Monday, January 23, 2012
I heard voices in the night ...
I enjoy a somewhat sporadic, highly pleasurable e-mail correspondence with a resident of up-state New York who has devoted a considerable portion of his life to the perpetuation of fact and the dispelling of myth regarding the life and career of Frank Sinatra. In recent exchanges, we have reminisced about radio personalities whose tastes and opinions informed us at an early age. (Specifically, these were people called "disc jockeys", not social and political commentators such as Gabriel Heatter, Lowell Thomas or H.V. Kaltenborn.)** The men who were spinning 78's in often cramped quarters with one or possibly two turntables at their disposal introduced us to and assisted in the cultivation of a life-long devotion to certain singers and musicians.
My own list of these highly influential male voices (no lady djs then) is comprised of those floating into my room from a cherished Bendix radio that delivered an AM signal exclusively. You can see it in this photograph.
I grew up in Rhode Island, and my little band box was a major source of entertainment and information from Boston AM stations WBZ or WHDH, both powerful frequencies blanketing all of southern New England. Powerful too were the well-modulated, elegant enunciations: deep, masculine, authoritative, confident and articulate as they not only introduced recordings but often took the time to explain why a particular artist's work was worthy of my attention.
This was educational radio in the truest sense. I'd never have discovered jazz if it hadn't been for the radio and the men who were my trusted guides. In Rhode Island, a gentle giant of Cape Verdean descent named Jim Mendes' was my original mentor. He was one of the most respected djs in the state during the 1950's and 1960's, sharing his knowledge and appreciation of jazz on WICE-AM. Jim's shows were heavily populated with stellar performances featuring Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Count Basie, or Oscar Peterson and hundreds of other legendary figures who were at the time recording and appearing with regularity in clubs and concert halls. The popularity of jazz was pervasive and exciting, simultaneously suggesting just a hint of wickedness. This was an environment I hoped and dreamed of inhabiting, and it existed just two hundred miles down the road in New York City. I was only fourteen years old but I knew I'd someday live and work there.
If I couldn't actually transport myself to jazz clubs in Manhattan, I could at least pretend to be in Birdland to hear my jazz heroes perform. The desire to breathe the same air as Lester Young or Billie Holiday was made all the more intense when I listened to a dj named Sid Torrin who used the stage name Symphony Sid and also hosted a live hook-up from that most famous of jazz venues. He could be boring and over-bearing and much too hip for his own good, but he conducted interviews with my idols between sets, and those conversations enthralled and fueled my pursuit of jazz scholarship.
Some AM frequencies suspended broadcasting at 6 PM, after which one could enjoy static-free reception from previously inaccessible locations. Tuning in to WNEW in New York became a late-night addiction. A man named Al Jazzbeaux Collins* hosted his show from a magical Purple Grotto from which he and his pet owl Harrison broadcast. I was his most ardent fan, and made note of the numerous names of musicians and singers I found compelling so that I could save allowance money to buy their records. I most vividly remember the first time I heard a magnficient jazz pianist whose technique and improvisational skills greatly impressed me, and how astonished I was to learn the strength and dexterity I'd just enjoyed were created by A WOMAN! Her name was Marian McPartland. Collins frequently played the equally versatile and inventive Barbara Carroll. My spirits were lifted and my brain cells were nourished with new jazz information received on a nightly basis.
It is true that in the 1940's, the sources of entertainment were decidedly limited compared to today's dizzying choices. I could (a) go to movies, (b) read books or newspapers, (c) watch a television screen filled with black and white images, (d) talk to my boyfriend for endless hours on the phone, or (e) listen to the radio. I did all that plus my homework. But disc jockeys sustained my insatiable curiosity about and thirst for more and more jazz. DJs were genuine gods to me.
Night club owners and concert producers then as now depended on djs to help promote the imminent appearance of an artist in the area, highlighting the recordings throughout the program, and occasionally conducting a live studio interview. Those chats humanized the artists for me and I dreamed of the day when I might converse with them myself. Eventually my dream came true, of course. The notion that I'd actually work with any of them was beyond my wildest fantasies.
Today's technology provides devices I could never have imagined when I was growing up, but like many of my generation, I long for the slower pace of those times. Distractions were prevalent, but my focus was directed toward acquiring good grades in school, fun and games and boyfriends a close second. The complex richness of jazz inspired a curiosity about the Arts in general: Grand Opera, symphonic composers and the orchestras that play classical music; fine art, architecture, reading a good book or cooking a great meal.
The discovery of jazz and subsequent relevant interests were most assuredly generous bequests for which I shall ever be grateful. Here's to those great voices in the night and all the jazz djs who labor in their wake everywhere around the world.
*I sent Mr. Collins a florid fan letter in my flawless Palmer Method hand, written in purple ink and on the diagonal to demonstrate my sophistication and artistic temperament. Listening a few nights later, imagine how thrilled I was to hear him reading the contents of my note for all the world to hear! I fed on that one for weeks.
** Yes, Virginia, these were real people who helped maintain morale, informed and commented on political and social issues pertinent in the 1940's and specifically during WWII. Americans relied on their analyses, recognized and welcomed their voices and opinions into their homes via radio.