Bob Perkins: The Art of Listening

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: To change the topic, you're an African-American who came up at a time when society was still segregated, and then you lived through the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and so on, until now, when we have an African-American president. In the midst of all that, you just steadfastly pursued your career without much obvious attention to race. But is there another side to you? Were you ever were involved in Civil Rights, and do you have some particular views about race relations and minorities?

BP: Of course. In fact, I wrote and voiced my views when I did the editorials for WDAS. I made a point not to attack any individual or group. Instead, I talked about issues. Several organizations gave me awards for my work. I came in on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. Many of the politicians in Philadelphia got into office on the basis of my editorials—some of the city council members, for example. When WDAS supported black candidates, most of them got swept into office. The station was called "the voice of the African-American community."

Back in the day, in the 1970s and 1980s, we put a lot of people into state offices in Harrisburg, and many into city council. I wrote the editorial endorsements for Congressman Chakah Fatah and State Representative Dwight Evans. I wrote about fairness and what you can do to counteract unfairness. How and where you spend your money. Buy from your friends and don't give your money to your enemies. If someone's unkind to you, don't patronize him. Spend your money with people who are fair-minded and love equality. I never attacked people, although we did have something going with the late Mayor Rizzo.

AAJ: Everyone had something with Mayor Rizzo.

BP: He was a very controversial individual. But I never attacked him as a person, just the issues. Nothing strident—deal with issues, vote your conscience, spend your money with people who treat you right. I did those editorials for about fifteen years, and they went over very well.

AAJ: You're an advocate rather than an iconoclast.

BP: This country is based on money. Money talks. Just withhold your money, people will come around. Think of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King drove a bus company into the ground. But the people had to walk, they had to suffer. All you're asking for is quid pro quo.

AAJ: But you're leaving out the dark side of the cash register, especially regarding the music. Mediocrity rises to the top with money. The best musicians are often not taken seriously, not even given a decent wage for their gigs. It takes as much training and experience to be a good jazz musician as to be a physician, and many of them get paid next to nothing when they perform. Also, the executives take control of the music for monetary gain. J.J. Johnson became very upset when Verve took control of a couple of his later albums and told him what to play and not play. Here's a man who had over 50 years as one of the world's top jazz musicians, and they're telling him what to do!

BP: The truth is that jazz was born in the brothels and the bars, and then later drugs came into it pretty heavily. So there's always been a social stigma attached to the music. And of course, there is always racial prejudice. Someone once said that if Duke Ellington were white, he could have run for President or even run for God, and won.

Unfortunately this country is not as strong as it used to be. We're very fractured as a nation. We've bought into the idea of survival of fittest too much. It's not very good for the country. For example, for the first time, we owe other countries like China and the Arab Emirates tons of money. Foreign businesses outdoing us.

AAJ: Yes, we seem to have lost touch with certain values, like tolerance and trust for others, and valuing ideas that differ from our own.

BP: Ellington wrote "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and Porter wrote "Anything Goes." They were prophetic.

AAJ: Jazz and popular music have a strong socio-political element.

Daily Life and Approach to Living

AAJ: Now, before we wrap it up, could you tell us about your family and what you do when you're not working?

BP: Actually, my avocation is my vocation. I go around looking for unique recordings that I can spring on my listeners. I get euphoric when I find something interesting because I know I'm going to "hit someone's hand," as they say in pinochle. Someone's gonna say, "I haven't heard that in 50 years! I'm gonna call Perkins and thank him." I also write for a good magazine called Icon, which gives me a chance to write about some of the musicians.

AAJ: Do you ever talk to your wife? [laughter.]

BP: She's not much of a jazz fan. But we go lots of places together. She's more into classical music and vintage rhythm and blues. She's a professor at Pierce College and is also working on her doctorate degree in education, like Bill Cosby. Sometimes we pass like ships in the night. We'll have a late dinner at home, and catch up with each other then.

AAJ: One more question—Coltrane said that music was his spirit. Could you tell us about your philosophy and life and spirituality.

Miss JustineBP: We're at the crossroads of the spiritual and secular, and we make a "joyful noise." People are creative and shouldn't be pigeonholed. Consider vocalist Miss Justine, for example. She was a banker when I knew her way back when, and then decided to become a singer. Recently, people were amazed by her at that Billie Holiday concert. For me, a good upbringing with loving parents and siblings helped a lot—the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Respect other people. Carry yourself the right way. Be yourself, don't put on airs. And my mentors had a lot of humanity. I learned from them. I'm a walking composite of a lot of people. I have big ears. And I surround myself with the right people. I owe them a great debt of gratitude.

AAJ: And we all owe a debt of gratitude to you for your big ears, because we all benefit from them! If you have a secret, maybe that's it, because you play the very best music on your show.

BP: If you have a gift, pass it on. Someone once asked Einstein, "What's our purpose here on earth?" He said it all very simply: "Man's mission on earth is to help his fellows."

AAJ: There's a funny story about Einstein. He played the violin pretty well, but he wasn't a polished professional. One time the great classical pianist Artur Rubenstein came to his house to play duets. Rubenstein became very frustrated, and at one point shouted, "Einstein, can't you count?" [Laughter.]

Photo Credits

Page 3 (Barkley Hendricks Collection): Courtesy of Barkley Hendricks

Page 4 (Charlie Parker): Frank Driggs Collection


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