to come.


Cristeen said...

fantastic post and Thanks for sharing this info. It's very helpful.
web agency brussels

Chris Florio said...

Great Post, you really captured the spirit of the event and the reason why it was important.

Henru said...

Wonderful post-you really nailed it. I'm a very amateur alto sax player and regretted that I didn't bring my sax-but my soul was there all the way.

Somer said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this! It is a wonderful description of the night.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Medici Musica Productions said...

Thank you for this.
It was honor to be with all of you last night as together, we ushered our friends, colleagues and mentors in Jazz into a new era...
Many, many happy returns! ~ A

Gail said...

I appreciate your reflections on last night, Jason.

Bob said...

As a jazz lover, I personally mourn the loss of jazz programming on GBH. But the larger question is what general role radio should play in the daily lives of Boston area listeners. Who decides what should be on Public Radio? Should the considerations for inclusion be strictly monetary, or should the content of Public Radio be based on broadly defined educational goals, and spiritual growth through a deeper understanding of the arts? The recent spate of Federal budget cuts has forced GBH to consider their bottom line more than ever before. Let's hope, for the sake of Boston radio, that this situation is temporary!