Coming out of the fifties at 19 years old, I'd had my fill of doo-wop and R & B. One windy Saturday afternoon in April, I heard this music on the radio coming from a little station in New Rochelle, NY, WNRC AM & FM. There was no sledge hammer back-beat and no loopy falsetto singing, no adolescent lyrics or twanging guitars. This music had a story line; it had a delicacy and a pulse that got inside your chest and your head and invited you places you'd always thought existed but never knew how to reach.
After the music ended, a voice came on the radio. It was not the hyped up, unctuously passionate rantings typical of the DJs of those times. This was a modulated, middle range male voice that talked conversationally, clearly, and that actually told you something. It told me that the sounds I'd just heard had been made by someone called Miles Davis, a trumpet player, and a couple of saxophone players named John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, a pianist named Red Garland, a bassist named Paul Chambers and a drummer they called "Philly Joe." And that the name of the song they'd just played was "''Round Midnight."
The announcer's voice belonged to Mort Fega. It was a voice that became my Saturday afternoon companion for quite some time after that. It was the voice that told me which jazz records to buy and explained without a lot of pretentious rhetoric who Dizzy was and what Bird and Monk and Duke had done.
One Satruday I screwed up my courage and wandered into the small second-story studio of WNRC with the hope of maybe seeing the man behind the voice. The studio was, even for that time, pretty low-tech. There was no receptionist. Just a little hallway leading to a closet-sized glass booth where Mort Fega sat with his headset on and a turntable under each hand.
As he spoke on-mike about the record he was about to play, he put his finger to his lips and then gestured me in. He offered me a seat across the turntables from him. Then he set the needle, clicked a switch, removed his headphones, and the voice that had talked to me through my radio speaker was suddenly talking directly to me. After about 15 minutes, I felt like we were old friends. I came back to the studio a few more times and Mort was always the gracious mentor, the avuncular teacher, the funny friend, the hip master of ceremonies.
One day after school, I got a call from him inviting me to go to Birdland with him that night. He was MC-ing there (nobody ever MC-d at Birdland but the diminutive Pee Wee Marquette) for "The Johnny Richards Orchestra." The band was an evolution of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Richards had written a lot of the famous Kenton charts and now was trying to move on to the next level of creativity. There were tympani and a Latin percussionist, topflight musicians in every chair, and the arrangements were amazing.
Symphonic masterpieces that actually swung.
The band was debuting its first album at Birdland. Because I was with Mort Fega (the MC), I got to sit at a table with a tableclothdown in front of the band instead of where I usually had to sit: over on the side of the bandstand in The Bullpen where penniless college kids and struggling musicians were usually relegated.
The orchestra was a huge, many-legged creature with an enormous, original voice. I'd never heard a big band in the small Birdland space before, and this was an experience that approached levitation.
Mort Fega became the champion of The Johnny Richards Orchestra, but it was not a good time for big bands of any type. After one or two albums, the band folded. But for the few brief, shining moments it existed, we can thank Mort Fega. It's probably one of his lesser-known achievements which, had it succeeded, it might have added an important page to jazz history.
"Jazz Unlimited," Mort's early Saturday show, reached into Manhattan and soon developed a real following of people who were longing for a more intelligent approach to a type of music that clearly deserved it. In 1959 Mort Fega was invited to be the MC at the very first Randall's Island Jazz Festival. Randall's Island was an athletic stadium located under the Triboro Bridge in New York. This was the festival that was supposed to supplant the world-famous Newport Jazz Festival. It was a very big deal and the fact that they'd asked Mort to participate was proof of the respect he'd earned in the jazz world.