Tag Archives: The Big Broadcast

“ALOHA.”

rich-conaty-portrait

RICH CONATY 1954-2016

In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.

Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.

Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.

Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.

Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence.  Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently.  As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.

We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).

Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.

I should say that his taste was admirable.  He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten.  He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.

And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row.  THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way.  (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program.  He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)

On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car.  I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights.  When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV.  So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets.  But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.

rich-conaty-at-wfuv

I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.

I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.

Aloha.  And Mahalo.

May your happiness increase!

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A NEW SONG FOR THE COMMUTE, THANKS TO LEO, RALPH, and RICH

RUSH HOUR

Last night, coming home from The Ear Inn, I tuned in to everyone’s Sunday-night pleasure, THE BIG BROADCAST, that delicious periscope into the first forty or so years of the last century, watched over by the generous and unpredictable Rich Conaty.  (Quick translation: It’s a radio show.  Fordham University Radio, New York, WFUV-FM and streaming: 8 PM to midnight, our time.)  Details  here.

I heard this song — new to me but immediately captivating — IN A ONE-ROOM FLAT.  It isn’t ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE or THANKS FOR THE MEMORY, but it sticks whimsically in the brain.  The 1933 recording is by Freddie Martin and his Orchestra; I believe the singer is Terry Shand, who had deep jazz connections.  And it comes from a Maurice Chevalier musical film called THE WAY TO LOVE (with Ann Dvorak, Edward Everett Horton, and Douglas Dumbrille).

And the song — perhaps one of their trifles? — is by Leo Robin (lyrics) and Ralph Rainger (music), two of my secular saints.

It raises the larger question: what do you need to make you happy?  Worth pondering.  For now, listen a few times and I can almost guarantee that you will be humming it later in the day.

May your happiness increase.

OH, “PLEASE”!

In honor of Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, Bing Crosby, Adam Keller, John Gill, and Jon-Erik Kellso — here is the sheet music for PLEASE.  It’s my dream to hear world-class jazz musicians, deep in Swing Romanticism, make this song their own.  Unfortunately, the folio doesn’t have the lyrics — but perhaps that enabled the Famous Music Corporation to publish eleven songs and photographs from Bing’s then-current films: THE BIG BROADCAST, COLLEGE HUMOR, and TOO MUCH HARMONY — for fifty cents.

I’d also like more people to know about Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, who wrote the music and lyrics for PLEASE and many other irreplaceable songs.  Rainger, especially, deserves his place in the collective memory alongside the more familiar names.  Here’s a photograph of Rainger from the Crosby folio:

And here’s the team at work:

If you play an instrument, sing, or even hum, why not try PLEASE?  And if you don’t, well, you could find a way to work the title into everyday conversation.  I believe it has a soothing effect . . .

SOUNDS GOOD TO ME

radio2Over the past forty years, I’ve spent many rewarding hours in front of the radio, listening to jazz.  My mother loved WPAT, a New Jersey easy listening station where the programmers had good taste and a real affection for Bobby Hackett.  Later, John S. Wilson played an hour of jazz once a week on WQXR.  Then, WRVR, with Ed Beach, Max Cole, and other luminaries; WBGO (thankfully still going strong with their jazz programming and “Jazz From the Archives,” often hosted by Dan Morgenstern).  There’s WKCR — with Phil Schaap, of course, but also Sid Gribetz, Ben Young, and others. Rich Conaty, of “The Big Broadcast” on WFUV and Jonathan Schwartz on WNYC still offer up the good noise.  Once in a while, I could even hear Humphrey Lyttelton on BBC shortwave.  And I am sure I have left someone out.

Thanks to Dave Weiner at Hofstra, who hosted his own “Swing Years,” I took my own leap into college radio, circa 1982.  I invented an hour-long show, “Rarities,” where I could play Thirties blue-label Deccas; consider the career of Lou McGarity, and amuse myself for a splendidly small audience.

Perhaps ten years ago, tuning around the bottom end of the FM dial, where the non-commercial radio stations huddle together for shelter, I heard an assortment of jazz records being played — no announcements, no explanation, and apparently no order.  I would turn to this station when I was ready to go to sleep, but (in that state of fuzzy half-awareness, so oddly precious) I noticed that some of their randomness seemed planned.  They would be offering the same groupings of music at the same time each night — for instance, an Arbors CD featuring Dan Barrett and Becky Kilgore.  Then the light bulb — admittedly one of low wattage — went on.  They had organized everything alphabetically by title: “I Thought About You,” “I Wished On The Moon,” “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me.”  Now, whenever I turn to the “Songs” listing on my iPod, I think of that anonymous radio station.

However, jazz on the radio is hardly proliferating now.  But some people have discovered that they can get around the costly necessities of a “real” radio station by means of the internet.  The OKOM people were perhaps the first to do this.

Now, I’ve learned that “PURE JAZZ RADIO” is coming on January 1, 2009.  Rich Keith, who also lives on this island, has let me know that his project will be to play jazz classics 24/7 with time for Frank Sinatra on Sundays.  Visit his site http://www.purejazzradio.com for more information. 

Some days I look at the pile of CDs next to the computer that have to be listened to so that I can review them, and those I’ve just bought, and think the heretical thought, “Is it possible you have too much music here?”  But even in those moments, a new jazz radio station devoted to jazz (!) is an enterprise worth investigating.  Good luck, Rich!