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Meet David Beckett

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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I remember a school trip to see B.B. King, organized by a hip young English teacher. To say it made a big impression understates the case. I came unglued. I think the teacher thought she might have to take me to the first aid station.
Not many of our Super Fans can claim a Harlem Globetrotters game as their introduction to jazz. But it was at a game that young David Beckett first heard the team's famously catchy theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown," and it set him on the Super Fan path for life. David tried his hand at guitar and even sang for a hot minute, but listening—especially to live music—is his passion. A true friend-of-jazz, he's found multiple ways to indulge, from volunteering at jazz festivals to starting a major festival, from having his own radio show to (since Covid put a hold on live music) writing about jazz.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I'm a Realtor in greater northwest Vermont. I live with my wife and two golden-doodle dogs in Burlington, about 90 miles south of Montreal, Canada.

I grew up in Burlington. My father taught at the University of Vermont starting in 1960, but was granted a sabbatical that took us to England. We lived for four months in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, and I went to school at Aldwickbury as a day boy. We'd take the train in to London on weekends. When I came back to Vermont, I went away to Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire, and then to Gould Academy in Maine, where they let me onto the ski racing teams, taking me at my word that I could ski. In fact, I'd never seen a ski jump before, or cross country skis. I ended up doing some jumping (which is at least as terrifying as it sounds), but mostly training and competing in the cross country events. I was on two undefeated ski teams over the three years, but never failed to come in last in every cross country meet. Looking back, I guess not being a quitter is an accomplishment.

When I was 30 I sang jazz standards in a band. But then my pianist moved. And then my bassist moved. And now I can't really sing anymore because of asthma/reactive airway/inflammation of my larynx.

A friend and I have been doing a jazz radio show for 25 years or so. These days, because of Covid-19, I can't go to the station to do the broadcast, so I've been writing about jazz. I've also been taking a lot of photos, and sharing them on social media.

What's your earliest memory of music?

My parents played records around the house. I have most of them still. My father, particularly, had a real emotional connection to music and we'd sing gospel music and spirituals on long car trips. Which is a bit ironic considering that my father taught philosophy (epistemology, philosophy of science, symbolic logic) for a living, thus being, in a sense, a professional atheist.

How old were you when you got your first record?

My parents had a wooden console high fidelity record player in the living room. They'd play their Peter, Paul and Mary records. But also things like an LP of an E. Power Biggs Bach organ recital, a D'Oyly Carte box set of The Mikado, "early music," and recorder music, among other things.

My first record was a 45 of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing the old Merle Travis tune "16 Tons." After an afternoon of playing that nonstop, my parents politely suggested I take it down to the basement rumpus room. I had an old metal clamshell Victrola down there, and I'd sit for hours and play records on it: Souza Marches, classical music, and other oddments, including that 45 of Tennessee Ernie Ford, recorded, as it happens, in 1955, a year before I was born.

I still adore that recording, for all sorts of reasons: the jazzy performance, the hip arrangement, the blues tonality, and the fact that it's based on the experience of Merle Travis' father who was a coal miner. Until the United Mine Workers and other unions forced an end to it, miners were often paid in "scrip" [Ed: An alternative form of payment—usually some type of credit] and subject to debt bondage. That record is deep.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

My mother took me to see Joan Baez at our municipal auditorium here in Burlington in, I believe, 1963. At one point the PA failed and she simply stepped to the front of the stage and continued without it. In a 2500 seat room. I was enthralled. But at seven years old I didn't have much context for it, I suppose. The next year my mother took me to see Simon and Garfunkel. I remember being puzzled by Art Garfunkel's hair. I certainly had no context for hair like that.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

My mother took me to see The Harlem Globetrotters when I was small. We weren't a sports family, but my mother tried, in her way. I was pretty excited by The Globetrotters. No understanding of basketball was required. At one point, my mother let out a nearly sub-audible little "whoa..." and leaned over to point out the tall guy standing by the Globetrotters bench. She dug out a pen and a scrap of paper and told me to march down and get the man's autograph. I protested, but my plaintive "why?" fell on deaf ears. My mother spent the next day trying to explain who [baseball player] Satchel Paige was, since I now had his autograph.

But the thing which really made a lasting impression on me was the version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" (by Brother Bones, aka Freeman Davis) we heard that night. For literally years afterwards, every time I heard it I'd perk right up, and I remember asking people about the tune. Much later I had a friend in 8th grade who tried to nudge me off of what turned out to be some pretty forgettable "progressive rock" and get me on the right path. He introduced me to Duke Robillard and Roomful of Blues, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Scott Hamilton. When I was 15 and home from school for the summer, with my friend's advice in mind and having heard some great music in the dorms, I went to see Scott Hamilton in a little rock club in Burlington in 1971. It was sparsely attended. I walked up and asked him to play "Sweet Georgia Brown." I figured since he was a jazz musician he must know it. He did, and played it, to my delight.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

It's hard for me to remember not being a concert-goer. Even when I was away at school, starting in 7th grade, I occasionally got a chance to hear live music. I remember a school trip to see B.B. King, organized by a hip young English teacher. Growing up in Vermont in the early 1960's, I'd never seen a big band before, and this was during the years King was traveling with a band a bit like Count Basie's. To say it made a big impression understates the case. I came unglued. I think the teacher who'd organized the trip thought she might have to take me to the first aid station.

Later, I borrowed my mother's car and drove to Montreal to see Cleanhead Vinson, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, and also Dexter Gordon when he came back from Europe in 1976. I remember going to find Ivan Symonds in Montreal (Nelson Symonds' brother, also a guitarist), and finally managed to see him in a club.

Then there were the years at a much-missed club in Burlington called Hunts. Seeing Luther Allison, Phil Woods, Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Pat Metheny, Albert Collins, Richard and Linda Thompson, Taj Mahal, Michael Brecker, David Bromberg, and any number of others in that club was really important for me. Sue Mingus brought a seven-piece band through. Duke Robillard and Junior Brown came through and tore it up.

They'd have top shelf dance bands and local artists on weekends and between marquee stars. People like Pine Island, The Chet Arthur 5, Coco and The Lonesome Road Band, The N-Zones, and the two bands guitarist Paul Asbell had working at that time: Kilimanjaro and The Unknown Blues Band, featuring Big Joe Burrell.

So I've been going out to hear live music ever since I could wander out by myself. But three things brought about my habit of getting to see about 65 or 70 live music performances a year: One, I started going to jazz festivals by initially attending The Vermont Jazz Festival in 1976, followed by the ones in 1977 and 1978. Two, I helped get The Burlington Discover Jazz Festival off the ground by gathering to discuss it in 1983 prior to its first iteration in 1984. And three, I started being a volunteer usher or car parker at The Flynn Center, which allowed me to see 15 to 20 performances a season there. I did that for a couple of decades.

How often do you go out to hear live music?

I've gone from seeing five or six dozen performances a year for the last 35 years or so, to seeing no live music at all since March. I'm desperately hoping we turn the corner on this dreadful Covid-19 mess so there's at least a prayer that some of next year's summer concerts and festivals can happen.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

If you're lucky, the whole audience is sitting in seats and just listening. The communication between the audience and the performers can be palpable, but that sort of undivided attention is getting less and less common today. Also, the immediacy of the sound: Musicians playing in front of you make a different sound than stereo speakers do. And I say this as somebody with a real stereo, who manages a radio station jazz library, and who has a room full of recordings at home. It's just different. There's also the sense of an event, something vibrant and alive happening that you're witnessing. I remember the first time I heard Pat Metheny (with Mark Egan, Danny Gottlieb, and Lyle Mays), in a little club in Stowe, Vermont shortly after I had got an import copy of Bright Size Life. I showed up early and introduced myself, because I'd become good friends at college with a woman who'd been Pat's next door neighbor when they were growing up. They seemed like a nice bunch of guys, and I hung out for a while as they killed time, playing each other's instruments and relaxing, but not really doing a soundcheck.

But when the performance itself started they struck the first notes of "Phase Dance," and I was just stunned. I immediately grasped that this was unlike anything I'd heard, somehow really important and history making. That feeling has never dissipated.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?

The room can make a big difference. If I'm fortunate enough to have choices about which performance to attend, I'll often go to the better room. Walking into a special room just raises the excitement because I know the music will likely sound special, look special, and be memorable.

But "amazing" often happens for other reasons, and it can be in a lousy room of course. I've seen some stunning music while drinking flat beers in bars with sticky floors. If I had to isolate one element though, obviously it would be the performer. I try to go see people I haven't seen, or who I'm unlikely to see again. I've been very fortunate in this respect: There are only a handful of people who are still active who I'm daft about who I really want to see but haven't.

What is the most trouble you've gone to to get to a performance?

Years ago, my late (and dear) friend, George, who I used to see a lot of music with, called me up and said "Want to go see Frank [Sinatra]?" I laughed. I thought he was kidding. But the next day he came by and he'd gotten tickets. We drove through a near biblical hailstorm to get to The Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a drive we'd made many times, but never in weather like that. But we arrived with no rain gear at all, and we had lawn seats. So we took sections of the Sunday New York Times, held them over our heads, and walked in. At least we had a good spot on the lawn. We literally brushed away the hail and put the newspaper down and sat on the lawn with my grandmother's enormous binoculars (a story for another time, perhaps). Then the damnedest thing happened: The sun came out and began to make its way down toward the horizon. Frank Jr. walked out and the old man walked out behind him. Sinatra stood center stage, brass behind him at house right, strings at house left, and began to sing with Frank Jr. conducting. He was older, and used a teleprompter but the phrasing was all there, and he was in good voice for his age. I've been to see music in other countries and traveled further certainly. But that one was special, particularly considering how scary the car ride was and how quickly the plans were made.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

I didn't go see Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review at The Flynn Theatre in Burlington. I missed seeing Frank Zappa at the Memorial Auditorium in Burlington too.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

I'm so spoiled. I've worked really hard at seeing people while they're still with us and performing, so there's a fairly small group for me to choose from. Aside from the really obvious choices, people we'd all give our eye teeth to have seen, I'd say I'd love to have seen Lenny Breau, Ed Bickert, and Ted Greene. Those three guys really exploited the possibilities of the guitar to express harmony in a way few other have.

What makes a great jazz club?

These days, with clubs either closing or endangered, I think of jazz clubs even more fondly than ever. While I've certainly heard a lot of great jazz in clubs that weren't exemplary, I think there's something really special about a club where people come primarily to listen. I think of places like The Village Vanguard in New York, Upstairs in Montreal, and also Le Lion D'or, an ancient and gorgeous old cabaret in Montreal that still offers music regularly. There's also the terrific little Black Box in Burlington which The Flynn programs as its second stage. During The Burlington Discover Jazz Festival it becomes a jazz club, and on those nights it's where it's at. I've lost track of how many really dazzling performances I've seen there.

Pre-Covid, which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?

During the 10-day Montreal Jazz Festival, there's a room that offers two performances every evening. It's in the basement of a Jesuit church; it's a 400-seat amphitheater, and it feels like 250 seats. The sound and lights are superb, like a film set. Being subterranean there's no street noise. The shows in that room, Salle Gesu, are at 6:00 PM and 10:30 PM, and one or the other is usually an "invitation series": An artist is invited to offer a series of concerts with a different group or collaborator every night. I try to get to those Invitation Series shows as often as I can, because the room's great and the featured performer is likely to be excited, having been invited to create the series and invite collaborators.

When I'm home though, it's the aforementioned FlynnSpace, and not just during the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?

R.W. Hunts Mill and Mining Company, simply known as "Hunts" on Main Street in Burlington, was a joy. The guy who made it happen is a real mensch, Chico Lager. He'd bring in these acts nobody else brought and he'd offer two separate ticketed shows. I'd buy a ticket for the first show, and if he saw me outside with my nose pressed to the glass as the second show started he'd often bring me in. I spent a lot of time there and saw some astonishing things happen on that stage. I really miss the place.

I really miss the legendary Spectrum in Montreal, too. It operated from 1952 to 2007—almost exactly 55 years. I saw the very last performance The Montreal Jazz Festival presented there. I liked it because although it had a nominal capacity of 1200, it was cabaret seating and there were various balconies and several bars in the club, so you could always find a nice place to settle in. Every year, we used to drive up from Burlington the day of the Montreal Jazz Festival's press conference. We'd buy tickets at The Spectrum's box office and grab piles of brochures to bring home and distribute. Now the festival mails me a manila envelope of brochures every year, but I miss those trips to The Spectrum, and seeing shows there.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

I brought a dear friend back stage to say hello to Sarah Vaughan when she appeared in Burlington in 1984. If I'd known he'd get a photo of us by nudging us together as we sat, I'd have been a bit reluctant. But she knew me because we'd gone to pick her up at the airport, so I didn't think too much about popping back to tell her how lovely the show was. But there's more to the story. Much later I heard that the Flynn's artistic director at the time, Tony Micocci, was talking to somebody who'd gone back stage after a show of Sarah Vaughan's in New York. Evidently she said something to the effect of "Thanks. Tonight was fun. But you should have been with us in BURLINGTON!" So perhaps she was tickled by the red carpet at the Burlington International Airport and had a good time here. I do remember she sang "Moonlight in Vermont" as an encore, reading the words from handwritten notes. That was an auspicious beginning for our festival, and we've only missed one (this year, due to Covid).

How do you discover new artists?

Until March, I'd have said by seeing them perform. Because I do try to get to see people I'm less familiar with. I discovered Daniel Mille, the luminous French accordionist, in Montreal simply because his publicist chatted me up in the press room and arranged a ticket for me. I'm daft about him now, and have introduced him to a number of people by taking them to his performances or playing him on air. There are a dozen people who I've discovered this way. Another is Jacob Collier, who I was aware of but hadn't really investigated. Then we went to see him and all seven of the other people with me that night are now raving fans. The other way I discover people is by receiving CDs through the mail. Over the 25 years or so that we've been doing our jazz radio show, we've developed relationships with people who are in the business of sending music to radio. So I open the mail and frequently discover wonderful performers. Then I play the music on the radio show and the listeners let me know what they think. We're off the air right now. But instead of airing music on the radio, I'm doing some writing. That keeps me busy while we're waiting to be vaccinated. I can't wait to get back into the station.

How did you get into doing the radio show?

In 1983, I got an FCC license at the suggestion of my friend George, who had a long running show on a local college radio station. Years later I was at a Bach violin recital and a guy literally tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I'd like to do a jazz radio show—he'd seen me at jazz concerts, I guess—so I started doing Tuesday evenings at the station he was on, spinning vinyl in a studio in an old warehouse building. After a few years, we started alternating Wednesdays rather than having shows to ourselves every week on different days. L.J. Kopf and I are old friends now and have traveled to see live music quite a bit over the years.

To tell you the truth, neither L.J. nor I have any idea how many years we've hosted Odds & Evens Jazz Radio at WWPV, 92.5. 25 years? 30 years? L. J. came up with the idea many years ago to spin a whole hour of quiet, pretty music during the middle hour of his show, so we've both done that for many years. Aside from that though, our shows are really quite different. That's great because we each listen pretty closely to each other's shows and hear things we wouldn't hear otherwise. For instance, I start my shows with half an hour of Brazilian music and jazz built on Brazilian rhythms. L.J. plays more music that might be described as challenging: avant-garde jazz, contemporary concert music, and the like. So our shows have different feels, but they both feature an hour of quiet music, and they're both jazz shows at their core, despite the inclusion of a bit of other "jazz adjacent" music. It's been a blast, and I can't wait to get back to it when the restrictions are lifted.

Tell us about your involvement with the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

In 1983 I came back from the Newport Jazz Festival weekend at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY. In Burlington at that time there was a weekly jazz jam session at a social club, the Goethe Lodge, aka The German Club. Over beers at The German Club, I told friends how great the jazz festival had been, and said something to the effect that we should have one in Burlington. A few of us later met in City Hall Park and discussed it some more.

This was during one of Bernie Sanders' terms as mayor. He'd instituted The Mayor's Council on The Arts, so I went to talk with Doreen Kraft, who was in charge. She's legendary here, and still runs the organization. Doreen doesn't remember this, but I pitched the jazz festival idea, and she said something to the effect that The Flynn Theatre would have to be involved, but that they wouldn't do it.

In the movie version of the story I'd have asked if I could borrow her phone and called The Flynn right then. But I'm pretty sure I just went home and got Tony Mococci, the Flynn's artistic director, on the phone, and asked if he could spare me a minute. The next day I went to see him and he said something like, "That's a great idea. But you'd have to convince The Mayor's Arts Council to get on board."

That was a pretty exciting few days. A small group of us, just local music lovers, sat down to make plans. The woman who did the booking, Annie D'Alton, she came up with Discover Jazz as a name. I remember being really skeptical about the name, for some foolish reason. Pretty quickly the festival was fully in the hands of the professionals at The Mayor's Arts Council and The Flynn Theatre (now the Burlington City Arts and Flynn Center, respectively), though I've had various roles, mostly informal, but also as a member of the Community Advisory Board and as an artistic advisor to the festival.

Early on, we had ideas for a truly grass roots community-based Jazz festival. For instance, we called up the local bus company and we pitched the idea of jazz on the busses. Sure, they said. Send the musicians, we'll have them play on the city busses. So during the festival, you might get on a bus and find Robert Resnik playing clarinet. We also offered jazz to the local jail and sure enough, they said yes. We had a Gospel Tent on the waterfront, with world class gospel music free of charge -although we'd pass the hat. I think we put Jazz on the ferry boats crossing Lake Champlain. And we had an excursion boat go out every year with New Orleans Jazz featured. Tickets would sell out before the festival started every year. It got to the point that there was so much live Jazz in the local restaurants that I saw a sandwich board outside one local bar, across from the divorce court advertising "NO JAZZ ALL WEEK."

The gigs in the prison and on buses and ferry boats don't happen anymore. But the festival does offer something like 100 hours of free music in ten days, as well as all meet-the-artist events, films, lecture, demonstrations, and so on. The Burlington Discover Jazz Festival has kept the Festive in the Festival and remains very much a community celebration.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?

I have a lot of vinyl. But I play only CDs on air. We'd need a whole IT staff we don't have at the station to convert the many thousands of CDs to digital files. We have quite a jazz CD library at the station now. We spent a lot of years and some money to create it. I really look forward to being back in the studio in the future, partly because managing that library has become a minor obsession.

Do you consider yourself an audiophile?

I used to consciously collect records and fuss with gear. Over the years I've collected a lot of recordings, and I have pulled together a decent stereo system: English speakers and Japanese electronics. But it dawned on me that really I'm a music lover, not an audiophile or a real record collector. I do enjoy managing the radio station jazz library, though, and being in touch with the people who send us music. The recordings come to my home now, and I'm pretty careful about previewing them for future use on the show. I'm writing about some of that music now, too, which has been pretty absorbing, and it's fun to see the pieces I've written appear online. [Ed. Note: You can read David's writing here.] I don't imagine paring down my collections of music or simplifying my audio equipment, but it's all secondary really to my love of music. I suppose the energy I used to put into record collecting now goes into live music and the logistics and travel needed to see five dozen or so performances a year.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?

I'm a recovering guitar owner. After playing half-assedly for 40 years or so I simply decided to put it aside. I have no regrets.

What's your desert island disc?

Christopher Parkening Plays Bach. It's a solo classical guitar record.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

The passion of the players themselves. Young players keep arriving to play for us what they hear in their minds. I fear if it were entirely up to listeners, we might turn jazz into a museum and listen too much to people who've died. But there's always a young musician saying, "Look, there's this too. Listen." I always go see the venerable legendary jazz musicians play live. But on my radio show I tended to favor emerging and midcareer players. Nobody needs my help to discover Miles. But if I can turn somebody on by playing Linda May Han Oh or Melissa Aldana, Carol Robbins, or the band Artemis, I'm happy.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Am I allowed to quote Nietzsche? "Life without music would be a mistake."

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