5:56 PM EDT, August 6, 2013
Now that regime change is under way at WBEZ 91.5 FM, let's consider the music that became something of a four-letter word at the station: jazz.
Last month's announcement that Torey Malatia resigned as president and CEO of Chicago Public Media — which includes flagship station WBEZ — inevitably recalled Malatia's decision to cut most of the station's jazz programming in 2006 and 2007.
For years before that, WBEZ had been the Chicago area's leading broadcast forum for jazz, the station offering great music in the evenings and through the night. Its most revered announcers, Dick Buckley and Larry Smith, developed followings of their own, Buckley having played what he called "the good old good ones" at WBEZ going back to 1977 (his last broadcast was on July 29, 2008). Syndicated programs such as Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" and "Blues Before Sunrise" also had become cultural institutions in Chicago and beyond.
But Malatia decided to toss most of the music, which clearly was his right as station boss, and he did so with verve.
"We've changed our strategy," he told me in April of 2006.
"What we've wanted to do was support the artistic community in a more effective way. That's not done with a needle drop," he added, referring to the old-fashioned needle riding the grooves of a vinyl recording.
"It's done with playing music and talking about the music, playing something difficult but offering something that will explain."
The music, in other words, was not eloquent enough to speak for itself. It needed to be deciphered for listeners too dense to understand. Too bad Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other immortals didn't realize that. If they had, they might have interrupted their own performances and recordings with vast passages of explication.
WBEZ certainly offered plenty of explaining over the years, its programs amounting to an avalanche of talk, with jazz barely at the fringe.
Malatia's strategy prompted MacArthur "genius grant" winner Ken Vandermark to retort, in a 2006 Tribune article, "I don't see the point of talking about culture if you're not going to really play the culture."
And what replaced those glorious hours of nighttime jazz on WBEZ? The profusion of talk has included weekday repeats of the nationally syndicated "Fresh Air." So if you hear the program in the morning, you can catch it again at night! Now that's creative programming.
Then, too, the "BBC World Service" reports stretch for hours overnight — definitely worth staying up for and ideal for unwinding after a long day at work.
It's worth noting that the subject of jazz has turned up occasionally on WBEZ's daytime programs. I spoke to the station the day the Tribune broke the story that Chicago jazz legend Von Freeman died, last August, and on other rare occasions. As always, every passage of music was punctuated by commentary.
But even if you have savored every word spoken on WBEZ over the past several years, there's no denying that the station gave the back of its hand to a jazz radio audience long in the making and to an art form uniquely identified with Chicago around the world.
"You can't really detach the city from jazz and blues," says the admired Chicago musician Tatsu Aoki.
Indeed, the Great Migration of African-Americans to Chicago in the first half of the 20th century found its voice in jazz, blues and gospel music. Jazz icons such as Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Hartman, Dinah Washington and Von Freeman; blues titans such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf; gospel innovators such as songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey and singer Mahalia Jackson — and scores more — helped give Chicago a musical culture of its own. More recent figures such as the aforementioned Vandermark and fellow MacArthur winner Reginald Robinson, a ragtime piano visionary, continue to do so.
WBEZ defenders and apologists have argued that jazz listeners can easily hear the music by buying CDs, downloading tracks and streaming other radio stations on the Internet. By that reasoning, though, why play any music on any radio station? Why not overrun the airwaves with talk — as if there isn't enough noise pollution in American media culture already.
More important, few people can afford to buy all the albums a great station plays during the course of a year.
The impact of WBEZ's format change on Chicago jazz, and related idioms, was significant, robbing the music of a major radio presence here. Though WDCB 90.9 FM remains a fervent broadcaster of jazz many hours a day, its signal isn't strong enough to carry across the entire metropolitan area. Other stations, such as WHPK 88.5 FM and WNUR 89.3 FM, carry some jazz programming but reach a smallish listening radius.
"We lost a platform for letting people know what was happening in jazz," says Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal, one of the most enduring presenters in the country.
"I get young people at (Showcase) matinees, and they said they really dug the music — and they didn't even know what it's about."
In part, that's because they haven't had much chance to catch it on the airwaves, where musical culture can be disseminated widely and instantaneously.
But now WBEZ stands at a turning point. The station is launching a national search for a new CEO, with Chicago Public Media's chief operating officer Alison Scholly serving in the interim.
So WBEZ can continue airing freeze-dried broadcasts overnight from the BBC or it can create original music programming made in Chicago, for Chicago, as it did in its heyday. It can lace its weekend hours with more BBC imports or it can let Chicagoans hear music of Ramsey Lewis, Patricia Barber, Matt Ulery, Dee Alexander and uncounted other gifted Chicago artists heard around the world but rarely on the airwaves of their hometown.
Or all the above. There's plenty of room in WBEZ's schedule of live and canned programming for the station to champion one of the world's great jazz capitals: Chicago.
But if WBEZ does decide to reconnect with this music and with its own broadcast history, one word of advice: Play the music and minimize the talk.
There's already plenty of that to go around.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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