I’ve just learned that Ed Beach is dead. He was 86 and had lived in Oregon (his home state) for a long time. No service is planned, so people who recall him, love him, and love what he did will have to perform their own affectionate memorials in their heads.
Fittingly, for a man who spent his life as a voice coming through the speaker, there is no picture of Beach on Google Images. But that voice — cavernous, drawling, amused, dragging out certain syllables — is here in my memory, and when people like myself who grew up listening to Beach speak of him, one of them will bring forth his cherished phrases and start laughing.
What I know of his biography is limited. Oregon-born, he was a capable West Coast jazz pianist who admired Tatum and the early bop players. How he got into radio I don’t know, but my first awareness of him began in 1969, when I saw in the New York Times that there was a two-hour program called (rather flatly) JUST JAZZ on the then reigning non-commercial New York jazz station, WRVR-FM, 106.7, broadcasting from the Riverside Church.
That in itself was interesting: it was on two hours every weekday and for four hours on Saturday night. In this age of digitized music and internet streaming, those hours may not seem like a great deal, but it was a boon even then. And what caught my attention was the listing of a two-hour show on Lee Wiley, someone I’d read about but hadn’t heard. (I’d read George Frazier’s love-besotted liner note reprinted in EDDIE CONDON’S TREASURY OF JAZZ. More about that book and that piece sometime.) So I found a new box of reel-to-reel tape and sat in front of the speaker while Ed Beach played Lee Wiley’s recordings and spoke in between them.
I didn’t know at the time that I had uniwttingly encountered one of the great spiritual masters, someone who (along with the musicians themselves and Whitney Balliett) would teach me all that I needed to know about jazz.
Beach’s show began with his chosen theme — Wes Montgomery’s BLUES IN F — played softly as connecting-music in between the performances he wanted to share with us. Then, that deep voice, introducing himself and the show, and offering a very brief sketch of the artist who was the show’s subject . . . and into the music. He didn’t overwhelm with minutiae; he didn’t teach or preach. (Yes, I am comparing him with the Phil Schaap of today, but defenders of Phil need not leap to his defense. This is about Ed Beach.)
Beach wasn’t terribly interested in full personnels, in the best sound quality, in the original label of issue, presenting alternate takes in sequence, arranging an artist’s career chronologically.
Rather, his was an eclectic, human approach — as if you had been invited to a listening session with someone who had a large collection, was eager to share his beloved treasures, moving from track to track as delight and whim took him. So his approach was personal, apparently casual — as one selection reminded him of another, not just for their apparent similarity, but for the juxtapositions and the range of an artist’s work he could show in two hours. Someone like Lee, whose recorded career was compact (this was in 1969, before all those versions of LET’S CALL IT A DAY surfaced) could be covered well in two hours. Other artists, with longer careers, got multi-part shows: four hours on Louis in the Thirties. Beach’s range was wide: I remember shows on Rollins and on Johnny Dunn. And — given his format — he didn’t replay his favorite recordings. Ed Hall today, Hank Mobley tomorrow, and so on.
In hearing and recording and rehearing those shows I was not only learning about performances and performers I hadn’t heard of (because much classic jazz was out of print and my budget was limited) but about a loving reverence for the music, a point of view that could shine the light on the ODJB and on Clifford Brown, without condescending to either. He mixed reverence for the music and irreverence for things outside it (he was powerfully funny in an understated way). He tried to teach us all what to listen to and how to listen to it.
Now, when we can buy the complete recordings of X — going for hours, with unissued material, arranged in sequence — a Beach show might seem a fragmentary overview. And I remember the mixed feelings I had, perhaps thirty-five years ago, when my collection (in its narrow intense way) began to expand past what he had played — or, even given new discoveries — what he had known. I had that odd sense of a student discovering something that his much-admired professor hadn’t had access to . . . mingled emotions for sure.
(Beach also had a program, for some brief time, BEACH READS, where he did just that — in that resonant voice, purling his way in hilarious deadpan through S.J. Perelman. I can hear those cadences now. And he was just as articulate off the air. I remember having a small dialogue with him through the mail. Powerfully under the spell of Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES, I had written something negative to him about Red Nichols, accusing Nichols of being in it for the money. Forty years later, I remember Beach’s sharp response: “Jazz musicians don’t play for cookies and carrots.”
All things, even Golden Eras that no one recognizes at the time, come to an end. JUST JAZZ started to be aired at odd hours. I set my alarm clock to get up at 7 AM on a Saturday morning to tape a two-hour Sidney Catlett show. Pure jazz, without commercials, was not a paying proposition. WRVR changed its programming schedule, putting Ed “in drive time,” airing brief jazz-related commercials (one of them was for the Master Jazz Recordings label — MJR of sainted memory) and then the station was sold. I heard him again only on my deteriorating tapes and then only in my imagination.
I hope that others who had the precious experience will share their memories of Ed — and perhaps this post will make its way to his family, so that they will know even more of how “Uncle Gabchin” or “Sam Seashore,” of the firm of “Wonder, Blunder, and Thunder,” some favorite self-mocking personae — how much Ed Beach was loved. And remains so.
Few people gave us so much, with so little fanfare, so generously.