Jazz Conversations

My first introduction to Lazaro Vega was in the mid-90s. I spent two years working as a researcher, reviewer and ultimately first editor of The All Music Guide To Jazz. I stayed in the rather small town of Big Rapids, Michigan. There wasn’t a whole lot to do and I didn’t know many people, but every weeknight late while working on reviews and/or the book I would listen to Blue Lake public radio and Lazaro Vega’s radio show.

Flash forward a couple of decades later and we reconnected via Facebook. I discover he’s still on the air and still very much involved in jazz broadcasting and advocacy. I’m thrilled to have him become part of the ongoing Giant Steps – Jazz Conversations interview series.

1. What initially got you interested in jazz?
“My dad was a saxophonist in a dance band in high school, down in San Antonio. Played baritone saxophone, mostly, and some alto. He moved up to Michigan in the mid-1950’s to attend Aquinas College and start a business, so he stopped playing, but he still loved it. When I was real little he’d point at the radio and say, “Can you hear the saxophone?” After a while I could pick it out, and then I’d follow what the saxophone was playing, then went looking for saxophonists who could take me on the longest ride.”

“Grand Rapids, where I grew up, is not considered a “jazz town” by any stretch, especially back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but there was live jazz all over the place, and the adults were always going, and the hippest young musicians who played around knew jazz. Tim Hockenberry grew up across the street and all the neighbors would walk by when he was practicing trombone and say, “He sounds just like Tommy Dorsey.” Dorsey, Goodman, Miller and Kenton were ubiquitous names from the big band era, then came Basie. It wasn’t until college that Ellington really sunk in.”

” Anyway, Tim’s Dad was in a Dixieland band, and my best friend’s older brother played guitar in a jazz fusion group that opened for Weather Report whenever they came through. A local church had a strong concert series including Duke and Ella in ’66, Dave Brubeck regularly, the Stan Kenton Orchestra in ’68, and there was a lot of buzz around that. The minute I started to make money cutting lawns I started buying records, and after my uncle gave me The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, that was it – I started collecting jazz records. So, first my dad, then the environment.”

2. When did you began in radio and what was your introduction?
“1978/79. Student radio in college. While in high school reading John Steinbeck and mulling on his central theme — “have a goal in life” — while listening to Milt Jackson playing with Lucky Thompson on record and my goal became to play that on the radio. I told my high school guidance counselor. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, “You should have a back-up plan.”

 “There was a girl at school whose father was a local television and radio personality, mostly sports, but they had a house in East Grand Rapids from his broadcast career, so he had it going on. One day while picking up his daughter he asked how I was doing and I blurted out, “I want to play jazz records on the radio!” He sort of smirked at the thought (he was a jazz fan) then realized, this kid is serious. He said, “Get broadcast experience!” I was like, “How?” He said, “I don’t know, just get it.” 

“So, when I got to Michigan State I got on the carrier current AM student volunteer network with all the Detroit rock kids who already had radio experience from their high schools. They helped me learn everything by doing – programming, announcing, the clock, how to edit, slip cueing, what everything was called, how to have fun and talk to the audience, how to overcome paralyzing fear of an open mic, how to make a network join, produce recorded spots promoting your program, how to follow a log, approach record companies for promo records, build and document and a library, all of it.”

“This was a network through the dorms. Eventually I made my way to its central station and became jazz director overseeing staffing, providing recordings for programming from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, and doing air shifts. That helped to get a paying job as a student board operated at the NPR affiliate WKAR which had an AM, FM and satellite uplink (board operators are not on the air). ‘KAR is a serious classical radio station with a history dating back to the 1920’s. Deep radio. They offered some jazz, and I took all the board shifts for jazz. They are a highly disciplined, professional operation and did everything to make their students work up to their level. Great training. Had to make a choice, though: no more vacations. Be available so their announcers could go on vacation. Gave up restaurant work, forever.”

“Then I started writing about jazz for The State News, the student newspaper with a circulation of 44,000 at that time. Paid by the article. I wasn’t great at any of this, but school was a good place to make mistakes and learn from them. When I got to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp with nearly 5 years of broadcast experience at the student station and 3 years as a paid worker at an NPR affiliate, and a stringer with a folder full of articles, I was hired immediately. Thank you Dick McKay. I followed your advice – got broadcast experience — and it worked!”

3. Your show includes a lot more of what is termed “avant-garde” or “free” music than a lot of shows that I hear on broadcast radio. Have you always enjoyed that style and do you get much feedback or response from playing those artists?
“Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp is a summer school for the arts for High School age and Jr. High school age musicians, dancers, writers and visual artists; with an international exchange program throughout Europe; and Blue Lake Public Radio. Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp is synonymous with music education. With more than 100 years of recorded sound that falls under the category of “jazz,” to not include changes made in the music after 1959 ignores a significant part of the music’s evolution.”

“Yes, some people do not like, and will never cotton to creative music. Then there are the surprising open-minded listeners – like blue-haired ladies – who write me to ask what was that William Parker music playing at 2 a.m. last night?”

“All jazz is free. Since Buddy Bolden all jazz celebrates innovation, creativity, the human spirit expressed through sound, the individual within the group and the group. The difference between “jamming” an ending in traditional jazz and the music of Ornette Coleman is not such a great musical leap, really. The difference between rhythmic counterpoint in New Orleans music of the early 1900’s and the rhythmic counterpoint it inspired in Dave Holland’s music is less than the similarity.”

 “No, I have not always understood the most forward-thinking musicians of our age, but I trusted them. And much of that music was worthy of the trust.”

“If all jazz is Avant-garde, not all of it is free from traditional song forms, but Sidney Bechet’s music is free from “legit” constraints on tonal approach, intonation, and rhythm, and Ernest Ansermet knew the value of that, immediately. When Louis Armstrong played trumpet in Europe in the 1930’s, people thought he was playing a “trick” horn because Europeans hadn’t conceived of the instrument making those sounds.”

“The 2 and 4 turns rhythmic accents upside down. When Art Tatum was using all those sly substitute chord changes in the standard American popular songbook, he was subverting the “correct” harmonic model for something more clever, daring, and previously un-imagined, and claiming it for Black Culture. To Jerome Kern, this was musical heresy. To Dizzy Gillespie it was something to grin about. “Got you.”

“If you can get your audience to at least consider that perspective and hopefully to really understand it, then creative music is not so out of the tradition but a vital chapter of its continuation.”

 But it’s not “in your face.” Blue Lake is a 100,000 watt FM radio station (90.3) with tens of thousands of listeners each week (88.9 in Grand Rapids). We’re primarily a classical radio station, with jazz on late at night and weekends. The advantage of that is the audience is already here for music: they’re listeners.”

“The audience may accept something they really don’t know or understand if they trust you’ll return often to something they feel comfortable with. I want to keep them listening yet balance that with music education. We have an hour every week dedicated to that music. The show is called “Out on Blue Lake” and airs Thursday morning from midnight to 1 a.m.” (11 p.m. to midnight CDT).”

“While I was growing up in Grand Rapids, the AACM reached into Michigan and opened a chapter with Detroit musicians called “The Creative Arts Collective,” and Roscoe Mitchell moved into Bath, Michigan, just outside of East Lansing, and had a residency at Michigan State University. Anthony Braxton also had a residency at MSU in the 1970’s. And The Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival featured The Art Ensemble of Chicago. I didn’t hear that music when I was in high school, but I heard older musicians talking about this music, saying it was unlike anything you could imagine. I was checking out Ornette’s Atlantic Records.  But I was curious. “Unlike anything you could imagine.” What did that mean?”

Later, during the time at WMSN (Michigan State Network) I called the Steeplechase Records office in Chicago to request some music for the radio station library and Chuck Nessa answered the phone. He turned me on to the Basie bandsmen, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate, Buck Clayton, those guys. We kept in touch. When I was 19 I bought Leo Smith’s “Spirit Catcher” on Nessa Records. 3 harps and trumpet?”

“Around then I heard the World Saxophone Quartet at Erickson Kiva at MSU right after “Steppin’” came out on Black Saint (Leroy Jenkins opened for them, solo). That was life changing. Reviewed for The State News Sun Ra’s Arkestra playing a 4 hour non-stop concert at Dooley’s (a concert bar) in East Lansing. The first Space Shuttle launch was on the cover of the paper that day, which I thought of as kismet.”

“One month it would be James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band backing early blues singer Sippi Wallace, where they wheeled a bass saxophone out on stage, and then next it would be Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, or Detroit’s The Griot Galaxy, then The Buddy Rich Big Band with Mel Torme then Sarah Vaugh at The University Auditorium.   The music was all of a piece – one semester, Pat Metheny with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, the next Tony Williams’ band, or Leon Redbone playing music from The Depression.”

“The media made distinctions between the music, but the people presenting it didn’t – they just brought the musicians to town and if they did well, they brought them back. That’s how the radio could sound. The radio could sound the way the Chicago Jazz Festival was programmed. Cab Calloway one night, Sun Ra the next, with lots of tenor players, local artists and national touring bands in between.”

“Right after I came to Blue Lake, March 1, 1983, I was doing the Saturday morning Jazz From Blue Lake program, and there’s this face in the studio door window. I opened the door and this guy says, “I’m Chuck Nessa. I heard you playing some music by Air so I thought I’d come by and say, ‘Hi.”” He moved from Chicago to Whitehall, Michigan, to raise his family, and that’s where I was living, too. Quaint little town near Lake Michigan. Needless to say, hanging out with Chuck for a couple of decades was better than going to graduate school in terms of music. (That and working at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, which is all about music).”

“I mean, Chuck (with Don DeMichael) formerly helped develop and then program the Chicago Jazz Festival through The Jazz Institute of Chicago, not to mention his activity as a record producer, and his personal collection is astonishing.  At the Chicago Jazz Festival, for instance, I remember a weekend in 1979/1980 where Bud Freeman, the great tenor saxophonist of the 1920’s, was back in town from his years in England and played a set at Grant Park with Wild Bill Davison.”

“The same weekend, Anthony Braxton played a set with Wadada Leo Smith. So, there it was: the avant-garde music of the 1920’s and the avant-garde music of the 1970’s. Chuck was Best Man at my wedding. Now, after 34 years, he and Ann are moving to Buffalo to live with his son’s family and be part of his grand children’s lives. I’m happy for them, but going to miss that intensity for music.”

“Because, you’re right: some people in the radio audience really can’t deal with creative music, and they do complain. Then other people told me if it hadn’t been for Blue Lake they would never have heard “Ascension” or “Interstellar Space.” I was playing that on the radio long before the Internet.”

“Because I’m on so late, 10 p.m. – 3 a.m. (9 p.m. – 2 a.m. CDT)  many creative people – writers, designers, artists, students – listen to “Jazz From Blue Lake,” and they appreciate the challenging music, if you present it to them in a flow that will move back to something they know and love. It’s a matter of trust. They trust me to know that I’m thinking about them, and I trust them to please stay with me through something they don’t know to get back to something they do.”

“Why not play the most creative music they’re ever going to hear? From any era. This is, after all, non-commercial radio. Playing King Oliver records from the 1920s is just as outrageous these days as playing Henry Threadgill’s newest release on Pi Records. People just don’t know that music, and it isn’t curated for them in the mass media. The robots can help you the once you get on the road, but how many people know to ask the Pandora or Spotify robot to play Johnny Dodds’s records?”

4. Who would you consider personal favorites among contemporary artists?

Wadada Leo Smith

“So many. Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Allison Miller, Myra Melford, Russ Johnson, Rodney Whitaker, Julian Priester and a bunch of local musicians you’ve probably never heard of, especially the band Organissimo, bassist Paul Keller, and a local pianist named John Shea. Many others.”

 5. Who would you put in that category among all-time greats?
“Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Basie, Thelonious Monk, Bird, Billie, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane, not to mention Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, or John Coltrane. The usual suspects.”

 6. What are your favorite albums?
“Monk’s Blue Notes; Mingus’s “Blues and Roots.” Ornette’s “This Is Our Music.” Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.” Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic.” Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters.” Roscoe Mitchell Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra, “Ride the Wind.”

7. Do you think that jazz still has a future on both broadcast radio and NPR stations?
“Yes. Especially if a one percenter decides they want to run a commercial jazz radio station somewhere that overcomes the smooth jazz to mainstream to avant-garde divide and plays everything, as well as commits to producing live music from its studios and in communities outside the big cities.  Blue Lake Public Radio, by the way, as a wonderful performance studio and many of the bands who played live on the air can be heard here: www.bluelake.org/ondemand.”

8. I believe you are also involved in some fashion in presenting live jazz? Is this true, and if so what events?
“Yes. I’m on the music committee for The St. Cecilia Music Center in downtown Grand Rapids; and I’m a board member of a non-profit called Adventure Music which presents 4 concerts a year at an art gallery in Grand Rapids.”

“Adventure Music (www.adventuremusic.org) presented, over 4 seasons, many things including Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures as well as “Karuna,” Rudolph’s duet with Hamid Drake; guitarist Randy Napoleon, who’s Freddie Cole’s music director and a professor of music at Michigan State University; Wadada Leo Smith with John Lindberg; Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorers Club with Russ Johnson; Steve Swell, Gebhard Ullmann, Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang as “The Chicago Plan;” Grand Rapids poet laureate Linda Nemec Foster with a nonet led by pianist Steve Talaga doing a jazz piece similar in concept to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets;” guitarist Gene Bertoncini; The Beer City Saxophone Ensemble; The Harrison Bankhead Quintet with Mars Williams and Edward Wilkerson Jr.; Matt Ulery’s Loom; saxophonist Andrew Rathbun with bassist Robert Hurst plus drummer Keith Hall, and other concerts with faculty members from Western Michigan University and Michigan State University.”

“Also, last year’s Michigan debut of vocalist Stacy Kent via the Collins Music Foundation in Muskegon, was something I was paid to advise and MC for.  The Block in Muskegon listens to some suggestions I’ve made, and presented guitarist Frank Vignola and will present the young pianist Emmett Cohen. They just missed pianist Benny Green, who’s ending his time at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.”

 “During the 1980’s and 1990’s I was able to produce concerts through The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, including 3 appearances by Roscoe Mitchell with one featuring Reggie Workman; 2 by Steve Lacy; 2 by Vinny Golia including one with Nels Cline; many by Kahil El’Zabar including duets with Billy Bang or Hamiet Bluiett as well as a band accompanying Ntozake Shange with Lester Bowie and Ari Brown; Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble with Mars Williams; Fred Anderson; Ken Vandermark; A.Spencer Barefield with Regina Carter, trumpeter Malachi Thompson 3 times with guests including Billy Harper, Amiri Baraka or Gary Bartz; Rova; Edward Wilkerson Jr.’s 8 Bold Souls; Ernest Kabeer Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble; and the list goes on. The audience ranged in size from 25 for some, to 250 for Roscoe Mitchell’s Quintet with Fred Anderson, to 400 for Pharaoh Sanders with El Zabar’s Trio.”

“Not to mention getting Von Freeman and Ira Sullivan to perform at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in front of 3,000 campers.”

9. Who are some of your favorite jazz broadcasters and/or shows?
“At school I listened to Doug Collar’s program on WKAR and caught Hazen Schumacher’s “Jazz Revisited” whenever I could, as well as Gary Laine’s new music program on WKAR. I heard Daddy-o on the radio in Chicago, as well as Dick Buckley. These days I don’t have much time to listen to other stations but will whenever driving. Recently heard the station out of Temple University in Philadelphia and loved it, WRTI.”

10. Is there anyone you would consider an influence as a broadcaster?
“Dick McKay, Doug Collar, Buck Mathews and Dave Myers.”

11. Do you also either play or write music?
“Yes, I’m an adult learner on trumpet.”

12. How much weight do you give the reviews, analysis and articles of jazz critics?
“They help me wade through the huge number of new releases. I’ll read Art Lange carefully, for sure. Or Rafi Zabor, John Szwed, Alyn Shipton, Ted Gioia or Ethan Iverson. Sometimes I’ll program sets out of their observations, such as Iverson’s comparison of Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana” with Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino.”

 13. What are some jazz books that you enjoy and/or would recommend?
“Alyn Shipton’s “New History of Jazz” or Ted Gioia’s “History of Jazz.” George Lewis’s “A Power Stronger Than Itself.” John Litweiler’s “The Freedom Principle.” John Szwed’s “The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.” Donald Clarke’s Billie Holiday book, “Wishing On The Moon.” Ross Russell’s “Jazz Style in Kansas City and The Southwest.” Jack Chambers “Milestones” (both volumes); Ian Carr’s “The Definitive Biography” of Miles Davis. “Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke” by Mike Hennessey. “Good Things Happen Slowly” by Fred Hersch. “Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn” by Walter van de Leur.”

14. What are some key issues facing jazz that you feel need to be addressed moving forward?
“Having the music be part of life at the most local level in the community. All of these music students need to get in front of an audience to find out what’s up, because the audience does not lie. If they love you, you’ll hear it and if they don’t, that silence is a signal, too.”

15. Would you consider yourself optimistic or pessimistic about jazz in the future?
“Optimistic. We can get there together. Big fun. www.bluelake.org/radio.”

16. Do you enjoy other types of music like blues and gospel?
“Yes. Other types of music are inescapable. I’ve seen Lyle Lovett every summer at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids for at least 10 years. Heard Diana Ross and Santana there, too.  Just caught Gladys Knight a few weeks ago. She’s still got it. We go to a lot of those. It’s a fabulous venue, 1,800 seats. You bring a picnic and they have a bar. It’s the best, as long as the weather holds.”

 “My daughters are teenagers so I hear all of their music. “Thunder” again, huh? They’re just wild about “Hamilton.”

 “There’s a local listening room where I live called “Seven Steps Up” that’s all singer-songwriter stuff. Caught Albert Lee there which was a kick. “Here’s a two-step” BAM! The place holds, maybe, 80. With a bar. But you have to be quiet during the shows, which I love. Going to places like that makes you feel like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, especially when they lift the bandstand. Then you hear Albert Lee is at Iridium and it’s like, “Hey! We just….” Also, heard John Waite there a couple of weeks ago. Hard rockin’ dude.”

“I have to support venues like that. My wife drags me to the stuff. I had no idea who John Waite was. I was too busy visiting the South Side of Chicago on record runs with Chuck Nessa in the 1980’s to keep up with pop music then. Those barbershop cats weren’t talking about John Waite. They wanted to see what new vinyl Chuck brought with him – Buddy Tate’s “Midnight Slows” and juice like that.”

 17. What artists have you not seen would you most like to see?
“The ones playing tonight.”

Lazaro Vega is jazz director and program host at Blue Lake Public Radio, the broadcast service of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. www.bluelake.org/radio or www.bluelake.org/ondemand