There's no longer enough of all that jazz
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For my 17th birthday, one of my best friends gave me a copy of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
I wasn't a jazz fan at the time, but he didn't care. He believed my uncritical love of mainstream pop and rock to the exclusion of everything else was the kind of philistinism that would eventually ruin our friendship.
He didn't consider radio favorites Grover Washington Jr. or Chuck Mangione "serious" jazz musicians, but those '70s hit-makers gave us something to talk about until a more sophisticated understanding of jazz kicked in on my side of the equation. The only rock band I liked that he could tolerate was Steely Dan during its "Pretzel Logic" and "Katy Lied" periods.
Sure, my buddy was an incorrigible snob, but I saw McCoy Tyner perform live at a rundown club in South Philly because of him. When he wasn't brooding over some romance gone wrong, my friend would wax eloquently about the genius of Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans.
We caught summer concerts by Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie at a time when we were still young enough to assume those giants would be around forever.
Even though I initially turned up my nose at Miles Davis' fusion period, my buddy somehow knew I would come around. For his part, my friend's dream was to compose atonal music along the lines of Anthony Braxton, something I couldn't remotely relate to at the time.
Hanging out with him was like auditing a night course at Berklee College of Music. Sometimes his elitism was off-putting, but I learned to appreciate jazz because he was so good at extolling its virtues.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have grown up being hectored by a jazz evangelist. Looking back on those days three decades later, I'm struck by how much his lectures resembled an act of intervention. I probably wouldn't have ventured in the music's direction without some prodding.
When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1987, the people I knew here didn't know anything about jazz despite this town's great jazz legacy. If anything, Pittsburgh was a town that couldn't get its fill of classic rock.
Fortunately, WDUQ-FM (90.5) had a perfect mix of jazz and NPR programming. It was reminiscent of college jazz stations in Philly and a pleasant alternative to the endless rounds of "Free Bird" and "Baba O'Riley" that filled Pittsburgh's airwaves.
While DUQ didn't play nearly enough of the avant-garde jazz my buddy in Philly would have preferred, the on-air talent spun the classics and devoted generous amounts of airtime to the city's homegrown artists past and present. The bias for the melodic over the dissonant was immediately noticeable.
None of the station's program hosts was ever "edgy," but they were all knowledgeable personalities. You couldn't help but get an education listening to them. DUQ's big band show on the weekend filled in the gaps in my education that my buddy in Philly never got around to.
This week, the new owners of DUQ announced a format shift from jazz to news and information. Jazz will be limited to six hours on Saturdays, although it will be available 24/7 on the station's online stream and HD channel.
As a longtime listener, I can't say this is a mix that excites me. I like and appreciate NPR as much as the next journalist, but I also appreciate DUQ's role as the one local institution committed to remembering and even celebrating Pittsburgh's jazz history.
Restricting jazz to six hours on the weekends and exiling it to HD radio is the equivalent of hiding a major part of our cultural legacy under a bushel. Offering vouchers to listeners to help with the cost of buying HD radios misses the point.
Jazz should be more accessible, not less. While it's true that putting it online won't present an insurmountable obstacle to jazz fans, it is an indication that DUQ's new owners don't really value it. Those who feared the format change weren't just whistling Dixieland after all.
Scan the radio dial in Pittsburgh and you're confronted with a numbing sameness and lack of diversity. Talk radio is all conservative, all the time. Oldies rock dominates everything else. Only the college and public radio stations present an alternative to our region's appalling appetite for the familiar.
For thousands of listeners like me, DUQ has been an oasis in a desert of aural mediocrity. Although far from perfect, it was a spot on the dial that was both populist and elite. Even though jazz is perceived as "elitist," it is always trying to undermine its own snobbery by breaking the listener's heart.
First Published May 27, 2011 12:00 am