Last evening I drove to Westchester with my wife to celebrate a happy family event. On the way, we listened to WKCR, catching the tail end of Afternoon New Music (featuring side A of Distinction Without Difference, an intense 1979 Billy Bang solo set I'd never heard before) and the first chunk of Jazz Alternatives.
The show began with Chico Hamilton's Man from Two Worlds, a 1963 record that was also new to me. The title track started with a shifting bed of uptempo rhythm from Hamilton (sounding more Elvin Jones–like than I've ever heard him) and bassist Albert Stinson—a carpet of almost Indian-esque drone. Charles Lloyd and Gábor Szabo drifted in with tranced-out tenor and guitar, engaging in a brief improv tangle before launching into the sing-songy, unmistakably Ornette-ish head (written by Lloyd, I'm now finding out). It was classic inside-outside jazz: steady and propulsive underneath and ear-bending up top. Unlike the Bang, it made sense as drive-time music, but the calories weren't empty. The same went for the next selection: side B of Jimmy Smith's Got My Mojo Workin'. I wasn't in love with the title track (a showcase for Smith's gruff vocals), but the Ellington (Strayhorn?) pieces that followed, "Johnny Come Lately" and "C Jam Blues," killed me with their combination of sass and class; the rhythm section alone—Kenny Burrell, George Duvivier and Grady Tate—had me doing internal cartwheels.
I didn't get to listen beyond that, but what a pleasure: to tune in at random and hear this wonderful—and in the case of the Hamilton, fairly obscure—vintage jazz, not being played to celebrate an anniversary or a new reissue, or to commemorate a passing, but spun just because. A set of music that challenged but didn't alienate, that, in the end, served the function you'd hope radio would serve around 6 p.m. on a weeknight.
For maybe a year and a half in college, I hosted a show on WKCR, the 5–8:20 a.m. Daybreak Express program, which segued right into Phil Schaap's Bird Flight (thus giving me ample opportunity to learn firsthand from the sensei). These days, I'm more a WKCR appreciator than a participant; I still host the occasional show, but whenever I tune in to the station and hear something great, I can't help but wish I still spun there regularly. I spent so many hours in that incredible library, scanning the LPs from A to Z, writing down the names of hundreds of titles that interested me (I did the same at Jazz Record Mart in Chicago around the same time), and checking out five or so at a time for dorm-room research.
Some of my happiest times at WKCR were when listeners would call in to say, "I dig what you're playing," or some variation thereof. (Plenty of times, you'd get the opposite: "This isn't jazz!" etc.) One instance in particular stands out: It must have been about 7 a.m., and I was playing "Who Does She Hope to Be?"—that gorgeous and perfectly accessible ballad from Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages. A man called the studio and said, with genuine rapture in his voice, "I love this song." It was a brief exchange—I'm pretty sure I thanked him sincerely for listening and that was pretty much it—but it planted a vivid picture in my mind. I heard background noise that suggested a car, and I imagined him cruising across one of the NYC bridges, convertible top down, just drinking in the Sonny and the sunlight and smiling contentedly. Sure, I spun plenty of "out" records during my time at WKCR, but it was at moments like this when I felt most deeply connected to the DJ's trade and to the glory of jazz radio. I felt like I was both meeting my own needs, i.e., those of a discerning curator, and the customer's, as it were, i.e., giving this kind man something beautiful to listen to on his a.m. drive. It's like Neil Peart said in "The Spirit of Radio":
Begin the day with a friendly voice,
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood
We are all our own DJs, scouring the internet, cramming our hard drives full of obscurities. But sometimes you want to surrender to a trusted source, tap into something communal, let the current carry you. Do not take WKCR for granted. To be able to turn on the radio at random on a weeknight and hear Billy Bang, Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Smith consecutively, from original LP sources and without commercial interruption? That is what is called a blessing.