Arts Interview: Jazz DJ Steve Schwartz Signs Off . . . But Swings On
According to former WGBH Jazz DJ Steve Schwartz, “In retrospect, the writing was on the wall. About a year and a half ago, our shows were cut by an hour; before that, we were told we could no longer use the names of our shows or our theme songs.”
By Jason M. Rubin
As part of a gradual shift in its programming philosophy from music and news to primarily news and talk, local public radio station WGBH last week reduced or eliminated its two marquee jazz programs. Having shelved its folk and blues shows over the last few years, WGBH has now downsized Eric Jackson’s popular weeknight show to a cumulative nine hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and canceled outright the weekly show hosted by Steve Schwartz. Schwartz’s final show aired on Friday, July 6; he has also been terminated by the station from his dual roles of radio host and producer.
According to Schwartz, a Dorchester native who turned 70 last April, “In retrospect, the writing was on the wall. About a year and a half ago, our shows were cut by an hour; before that, we were told we could no longer use the names of our shows or our theme songs.” (Eric in the Evening, by one name or another, has run for more than 30 years on WGBH; its theme song was “Peace” by pianist Horace Silver as performed by Tommy Flanagan. Schwartz’s show, Jazz From Studio Four, would open with “Wadin’” by pianist Horace Parlan. Both Jackson and Schwartz played their respective theme songs in their final shows last week.)
From Blue Hill Avenue to Blue Note Records
The distance from Blue Hill Avenue near G&G Delicatessen, where Schwartz grew up, to WGBH’s studios in Brighton (and before that, Allston) is not so great, but his journey was much less direct.
“My father wanted to make a change, so when I was 15 we moved to Los Angeles,” says Schwartz. “It was there that I first heard jazz on the radio, and I was hooked.”
At that time, the mid to late 1950s, West Coast jazz was coming into its own with such distinctive and innovative players as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and Art Pepper. Schwartz absorbed it all.
After three years, the family moved back to Boston, where Schwartz worked in his father’s locksmith shop in Codman Square.
“I got to know a guy named Bo Liebowitz, who ran a record store in Cambridge and had jazz shows on WBUR and on MIT’s radio station, which at the time was WTBS,” Schwartz recalls. “He wanted to cut back on his radio gigs so he’d have time to write a book. So he asked me if I’d take over some of his shows for him.”
Liebowitz, still on the air at KCRW in Santa Monica, eventually published The Record Collector’s Handbook.
Those stand-in experiences became more frequent and continued for a number of years. Finally, in 1985 Schwartz was hired by WGBH as an overnight board operator. The late Mai Cramer’s blues show would end at 2 a.m. and the next four hours would be classical music supplied on tape from Minnesota Public Radio. Schwartz’s job was to run the tape and monitor it to make sure it ran smoothly.
“WGBH had a four-hour time slot but the tape never ran the full four hours,” says Schwartz, “so I started in filling in the extra time by playing jazz. Then at 6 a.m., I would cue up the tape of bird songs that opened Robert J. Lurtsema’s classical music show.”
Schwartz suggested to station management that blues/classical/jazz/classical was too jarring a sequence and proposed hosting a jazz show after Cramer’s blues show. That was the birth of Jazz Gallery, Schwartz’s first show for the station.
Though Schwartz enjoyed doing Jazz Gallery, it was only two nights a week, and he needed a full-time income. So when the station offered him the off-air job of program manager, he took it, hiring local singers Ron Gill and Henrietta Robinson to replace him.
Three years later, a new program director at the station who used to listen to Schwartz on Jazz Gallery wanted him back on the air. Thus was born Jazz From Studio Four, which since 1990 has aired one or two nights a weekend. He also began producing live performances at the station and at local venues, many of which aired on Eric Jackson’s show. Some were picked up nationally, and a few, like a 1992 set by Roxbury-born drum legend Roy Haynes recorded at Sculler’s Jazz club in Boston, were released on CD.
In a letter from WGBH Audience & Member Services, the station last week defended its jazz programming changes:
“Whenever we adjust our programming, our true consideration is how WGBH can best build on our educational mission, which includes expanding the dialogue and discussion of important ideas and topics facing our neighborhood, our region, and the world. We believe public media has a responsibility to present a diversity of perspectives, adding voices from different sources to enhance those critical conversations.
“Of course, beyond the daily discussions of news and public affairs is the human need for contemplation and reflection. Music and art provide this, which is why WGBH is maintaining our 40-year commitment to jazz, though in a narrower programming window.”
With attitudes ranging from resigned to defiant, the local jazz community came together last Thursday, July 5, to hold a New Orleans-style jazz funeral outside WGBH’s studios. Organized by saxophonist Ken Field, the event drew a couple of hundred players and listeners for a short program of traditional tunes and spirituals, culminating in a parade down the street to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
As a follow up, the nonprofit Jazz Boston is hosting an open meeting of Greater Boston’s jazz community at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday, 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. According to the Facebook Event posting, the stated purpose of the meeting is “To forge ties, agree on goals, and begin developing strategies for collaborative action to address the immediate issue of WGBH’s withdrawal from weeknight jazz programming and the broader issues of local jazz radio and the place of the music in our city’s cultural life.”
An encore in the offing?
As for Schwartz, he spent time at the Montreal Jazz Festival in late June and early July. This writer spoke with him in the morning before his final show. Despite the upheaval in his professional life, he seemed at peace.
“I was trying to think of ways to make my last show special somehow, but then I decided I should just do my regular show,” he said. “Live performances, favorite players and tunes, artists with birthdays coming up, and ending with John Coltrane’s version of ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’.”
Schwartz reports that he has been receiving offers, so jazz fans may not have heard the last from him yet. No one who has been enjoying his programs for the last 27 years will complain about that.