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Tuesday, June 19, 2012 / 8:44 AM

There Are Now Fewer than 400 Jazz DJs on the Air—and Yes, There Are Cultural Consequences

There Are Now Fewer than 400 Jazz DJs on the Air—and Yes, There Are Cultural Consequences

Since at least the 1940s, the recording industry has been fixated on “hits” and making large amounts of money by manipulating the books of their artists. These practices have led to the marginalization of the more creative styles of music. Artists working in these styles rarely get the publicity that the purveyors of music designed for a least-common-denominator audience. However, I have remarked in other posts that this publicity machine could sell anything it wants to sell.

The more creative, marginalized styles of music are where the purveyors of mass-market music get their ideas. Just how close are we to the loss of entire genres of music on the airwaves? And if we lose these genres of music, where will the mass marketers get their inspiration? I do not think the musicians or the audience knows how close we are. With few exceptions, the only places to hear creative music are on public broadcasting and on Internet sites. My sources in the industry say that there are probably less that 400 disc jockeys playing jazz on the radio, a rarity approaching that of hen’s teeth. These are mainly local shows.

I think that it is safe to assert that in the history of Western Civilization, the creative artists in all genres had to have “sponsors” or their work would not be heard or seen. Had the European nobility and churches not sponsored Bach and Mozart, this great music would not be heard today. The early “sponsors” of jazz belonged to a much lower class: they were mainly white gangsters that ran speakeasies and nightclubs. Today, the sponsors of creative artists are different than in the past.

We can look at creative musicians and music styles as being the seats of three-legged stools. The support for each seat is the legs of the stool. One leg is public broadcasting.  The second leg is made up of record promoters, producers, concert promoters and corporate or governmental financial support. This is where the money (or “sponsorship”) comes from. The third leg is the disc jockeys.  Remove any leg from this stool and it falls. And it may be that the most vulnerable leg is that of the disc jockeys.

Think about this. There is only one jazz disc jockey for about every 775,000 people in this country. The same could be said for any of the non-commercial music we hear: classical, bluegrass, folk. etc. These people pour their souls out as they present local programs about the music they love. What will happen when they get too old or die? Will their stations stop supporting and playing the music?

Most of us who present creative music on the air do it because we are compelled to by our love of the music. We did not go into this for money or celebrity. While I am paid for my time on the air, I suspect that most on-air presenters are not paid or are very poorly paid. Some of these presenters, I suspect, are just tolerated because they are filling slots that are not thought to have an audience. In the case of jazz, if they are not on a full-time jazz station, they are consigned to the hours where there is nothing else: late nights. Of course, if there is more than one jazz show on different stations in a radio market, the media “consultants” will eventually recommend that all be placed at the same time on different stations. It would be interesting to see what would happen if jazz shows were heard in prime time and promoted as heavily as other shows.  Would the jazz audience grow? But “conventional wisdom” seems to believe that jazz is nothing but a “late-night” music.

Local programming of music and other content is being increasingly subsumed by national, syndicated shows on public broadcasting.  My opinion of the subscription jazz services that I have heard is that the music they present is pabulum designed for people with the attention spans of gnats.  So if the public broadcasting of jazz goes that way, the real creative music will be lost.  I also have heard too many national music shows that talk the music to death, instead of presenting a wide swath of music.  I think that this could be said for all genres of music.

Locally produced jazz shows are important because they often present emerging talent before it gets to a larger stage. A good example of this happened in St. Louis during the Black Artists Group period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The print media, both black and white, totally ignored what was going on. The late, lamented community station KDNA presented their music on several shows, including Leonard Slatkin’s avant-garde jazz show. When these St. Louis musicians and similar musicians from Chicago showed up in New York and Europe, they turned these music scenes on their heads. But no one in St. Louis outside of the KDNA listeners knew they were here, or that they had left.

If the public broadcasting leg of that three-legged stool goes away, we will be stuck with commercial broadcasting and least-common-denominator programs that do not inform, and give the people who have nothing to say the chance to say it. Our citizens need challenge and inspiration. A lack of challenge and inspiration may a bigger threat to the future of this nation than any foreign terrorist group.  And in this age of dwindling corporate and government sponsorship of the arts, the entire enterprise fails if the money fails.  That may be the reason why creative artists spend much of their time in Europe and Asia, because those three legs of support seem to be more viable there.

As Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi, put it: “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing, and having worthless dreams."

Dennis Owsley holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and is a retired Monsanto Senior Science Fellow and college teacher. Jazz Unlimited is heard every Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight. It has the largest jazz audience in St. Louis, and was named “Best Jazz Radio Show” in St. Louis for the years 2005–07 and 2009 by the Riverfront Times. In, 2008, n celebration of his 25 years on the air, January 24 was proclaimed Dennis Owsley Day in the City of St. Louis. Owsley is the 2010 winner of the St. Louis Public Radio Millard S. Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Old to new | New to old
Jul 2, 2012 12:32 pm
 Posted by  jazzfish

Hi Dennis,

As a jazz host in Knoxville, TN (WUOT), I was kind surprised that there are fewer than 400 of us. WUOT alone has 4 jazz dj's in a medium market. I wonder if there is a database somewhere of locally produced jazz shows? My show, "Last Set at Birdland," airs on WUOT at 10 PM on Friday nights.

Regards, Randy

Sep 12, 2012 03:33 pm
 Posted by  Cap

I, too, host a jazz show (WGTD, Kenosha, WI). I find the essay a compelling diagnosis. Of course, there are probably thousands of "jazz hosts" if you count those who pay services like "Live365" for the privilege of broadcasting their personal collections (on their very own internet "station"), but it doesn't take long for a listener to sense the limitations of such unscripted, unmonitored, narrowly-focused "broadcasts." They do little to inform the listener about an enormously rich and diverse indigenous African-American tradition and art form (which is not to deny its worldwide influence and indebtedness).

What concerns me equally is the increasing disregard of the "Great American Songbook" and its major contributors--from Berlin, Kern, Arlen and Gershwin to Porter, Rodgers, Ellington and Van Heusen. It too is an indigenous American art form, worthy of an extended PBS series such as the one Ken Burns did for jazz about 12 years ago. In fact, ever since Louis Armstrong, the putative father of jazz, began acquiring international fame, the relationship between jazz and the Songbook has been symbiotic: one couldn't have developed, or existed, without the other.

Today, no more than 3 major labels account for 80% of commercial recordings, and the amount of jazz--reissues as well as new releases--issuing from them each year is negligible. As to "cultural consequences," these monoliths of the music industry would have us believe that the disappearance of the music--and its hosts--is wholly symptomatic, not causative. Only desperate economical circumstances (and greed) can explain such hasty, unfounded and unconvincing rationalizations.

Sam Chell

Oct 24, 2012 03:37 pm
 Posted by  Sue

I work for a company that owns radio stations in NYC. We were talking about jazz stations and I remember when I was much younger, in the 60's and 70's that we used to listen to a jazz station but I can't remember the call letters. The dj's name is what I'm trying to remember. His theme song was King Pleasure's Moody's Mood for Love. I think the call letters for the station was RVR but I'm not sure. When they went off the air they sold their library to CD101.9, but they only played jazz for a few years and then disappeared.

Do you have any idea what the name of the dj was? It is driving me crazy. I can picture him since I met him several times in jazz clubs in NYC. He was white, wild hair, also looked like he just fell out of bed.

Sep 5, 2013 09:09 am
 Posted by  TheJazzHerald

The Jazz radio personalities you're thinking of could be Symphony Sid
and Mort Fega from WEVD or Ed Beech from WRVR. These NYC radio
stations ruled the Jazz airwaves in the late 50s, 60s, into the early 70s.
Mort Fega's show was called Jazz Unlimited just like the St Louis radio
show of Dennis Owsley, the author of this article.

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