As someone who was educated by jazz radio as a teenager, and a tip of the hat to Joel Dorn's programming on Philly's WHAT-FM is in order here, I've had a special appreciation of how enlightening jazz radio programming can be. Yet my appreciation of jazz radio from the 60s has often turned to disappointment in the ensuing decades. This is not to belittle the efforts of talented jazz musicians and educators on the order of Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, but their charms seemed limited, in terms of show format, to preaching to the converted, catering to the middle-brow culture mavens who might hear jazz programming (interviews seasoned with small instrumental interludes) as a mild diversion from "the classics."
Last night I spent hours hearing just how intellectually and artistically challenging jazz radio can be. I stumbled across on the Internet the radio show "Jazz Inspired" by jazz pianist/educator Judy Carmichael, and I finally heard the promise of jazz radio I intuited decades ago, but had been waiting to hear realized. Rather than the usual jazz radio format of interviewing the already recognized musician, Carmichael has boldly gone where no jazz radio programmer has gone before. She uses the overarching theme of jazz in general, and improvisation in particular, as a root metaphor for the creative process in any artistic endeavor. The results are often astonishing.
She interviews Robert Redford and we discover how Gerry Mulligan's and Chet Baker's music have informed both his acting and directing careers, how Redford moved from their rhythms to cinematic ones. Comedian Chevy Chase discloses his friendship with the pianist Bill Evans and its impact on trying to learn how to play jazz piano now. Even more telling is Chase's informative discussion of the links between timing in comedy and jazz. Film Animation Director Tim Johnson talks about how the narrative aspect of soundtrack music by Miles Davis impacts how he directs animation. And who knew that Walt Disney was reputed to have said "Every animator is a frustrated musician"?
When Carmichael interviews musicians who have crossed over from classical or pop to jazz, she treats them less like converts to her church than like intelligently broad musicians with open ears. She has a gentle touch as an interviewer, but isn't cowed by the likes of stars like Redford when they get off the track somewhat. While being a highly accomplished stride pianist, Carmichael doesn't let her ego get in the way when she interviews non-jazz celebtrities who do music on the side. She's consistently warm and sharply focused on the various ways improvisation is bigger than jazz itself.
Some might argue that by interviewing actors, animators, architects, and TV newsmen about how jazz has inspired them, and by playing generous selections from her guests' record collections, that this isn't "pure" jazz radio. I think that she's returning jazz to its historic roots as an art form that was intimately interconnected with all of the arts. For this, she deserves our thanks and support. Listen to "Jazz Inspired" on 170 NPR stations, or from audio files on the Judy Charmichael "Jazz Inspired" website. See if you don't agree that she has translated the intellectual sinew of a book like Paul Berliner's Thinking in Jazz into a 21st century mass entertainment of the highest order.