Updated. The year 1962, the terminus of Richard Vacca’s new history of Boston jazz, marked an end to an era. Fifty years later, with the cutbacks in jazz programming at WGBH, are we approaching a similar inflection point?
By J. R. Carroll.
I’m sitting here, as I have many a Friday evening, listening to Steve Schwartz, a genial and informed voice that will soon be gone from Boston’s airwaves. On the table near me is a copy of Richard Vacca’s impressive new history, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962 (there’s a fine interview with him today on Steve Provizer’s Brilliant Corners blog). Pondering this juxtaposition, I can’t help but wonder if, 50 years later, the Boston jazz world is approaching a similar inflection point, an end to an era.
Vacca’s book (which I’ll be reviewing in the near future) is filled with clubs that closed, musicians who moved on, writers who put down their pens. With the impending cutbacks in jazz programming at WGBH (which have been touted, in Orwellian fashion, as a “new focus on jazz”), are we again facing a bleak period of attrition, or will what Russ Gershon has aptly described as the “famously fractious” Boston jazz community pull together, marshal its supporters, forge the alliances it needs, regroup and rebuild?
In the immediate aftermath, community discussion coalesced around two Facebook groups (Save Eric in the Evening and Save Jazz on WGBH Now!) opposing the programming changes. Points of contact at WGBH were identified, and group members recounted the responses their sometimes impressively eloquent emails to management had elicited. An online petition was initiated, and ingenious gestures of protest proposed. How about swarms of musicians, instruments in hand, parading to the station? Or a mass burning of WGBH membership cards? Mostly, though, hopes have been pinned on a firestorm of impassioned emails somehow persuading station management to reconsider their decisions.
And so, as Steve Schwartz’s penultimate broadcast on WGBH winds down, that’s where the situation stands. It’s somebody’s move, but whose? Perhaps the answer will emerge over the weekend. [Hmmm, Steve just closed his show saying that he would be off next Friday, June 29, to attend the Montreal Jazz Festival and would be back in two weeks, on July 6. Given that the program changes were supposed to kick in on July 2, what could this mean?]
Meanwhile, word is spreading, local media are taking notice, and responses are coming in from beyond the reach of WGBH’s signal. Boston.com has posted commentary by Mark Leccese and Joel Brown. A vigorous discussion erupted on the Radio-Info.com Discussion Boards.
Of particular note is the article on the Berkshire Fine Arts website by Pittsfield Jazz Festival Director Ed Bride, which pulls together comments from and texts of emails sent by jazz hosts from around the country and invokes similarly distressing situations in the past at Chicago’s WBEZ, Lansing’s WLNZ, and Pittsburgh’s former WDUQ.
[Update: Bobby Jackson, former music director at Cleveland’s WCPN, has posted a powerful comment to Ed’s article. Also, Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel, who wrote to WGBH protesting the cutbacks, has picked up on Ed’s article and added some insightful commentary.]
So, what next? There’s been a disconcerting public silence on the part of the leadership of Boston’s largest jazz institutions, and one can only hope that they are part of efforts behind the scenes to head off this existential threat and either restore Eric and Steve to their accustomed roles at WGBH or else find new homes for these exemplary ambassadors for Boston jazz.