“First person: KPLU’s Robin Lloyd tells the story of Dr. John, a 45 and ‘A Losing Battle’

I see my primary care provider once a year.  He shows up at Seattle’s Jazz Alley with his band, the Lower 9-11.  His name is Mac Rebennack, known to the world as Dr. John.

Dr. John, an expert at the kind of “feel good music” that sells out concerts and clubs, is also a deep repository of the history of New Orleans and its musical culture.  His songwriting and producing abilities made him a valuable studio asset in the early days of rhythm and blues in the Crescent City, and he’s still in demand for those skills.

Spending just a few minutes in conversation with him before or after a show is certain to make you feel connected to the entire musical universe.

Photo by Robin Lloyd

Having been at the Alley for opening night on Thursday, I decided to treat myself to a second helping of Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 on closing night.  I brought with me an antique-shop treasure:  a 45-rpm record from New Orleans label Ric Records from 1962, Johnny Adams singing two songs co-written by Mac Rebennack.  I’d fallen deeply in love the first time I heard Johnny Adams sing.  He had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard, and he knew just how to use it.  I’d been meaning to ask Mac about the song, about the co-writer and about the session in general, because the A-side (A Losing Battle) was Johnny Adams’ first appearance on the national charts (I know, I know, but radio geeks like me live for that kind of thing).

I showed the record to Mac, and he uttered an unmistakably New Orleans-style expression of amazement, which is too, um, colorful to include here.  He set me straight on the co-writer of A Losing Battle, but then confided:

“I actually wrote the song with that guy’s girlfriend.  She was showin’ me a stack of love letters that had passed between them, and that’s where I got the idea of fightin’ the losin’ battle, but havin’ so much fun tryin’ to win.”

Hmm…there’s obviously much more to that story.  You dawg, Mac.

Asked about the band on the session, the infamous AFO Studio Combo, he started to reel off names of New Orleans musical royalty, like Battiste, Boudreau, Lastie and so on.

I reminded him that this song he wrote when he was 21 years old had made it to the national charts, and he said, yes, Berry Gordy had wanted to sign Johnny Adams to the Motown label based on this very record.  But a meeting with Mr. Gordy went poorly, then Ric Records threatened legal action, and everyone back home said “there goes Johnny’s career” –and they were pretty much right.  Johnny Adams did some great recordings in Nashville after that, but didn’t really get the national recognition he deserved until Rounder Records started to showcase him in the 1980s.

Photo by Sarah Colt

Overwhelmed by this wealth of information from The Source, I said, “It’s so wonderful that you remember all of this from back in 1962!”  Mac flipped the record over to the B-side, and deadpanned, “What’s this?  I don’t remember s**t about this here song!  Did I write this?”

The good Doctor topped off my annual check-up with a booster shot from the stage, dedicating a great version of Basin Street Blues to me and my friend Sally.  I’m vaccinated and verified, inoculated and indoctrinated for another year.  Thanks, Doc!


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New App for jazz fans

A new App has recently been released by www.rocksourcearchive.com, an interactive music facts database. The App, called JazDayz, is a new iPhone and iPad App aimed at jazz lovers and professionals in the jazz world, with instant access to day by day jazz facts covering over 100 years – including  birthdays, wedding days, etc.

It also features facts linked to artist websites, video clips, audio files and more. The App will continuously update facts, allows users to search by day, month, year, or by any text string such as artist name, song title, city, or venue.

The App can be found for sale for 99 cents here. It is compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

A Look at the End of Smooth Jazz Radio in Seattle

As many people now know, smooth jazz radio station 98.9 KWJZ recently changed formats, abandoning their smooth ways for what is now called Click 98.9, featuring what is being referred to as “modern music.”

For a variety of reasons, this might not be all that surprising. Smooth jazz radio stations around the country have been disappearing, and KWJZ was one of the few remaining. 98.9 was running on a skeleton staff, ratings were down, and many believed that a programming change might be right around the corner.

Additionally, two other factors were likely at play. The age of the average listener to KWJZ was getting older, which has a tendency to frighten away those who are purchasing advertising spots. While it might seem like Seattle has plenty of “modern music” stations already, those stations carry a younger demographic that businesses are much more comfortable spending advertising dollars on. No advertising dollars, no commercial radio station.

Also, KWJZ was a station owned by Sandusky, which also owns Warm 106.9 and Movin’ 92.5 in the Seattle area. Who did KWJZ compete with the most for listeners? Warm 106.9 and Movin’ 92.5. Having two stations fighting over the same listeners is a challenge, but having three stations fighting for the same listeners makes virtually no sense (which I’m sure is the conclusion Sandusky also came to).

What does surprise me however is the reaction that came from this change. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that virtually every radio station has loyal listeners, but listener loyalty is not exactly what I am referring to.

Let us start with the place I first heard about the programming change: The Big Blog from seattlepi.com, which highlights Seattle news, arts, and culture.

The title of the blog (from author Amy Rolph) starts with “No more jazz for Seattle?”. The opening paragraph described KWJZ as “the region’s long standing jazz station.”

With all due respect to KWJZ and the blog author, those two lines, to be polite, are misleading to say the least. Without letting my pride as a KPLU jazz host get in the way too much, I will remind everyone that KPLU broadcasts 100 hours of jazz every week, has been doing so for 25 years (versus the 19 that KWJZ was broadcasting smooth jazz), and can be heard clearly on a variety of signals as far north as Canada. And that is not to suggest that KPLU is the only station in the region that offers jazz.

But what is even more surprising to me is the reader responses, not only to the blog post but to other articles written about the change as well.

Generally speaking, there seems to be two primary sides in the responses. One side suggests that they will miss this programming and the station that they loved, and that Seattle is now void of a station that can offer this specific type of music and programming. Programming that many suggest as their source for jazz.

On the other side, you find many who might define themselves as “jazz purists.” More or less, these folks are happy to see the station go. Referring to smooth jazz as “Elevator” or “Dentist Office” music, many of these people make mention of being offended that anyone could even qualify this music as a sub-genre of jazz at all.

To be honest, after reading the articles and the reader responses, I took some time to think about how to best address this topic. For me, someone who would do everything I could to avoid listening to anything even resembling smooth jazz (or what I thought smooth jazz was), I would close my eyes, say the words “smooth jazz” in my head, and a big picture of Kenny G would appear (with his hair taking up most of the vision). Artists like Kenny G were the bread and butter of smooth jazz radio stations and record albums for many years. With that in mind, I tend to side with those who define this music as “instrumental pop” versus some form of jazz.

But then, a few weeks before Christmas, I was walking through the Tacoma Mall and saw a big advertisement banner for KWJZ. On it there were photos suggesting their primary artists: Norah Jones, Michael Buble, and John Legend.

No synthesizers. No soprano saxes. All vocalists. Three “crossover” artists. Legend is an R & B star. Buble is doing his best to be the Frank Sinatra of today. And Norah Jones, who seemingly can do whatever she wants, has still managed to avoid involving any sounds of “smooth jazz” in the George Winston sense of the phrase.

Vocalists were incorporated into smooth jazz programming in the 90’s as part of a reinvention of their programming, and it seemed to work until the early 2000’s. At that point it appears the smooth jazz radio stations needed another reinvention in order to keep listeners around and to attract new listeners, but it doesn’t appear that reinvention happened.

In talking to several colleagues who have been in the industry far longer than I have, there are a couple common thoughts that I can pretty much qualify as true.

First, jazz is very much alive and well in Seattle. In addition to KPLU and other stations that continue to successfully program jazz, top jazz artists continue to make Seattle a destination point while on tour at a variety of Seattle jazz clubs and other venues.

Second, no matter what you define “smooth jazz” as, or if it is even jazz at all, is far less important than whether or not the music is actually enjoyable. That is what music is supposed to be – enjoyable. I find it just as wrong to criticize Spyro Gyra or The Yellowjackets for defining themselves as “jazz” as I do when someone tells me that I have to enjoy some obscure live 30-minute Coltrane solo because it is “important” rather than “enjoyable.”

Will I ever own a Kenny G album? No. Do I think that it is more appropriate to define what is called “smooth jazz” as instrumental pop rather than a form of jazz? Yes. But if YOU enjoy the stuff, then good for you. I’m glad that you are listening to music that you personally find enjoyable, versus feeling like you are supposed to for one reason or another.

And for everyone out there that feels like they have lost jazz because KWJZ went away, perhaps you could give KPLU a listen. Jazz is indeed still alive in Seattle.