Saturdays With Mort (Fega)
And guess who Mort invited to sit down front for the big event? That's right. Me. The skinny little college kid who'd wandered into his studio that April afternoon looking for a way to connect with the magic that jazz made him believe in. The Randall's Island Stadium was filled to capacity, and it was a typical warm, damp, brown August evening. No stars visible, but the rain held off. I sat entranced as jazz star after jazz star appeared on the stage: Monk, The Jazz Messengers. Mort introduced Dakota Staton, who was experiencing a real surge in popularity at that time thanks to her "Late Late Show" album...the explosive Art Blakey and his Messengers... and the irrepressible Monk, who wore what Mort describes as "the now famous rickshaw hat" on stage.
Standing there in that sprawling venue, facing a sea of faces and surrounded by modern jazz's most imposing giants, Mort was as cool as a Miles Davis solo, relaxed and in his element. Riding home later in the car with him, he told me that he hadn't been the least bit nervous. Excited, yes, but not nervous. I thought: so that's what being cool is.
Shortly thereafter, Mort Fega's appeal as a jazz DJ and MC landed him a gig in New York City at WEVD AM & FM. His show ran opposite the well-entrenched Symphony Sid, he of the raspy, late-night voice, wandering syntax, and repetitive play list. Sid created a mood, albeit a somewhat dated one. What Mort delivered was prime jazz, bright, scintillating, and freshly-crafted by the musicians who were making it happen, culled mostly from his own formidable record collection. Mort's commentary was always informative without ever being didactic. Hip without being a hipsterish. He knew just when to say "dig" instead of "appreciate."
Symphony Sid, obviously threatened by Mort's creative approach to jazz DJ-ing, was not above taking shots at his rival, alluding to him as "The Swan," an apparent reference to Mort's being white. Strange, since Sid was also white.
In a recent conversation I had with Mort about his old rival, he told me that he never swung back at Symphony Sid on the air, even in fun. "Off the air I always acknowledged how much he had done to further the acceptance of jazz. Mort said. " I even said that he should be inducted into some kind of Hall Of Fame for his pioneering efforts." Fega's stint at WEVD lasted from 1960 to 1966, when he was replaced by, of all people, Symphony Sid. Go figure.
In addition to the many things Mort Fega has done for jazz and its fans through the years, no story about him would be complete without a mention of his affection for the infamous jazz monologist, "Lord Buckley." Buckley employed a throaty, southern evangelist style delivery along with the hippest bebop jargon to re-tell hyped up, improvised stories about people like Jesus ("The Nazz") and Gahndhi ("The Hip Gahn"). And although the tales were simply the ones we all know, some people found Buckley irreverent while others just fell over laughing. Mort Fega dared to play some of Buckley's monologues on the air at a time when comedian Lenny Bruce was also storming the gates of propriety in nightclubs and concert venues.
From 1969 to 1975 Mort worked at station KXIV in Phoenix, then returned east where he introduced jazz programming to several local stations. He also produced live jazz every week at a local club in Hartford, bringing numerous big-name musicians in for Monday night gigs.
In 1986 Mort moved to Florida and connected with a local National Public Radio station, WXEL-FM, where he did five hours every Saturday night, again drawing from his own encyclopedic jazz library for musical material. He also taught a class at the Palm Beach Community College on "The History and Appreciation of Jazz," and wrote a monthly column, Focus on Jazz, for the Palm Beach Post.
Unfortunately for jazz and jazz listeners, Mort Fega is retired now, and the only music he plays is for his own enjoyment at his home in Delray Beach, Florida. There is no one to take his place. For me it has been nearly a lifetime since I've heard Mort's unmistakable voice on the radio, but it has stayed in my head as indelibly as the sound of Coltrane's tenor or Monk's unmistakable touch on the keyboard.
The theme song with which Mort always closed his first "Jazz Unlimited" show was Woody Herman's 2nd Herd's haunting rendition of "Early Autumn." That piece contained just about everything that's great about jazzexquisite unison work, lyrical, singing solos, phrasing that left you limp with emotion, and an overall brightness tinged with sadness that defines the term "bittersweet."
Thanks, Mort, for all of that. And Happy New Year from a lifelong fan.