[JPL] Text of commentary on WBEZ

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Thu Apr 20 13:39:17 EDT 2006

Now hear this: WBEZ, you stink
Chicago Public Radio disses jazz aficionados

By Cory Franklin
Published April 18, 2006

Every generation suffers the same painful experience. One morning they wake up to discover the music they have always enjoyed has suddenly turned unfashionable and is now replaced by something they regard as coarse and inferior. This happened recently when Chicago Public Radio announced it will drop all jazz programming in favor of a coarser, inferior alternative--more talk shows. According to station brass, it is an effort to attract younger listeners, "a mission-based, rather than a market-driven decision."

Quick questions for station brass about that mission. Isn't there enough talk on the radio already? Do the younger listeners, and the rest of us for that matter, really need more talk shows? There's right-wing talk, left-wing talk, sports talk, girl talk, health talk, sex talk, legal talk, real estate talk, money talk, car talk. And 95 percent is pure bloviation. Wouldn't the next generation be better off knowing and appreciating Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie?

To their credit, the satellite-based radio stations will still play jazz, but those stations are aimed more at aficionados who already understand the medium. It's not the way to introduce young listeners to jazz. It's like when a 6-year-old asks how to spell a word and she's told to look it up in the dictionary: Without some guidance, she's lost. (The last refuge of jazz for beginners may be the College of DuPage radio station).

Jazz has often been called an authentic American art form, and the mission-based decision by Chicago Public Radio to drop it is another painful reminder of the reluctance we have to remember our history, whether it's political, military or social. On the cultural side, classical music is already on the critical list in America. If the current move by Chicago Public Radio is any indication, jazz is going down that road. And for those younger listeners out there, be forewarned, the next victim might soon be another American art form, rock 'n' roll.

To see it happening, consider a name familiar to all of a certain age, Gene Pitney, who died recently. His plaintive, stirring voice was once a hallmark of rock, far superior to anything you will hear today on "American Idol." He had hits as a singer and wrote rock classics (including "Hello Mary Lou" and "He's a Rebel"), won a Golden Globe and was the first pop artist invited to perform at the Academy Awards. After the Beatles came to America, like other U.S. rock singers, he suffered a career downturn. Ironically, he remained a huge star in England, and when he died after receiving a standing ovation at a concert in Wales, the British press was replete with tributes and remembrances. Here in America? A couple of oldies stations paid tribute by reshuffling the computer playlist between commercials to play "Town Without Pity" or "24 Hours from Tulsa." Then, hasty retreat to the computerized format. Nice knowing you, Gene; don't let the door hit you on the way out.

In a recent speech at a Hillsdale College seminar titled "America's History and America's Future," the eminent historian David McCullough said the institutions that we take for granted--especially those we should never take for granted--are all the result of hard work by other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. Well put, and to apply his thought, when we treat an institution such as jazz so frivolously, it's more than just a shabby failure, it's a loss of an aesthetic pleasure difficult to recover.

That was explained quite simply by Betty Carter, one of the great female jazz voices of the 20th Century, who performed with Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (none of whom will be coming to your WBEZ airwaves in the near future). Near the end of her life, she helped start the Jazz Ahead program for young musicians. Reflecting on her career she said, "Putting happy smiles on peoples' faces. When I was coming up, that's what jazz was about. It wasn't about money. It was about how happy you could make people."

Memo to Chicago Public Radio: We need more happy smiles on peoples' faces. More jazz would do that. More talk shows won't.


Cory Franklin lives in Wilmette, Illinois.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune 

Tom Reney
"Jazz à la Mode"
Monday-Thursday, 8 p.m.-Midnight

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tr at wfcr.org

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