[NOTE: This essay was originally combined with my Jazz Appreciation Month special review, “Jazz For A Saturday Night #73: Erroll Garner” to make one very long article. For ease of reading, I have split them into two separate posts.]
As you may know, for the last twelve years Jazz lovers everywhere have celebrated the month of April as Jazz Appreciation Month.
While I was pondering that fact, the thought occurred to me that it might be fun to write a few words about how I came to love jazz.
At this point, having spent several hours over the course of six days writing over 4500 words, I have to say it has been an interesting, intensely personal, trip down memory lane.
To quote the fictional Father Peter Lonergan1, a character in one of my favorite movies, “The Quiet Man,” “I’ll begin at the beginning.”
I was a teenager in the 1960’s, during the heyday of Clapton, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel, Credence Clearwater Revival, the Allman Brothers Band, and, of course The Beatles.
Rock music, however, had only a limited hold on me in the sixties. What I did listen to the most in those years was the merry mélange of tunes dished up by the jocks on Portland’s then-premier AM music station, “The Call Of The Northwest,” 1190 KEX2. (This was, of course, before KEX became the echo-chamber for conservative, right-wing propaganda that it is today.)
KEX had wonderful jocks in those days, people like the late, great Barney Keep3, along with Jack Angel4 and Art Smart5, who seemed to play just about anything from any genre, as long as it sounded good.
(Knowing what I now know about professional radio, I am reasonably certain that program director Vic Ives had a tighter rein on things than I just described. From a listener’s standpoint, however, it appeared the jocks selected music they liked from here and there.)
So it was that KEX played artists like Bert Kaempfert & his orchestra, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, and Erroll Garner.
Speaking of Erroll Garner, my very first jazz album was “That’s My Kick,” which I won in a call-in contest on KEX. I must admit, when I received the album in the mail, my teenage reaction was not particularly favorable. Like many other things in my life, that opinion has changed over the years.
“That’s My Kick” was also my first-ever “Special DJ Recording,” and is the subject of a regular “Jazz For A Saturday Night” review that follows this bit of personal nostalgia.
When I was in my late teens, I developed my first real musical obsession: TV and movie soundtrack albums. I bought as many as I could afford, albums containing the music from I Spy; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; The Saint; Batman; The Munsters; Bonanza; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Zorba The Greek; The Avengers (the real Avengers, starring Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg); The Odd Couple; and others, lots of others.
It did not occur to me until many years later that a large number of these albums that I loved so dearly in the sixties and seventies were actually jazz. Earl Hagen’s score for the I Spy TV series was pure jazz. Henry Mancini’s scores for movies such as The Pink Panther trio and TV shows such as Peter Gunn were, of course, jazz.
Which is why in the title of this article I referred to myself as having been an “accidental jazz appreciator.” I loved jazz for years without realizing the music I loved was jazz.
Then in 1969, when I was 20 years old, I got to know a guy two years younger than myself who had just graduated from high school and got a job at the place where I was then working as a dishwasher/fry cook. His name was Bill Beeson, and he had longish, flamboyantly wild red hair and a personality to match it.
We were, in many ways, opposites, as I had comparatively short dark hair and tended at times toward quiet introversion. Despite this, Bill and I quickly discovered that we had a lot in common and we became best friends practically overnight.
Did I mention that Bill had a car? I don’t remember what my own car situation was at the time. Perhaps I was still driving my first car, a 1965 Rambler American, or maybe by then I had progressed to my second car, a worn out 1965 Ford Mustang.
Either way, Bill and I always seemed to wind up going places in his car, a funky looking 1960’s Mercury Comet, lemon-yellow in color, if I remember right. It had rock-hard seats and, of course, the same crappy AM radio with one speaker in the middle of the dashboard that virtually all cars had in those days.
Bill drove, and I was our navigator, the keeper of the road map. We got lost often. Very often. So often, in fact, that we created a motto of sorts that we would shout in unison every time we got lost: “KNOW YOUR CITY!”
It was Bill who introduced me to acting and musical theater. He was also the one who explained to me that there were travelling groups of performers called “road companies” that came to Portland and performed huge Broadway hit musicals right on our own Broadway, on the stage at the Paramount theater.
Bill and I went to see several shows, but I have to admit that the forty-plus years that have passed since then has blurred the line in my memory between those we saw together and those I saw later, alone.
Some of the shows were excellent, nearly as good as the originals. Others just plain stank. I remember being particularly disappointed by a presentation of “Mame” that I saw alone. The best part of that show was the fact that I inadvertently managed to sit behind someone known to the cast, and they played the entire performance to that person and, by my sheer dumb luck, to me.
But the musical numbers themselves were tepid, at best, compared to the Broadway cast album that I had damn near worn out listening to time and time again during the days leading up to that show.
“Mame” was (and remains) one of my favorite musicals. What a bitter disappointment that performance was.
It is also Bill Beeson whom I must blame for my love affair with original Broadway cast recordings. Thanks to him, to this day I still have Hello, Dolly!; Cabaret; Mame; Promises, Promises; George M; Coco; The Man Of La Mancha; Fiddler On The Roof; and many, many others from the late 60’s and early 70’s on vinyl LP.
After a few months, maybe a year at most, Bill quit his job and left Portland to go to school at the University of Oregon in Eugene. That was before computers and email, so we exchanged snailmail letters fairly often. He did come back to Portland whenever school was out to see his parents, who lived in Gresham. Sometimes he had time for the two of us to get together for a while, maybe catch a movie or dinner, and sometimes he did not.
After Bill had been in Eugene for a while things really never were the same between us. He had found new interests and, of course, new friends. In early 1977, we saw each other for what turned out to be the last time, at a restaurant in downtown Portland. Then, for me at least, he pretty much vanished off the face of the earth.
Thank you, Bill Beeson, wherever you are. For your friendship, as short a time as it lasted, and for the love of Broadway music you helped foster in me. It’s not jazz, but to this day, I do still love Broadway show music, and it’s all your fault.
During the 1980’s, I developed an interest in both pop music (Elton John, Neil Diamond, the Carpenters, and others) and country music.
On the country music side, I still have a few vinyl LP’s and audio cassettes left over from those days. Jim Croce; Alabama; The Statler Brothers; Eddie Rabbit; Mel Tillis; Johnny Paycheck; Merle Haggard; and others. Every five or six years I play a country song or two just to get the urge out of my system. Then I put away the album or cassette for another five or six years.
Merle Haggard has the dubious distinction of being the singer who performed the single most depressing song I have ever heard in my life: Chuck Howard’s “Always On A Mountain When I Fall.”
Take my word for it, even if you like country music, you do not want to listen to that song when you are depressed or even just feeling a little low. I sometimes wonder how many suicides that song has triggered, and no, I am not making either a joke or a pun.
As for pop music, I still enjoy Elton John. He is a terrific showman with a huge, generous heart and a talent that goes far beyond the pejorative appellation, “pop star”. He does, also, have a huge mouth which, in my opinion, he tends to run indiscriminately at times, and I find that very unfortunate.
But whenever I read of some latest outrageous outburst of his that has made the headlines, I remember Ryan White6 and how extremely attentive and generous Elton John was in helping Ryan’s family as they lived through a very personal tragedy that was played out publicly on TV and in newspapers around the world.
In the early 1990’s I set out to see what other kinds of music were out there besides country and pop. To do that, I did what anyone in my position would have done in those days: I joined what was then called the Columbia Record Club (“CRC”) and which later changed its name to simply Columbia House.
For the benefit of those who don’t know, every month or so CRC would mail members a card listing their “current selection” that was being offered to them. If you didn’t want that record you needed to mark the appropriate box on the card and mail it back to CRC.
What I did every month for the first few years was throw away the card without reading it and let CRC send me every “current selection,” without exception.
In all the time I did that, I only received a handful of cassettes that I truly could not stand, which I gave away to friends. Most of those that I kept were recordings that I never would have walked into a music store and bought. But, to my surprise and delight, I found that I liked them.
Then one day I found something different in my mailbox: It was compilation tape with songs performed by several musicians I had never heard of, including Miles Davis; Dave Grusin; Thelonious Monk; and John Coltrane.
It was jazz.
One of the songs on that cassette was performed by an alto sax player I had also previously never heard of, a man named Grover Washington Jr. The song was called “Strawberry Moon.”
“Strawberry Moon” was an eye-opener for me. Up until that time, I had avoided jazz because somewhere along the line I got the impression that Dixieland jazz (which I now know to call Trad jazz) was all the jazz there was. And, with all due respect to folks who love it, I really did not care for Dixieland jazz, with the exception of the song “Second Line.”
At that time, I really did not care for the proffered works by Messer’s Coltrane, Monk, Grusin, or Davis either. That did eventually change, but it took a while.
In 1986, I bought my first computer, a Commodore 64. Late in 1987, I joined one of the earliest online services for computers, QuantumLink, aka Q-Link or just plain “Q”. In those days, there was no Internet unless you either went to some prestigious university or worked for the defense department.
That being the case, the majority of computer users who connected with one another did so via local dialup bulletin boards (“BBS’s”) or through online services like Q-Link, CompuServe, and Prodigy. (The bastard child America Online came along later.)
It was on Q-Link that I first heard of Kenny G, and everyone seemed to love him. Then I discovered he was from Seattle. In the world of Q-Link, where it seemed most of the other members were either from Pennsylvania or Quebec, Seattle was “local”!
One of the first cassettes I ordered from CRC, which I must confess I do still have, was “Kenny G Live.” The only reason I still have it is because, by some freaky coincidence, the album includes a song called “Uncle Al.”
“Uncle Al” was my main screen name on Q-Link, which is why I was interested in that particular album. That led to me buying quite a few of mister Gorelick’s other albums over the following few years, although I have long since either given away or thrown away all except that one live album.
Eventually I discovered KMHD and “real” jazz. I tried to like it, but whatever they were playing (this was around 1992 or 1993) just didn’t appeal to me. I bounced back and forth between KMHD and Portland’s then-new “smooth jazz” station.
Frankly, the smooth-jazz station was winning my loyalty.
Then something interesting happened. The smooth-jazz station was, of course, a commercial broadcast station. As such, they paid their bills by playing commercials, lots of commercials.
One set of commercials in particular stands out in my mind. They were for a national chain of mattress stores, and each commercial featured a voice-over from some person from a local charity, such as the White Shield Home for pregnant teenagers. (No offense meant to the White Shield Home, they are simply the only ones I can remember 20 years after the fact.)
Some person representing the charity would give a little spiel about how the owner of the stores had donated a large number of mattresses to them, and what a wonderful person the owner was for doing that.
The commercials rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. Finally, after they had been airing for some time, and with no end in sight, I called the station and asked to speak to the station manager.
I politely told the manager that I thought the commercials were in poor taste. I said that I was raised to believe that you are supposed to do good deeds for the sake of helping someone and for the good feeling that gives you. Good deeds were not to be done just so the beneficiaries of your gifts will record radio commercials that tell the world what a wonderful person you are.
Then I laid it on the line: If the station continued to run those commercials that I found objectionable, I would have no choice but to stop listening to that station.
The manager responded that he understood what I was getting at, and said that he did not really disagree with my viewpoint. But, he said, advertising dollars were scarce, and he could not dump a lucrative advertiser just because he did not care for the message.
I in turn responded that I understood his viewpoint, also. The station was, after all, a business and as such needed revenue to pay their expenses.
Despite that, I told him, I could not in good conscience continue to listen to that woman indulge herself in such blatant self-aggrandizement. I would have to stop listening to the station.
We ended the call on a cordial note, each of us knowing that nothing was going to change except that from that point on, that station would have one less listener.
Having lost my lifeline to smooth-jazz, I returned, reluctantly, to the world of “real” jazz on KMHD. I don’t know if the KMHD volunteer DJ’s had changed and the types of jazz played on the station changed with them, or what happened. But after I stopped listening to the smooth-jazz station and once again tuned in to KMHD, I found myself increasingly enthralled with the music I heard.
Before long, my evolution to intentional jazz lover was complete. Not only had I stopped listening to the smooth-jazz station, I also stopped listening to the dozen or so smooth-jazz cassettes that I had bought through CRC.
It was bye-bye Kenny G, hello Kenny Burrell!
Then I discovered the Friday Freeway Blues at 4pm on Fridays, hosted by Steve Pringle, and the Blues Palace six hours later, hosted by Tom Addis.
I was ecstatic!
That was the start of a love affair with KMHD that lasted from the mid-1990’s until the summer of 2010, which is when I resigned as a DJ. I almost entirely stopped listening to KMHD shortly after that, with a few exceptions.
I do still try to catch some of my few remaining friends there, people like Tom Addis (still doing the Blues Palace at 10pm on Friday) and Art Abrams (still holding down Sunday mid-day) and Jere Lee whenever I can find him.
There are other friends I would listen to during the day if I could (yes, Paula Walker and Jan Mancuso and Tom D’Antoni, I am talking about you!), but KMHD’s signal is too weak to punch through the steel-reinforced walls of my workplace.
But I do owe KMHD a debt of gratitude for helping me feed my ever-growing love for America’s art form, jazz.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to a man who, ironically, developed a reputation for walking down both sides of the jazz street, the late Grover Washington Jr.
They both helped foster in me an intense love for jazz (and yes, a little blues, too).
Thank you to them, and thank you to the thousands of loyal jazz fans who tuned in to Saturday Night Jazz every week for eight and a half years.
It was truly a labor of love.
Wood Village, Oregon
1. KEX is a 50,000 watt “clear channel” station that broadcasts in Portland, Oregon at 1190 on the AM dial. It was owned for a number of years by Gene Autry. It has, in my personal opinion, sadly deteriorated to worthlessness since being purchased by Clear Channel.
2. Father Lonergan was played by Ward Bond, perhaps best known for playing the lead in the Wagon Train TV series. Until I was researching this article, I did not know that John Wayne and he were best friends.
3. Barney Keep was the morning drive DJ on 1190 KEX for over three decades. He was one of the most legendary announcers ever to grace the airwaves of radio in Portland, Oregon. If you’d care to find out more about Barney Keep (and I hope you do!), you can go here, here (Scroll down to Archive #8), here (Warning! This is a very, very long and fascinating article about the history of commercial radio in Portland), here and here.
4. Jack Angel was the afternoon drive DJ on KEX until he resigned and moved to southern California. He was one of my favorites among KEX’s jocks. After he moved to California he also developed a lucrative career as a voiceover actor whose voice has “appeared” in dozens of TV shows and movies. Anyone who remembers Jack from his days on KEX will be happy to hear that he celebrated his 82nd birthday last October 24 and, as far as I have been able to determine, is still with us.
5. Art Smart was the evening DJ on KEX. After leaving the station, he moved to the upper Midwest and became a chiropractor. The last I heard, he had retired and moved to Georgia.
6. Ryan White was a young teenage hemophiliac patient attending middle school in Kokomo, Indiana, when he was diagnosed with HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion in December 1984. In one of the darker chapters of Kokomo history, Ryan and his family were driven to leave town after his diagnosis became public knowledge. Many celebrities publicly supported Ryan, including John Cougar Mellencamp, Michael Jackson, and “Magic” Johnson. Elton John helped the White family financially, and, with Ryan’s mother, was at Ryan’s bedside the night the boy finally died from the disease on April 8, 1990 at the age of 18. A few months after Ryan’s death, the megastar entered rehab and finally kicked his drug and alcohol addiction and got his life back together.
Here is a video of Elton John performing “I’m Still Standing” and “Candle In The Wind” at Farm Aid on April 7, 1990. Immediately after this performance he returned to the hospital where Ryan lay in a coma (Elton had been there all week) and stayed there with Ryan’s mother until the boy died.