How It Happened
My parents enjoyed music. Mom used to sing to us as children and taught us the song as well. We had children's records. I remember being particularly enamored of an album of cowboy songs and a record whose songs taught lessons related to astronomy and space travel. Everybody liked the Beatles, but the record I pestered my parents about was the first album from the Kinks. They bought us a copy, and their reward was months of hearing me shout, "Oh, yeah!", as Ray and Dave churned through "You Really Got Me."
The first record I bought with my allowance savings was John Mayall with Eric Clapton: "Bluesbreakers". Clapton records his first vocals on this date, covering a tune by his favorite writer, Robert Johnson. By the time I was in 7th or 8th grade I had the Robert Johnson sides as well. Even though I remember pondering the parents' copies of Duke Ellington's "Indigos" and Lionel Hampton's "Silver Vibes," it would be a couple more years till I got to serious jazz - tuning up en route with bands like Traffic, and the first LPs by Electric Flag, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chicago Transit Authority.
I was a sophomore when Al Bray came by with Charles Lloyd's "Forest Flower" and John Coltrane's "Live at Birdland". The door opened easily and the room was full of love. I was comfortable and excited. Steve Cote had bought a couple hundred modern jazz classics from WABX Air Ace Jerry Lubin, who was leaving town. In the ensuing weeks Steve and I and a strange group of heads processed these albums in a delicious herbal daze.
Coltrane, Miles, Monk. Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp, Marion Brown and Albert Ayler. Roland Kirk and Charles Mingus. It was an amazing new ether, and it was just so right! I will always remember the impact of that first night of listening, which included four sides that are lasting favorites: Gary Burton's sublime "Country Roads and Other Places"; Gato Barbieri's riveting "Fenix," with its tango rhythms and hysterical shrieks and squonks; Harvey Mandel's magnum opus for progressive blues guitar, "Cristo Redentor," and Mose Allison's state-of-the-union, horn-driven address "Hello There, Universe". Man, was I on board that bus!
During high school I began building my jazz LP archives and attending concerts and club scenes like Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. I did three terms at U-M before dropping out to join a band, which promptly disintegrated. In the five years before I returned to the "U," I began working in record stores as a jazz buyer and salesman and, eventually, a manager. During this period I befriended the legendary jazz drummer J.C. Heard, whom I heard regularly in clubs. He lived in my apartment complex. I remember staring at then-newly reissued sides with Ella, Billie, Sarah and All-Stars, which featured J.C., and thinking, "My God! This is the same cat! And he's so sweet!"
In 1980 I returned to Ann Arbor and with the help of Pell Grants successfully concluded my undergrad work in English Literature. When I returned to college I told myself it would be nice to get involved with radio and that I should keep my eyes peeled for the opportunity to open a record store. In the fall of 1981 my brother, Jeff, my friend, P.J. Ryder, and I opened PJ's Used Records, which survives to this day in our little corner of the world at Packard and State in Ann Arbor. A year later I was recruited by a friend to host a jazz program at WCBN-FM the student-run alternative radio service at the University of Michigan.
I met Arwulf and Joe Tiboni through my involvement at the store and WCBN, beginning personal and professional relationships that thrive crazily to this day. I began working at Schoolkids' Records around 1988 and was the senior employee when the Liberty Street location met its sad demise. Arwulf and I collaborated regularly during this period, performing poetry for two voices and working with various jazz ensembles. Joe produced some of these shows, and the three of us actively worked with the now-moribund Eclipse Jazz to promote their concerts and events.
I recall PJ's funding a solo concert from Foday Musa Suso and Mandingo Griot Society. We gave them dollars to bring Olu Dara to town for the first time. Likewise Geri Allen. Likewise James Carter! Hey, I can pick 'em for sure! And when they were tadpoles they came cheap - which was, and is, all PJ's could afford!
Somewhere in the mid-'80s I made the acquaintance of Linda Yohn, WEMU's morning jazz host, music director and another of my favorite human beings. I remember dancing dervish-like to George Adams and Don Pullen's quartet at Frog Island and hanging with the Linda basking in audio-afterglow. By the mid-'90s she was approaching me to take over the 5-8 a.m. Saturday morning jazz program on 89.1. This turned out to be a pretty cool scene and after a few years of seasoning she offered me the high honor of the Saturday night shift. I guess that's about the long version of the short of it...except to mention that Alberto Nacif told me that doing a pilgrimage to Cuba would change my life! Hey, Al - you were so right!
So to Al B. and Steve, Jeff and PJ, Arwulf and Joe, Linda and Al, all my other friends and all the musicians: Thanks for shaking up my world. This really is the music of life itself, and with careful attention it will help us all learn how to love. And that's really what it's all about.