Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Radio Days

Thirty-two-year-old nostalgia rules my brain this week, in anticipation of Saturday's reunion for alumni of CKCU-FM and the blast of publicity surrounding next week's release of Bruce Springsteen's re-packaging of one of my seminal albums, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

The fall of 1978 was a turning point for me. Out of school for a year, I'd put in nine months of work at a small arts magazine, learning the magazine business from the ground up, and had landed my first serious job in journalism (as dedicated as I was to the arts magazine, it was hard to view those nine months as anything more than a paid apprenticeship). At the end of the summer I got a chance to attend the reunion of The Allman Brothers Band in Macon, Georgia, which inspired what I considered my first substantial piece of music writing, and led to me selling a small article to Rolling Stone. In the fall, I began volunteering at CKCU-FM—landing several on-air shows that dominated my life for the next several years. This was heady stuff; it seemed that it might actually be possible to make some kind of living in arts journalism.

But, enough about me. What really has my thoughts occupied is how radio seems to have failed to keep pace with developments in jazz.

A casual look at the state of jazz in the late '70s/early '80s makes it appear that it was a relatively fallow time. Fusion had burned out and simultaneously turned in on itself and outward toward smooth jazz. The young Marsalis brothers were about to move out of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and launch the neo-conservative movement that would dominate the music for 20 years.

That much was true, but bubbling beneath the surface was a tremendous amount of great—albeit non-commercial—music by people like Henry Threadgill (as the leader of the trio Air), Arthur Blythe, David Murray, James Blood Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson. What's more, exciting new bands like the Lounge Lizards and The Contortions were using elements of improvised music, and artists like Neneh Cherry were bursting out with dance hits that melded easily into playlists alongside Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis.

At CKCU and other radio stations these sounds were swept up and intermingled with smart pop bands like The Jam, Public Image Ltd., and DEVO.

Is that same thing happening today with artists like Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Steve Coleman and Mary Halvorson? If it is, I'm not hearing it.

I'm trying not to let my 30-plus years of distance affect my thinking, and simultaneously hoping there's some young broadcaster out there who is mixing from Iyer into MIA, or from Lil' Wayne into Moran.

Any thoughts?


txa1265 (Mike) said...

James, as someone listening to radio in the late 70's / early 80's in the Boston area, I certainly heard none of what you are alluding to. There were three sources of jazz for me: WGBH (public radio, which had nightly shows), WHRB (Harvard radio, occasional jazz shows, mostly morning), and WBUR (Brown Univ, also occasional).

Commercial radio - even so-called 'alternative' stuff aimed at college kids, shunned jazz in any form ... except of course a few years later as 'smooth jazz' format stations started springing up.

James Hale said...

Mike: That's surprising—and more than a little disheartening—about Boston. Up here in Ottawa, at least in that pre-internet era, we saw ourselves as somewhat removed from the cultural mainstream. We certainly didn't think we were doing anything bizarre by mixing all those things together. There were, of course, straight ahead jazz shows, as there still are, but a lot of the announcers I knew had a real curiosity about the Arthur Blythes

Mark Saleski said...

Yes, at least in Boston we had a few outlets. I also seem to remember there being some jazz content on WERS (Emerson College).

Consultant-driven radio has really drained the life out of commercial radio, with playlists so constricted.

I was thinking about this last week while writing several reviews of the various parts of the Springsteen release. I lived in Maine in '78 and the radio stations I listened to (WTOS, WBLM) were much more adventurous in their selections (mostly because they were allowed to be!).

A few years after I had moved away, I happened to be back on a visit the same day as the anniversary of the death of Bob Marley. The announcer on WTOS was talking about it and even admitted on the air that he wasn't allowed to play any for the occasion he played the Clapton version of "I Shot The Sheriff." Sad.

Even sadder is the reality that there are probably just as many interesting artists emerging today as there were back when The Lounge Lizards (one of my favorite bands) hit the scene. I guess the Internet is supposed to be playing the part of long-gone adventurous radio. I know I'm trying to do my part but man, some days it feels like nobody 's listening.

Tim... said...


How I stumbled across this post today I can't reall recall but as soon as I saw the name I thought CKCU. Just want to say thanks for your volunteer work at CKCU.

In the late 70's and early 80's I was a High School student at Earl of March in Kanata and a supporter of the radio station. I remember you and Roch Parisien as stand outs...I wonder where he is today.

In the 28 years since leaving the Ottawa area I can honestly say I have not heard a better radio station. Again Thanks.

James Hale said...

Tim, glad you enjoyed listening. Roch Parisien is still very active in the music business. In fact, he has pioneered a series of real-time interviews on Facebook, mainly with musicians who were well known in '80s. Like me, he's also a programmer for the Galaxie network.