WBGO Playdate

WBGO's Playdate: JazzSet Coast-to-Coast

Iowa City Jazz Festival early logo

This is a web extra for Playdate #4. Explore the full series and more extras here. 

By Becca Pulliam

Branford Marsalis, JazzSet’s first host, came from New Orleans. I’m from Wisconsin, and recording engineer Duke Markos is from New Jersey.

When we launched JazzSet - the long-running show on WBGO and NPR which captured many of the concerts you hear on Playdate - in 1992, we wanted to cover the whole country.

We quickly found festivals were an efficient way to do this: Branford had played on many stages, and his name opened doors.

We all delighted in the hospitality and chutzpah of jazz presenters far and wide. I called them on the phone, exchanged information, faxes, and artist contacts. WBGO wrote the checks.

We made flight reservations the old-fashioned way - not online - and landing at airports, we met volunteers and slightly paid staff who showered us with transportation, passes, adrenaline, and common cause. They were great people. It was fun.

Rain precedes tulips in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival takes place every second spring (coming again in 2014).

Though a classical festival, the Gilmore's jazz choices were classy too: Sir Roland Hanna, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Dorothy Donegan, McCoy Tyner. Ellis Marsalis played with three or four sons. Branford had arranged “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Maybe it was Opening Day somewhere. Of course we made that into a JazzSet. Here is Sir Roland Hanna playing "Walkin'" and attributing the tune to Miles Davis, as heard on Playdate #1.



Iowa City, in the summer of 1993, barely survived a historic Mississippi River flood. Duke recorded in a pale blue, boxy bread truck with nice people from KCCK/Cedar Falls. One owned a movie theater in nearby a rural town, and moonlighted as a sound man for the Iowa City Jazz Festival.

We met Nestor Torres, flutist from Puerto Rico and Florida, who practiced constantly. Paquito D'Rivera invited Nestor into his band, and Dick Oatts and Ryan Kisor (both from Iowa) were involved too. You'll hear them jam in Playdate #6. For an ambient element, I made a field trip to record corn growing at night (there is sound), but the tape revealed only trucks whining on the Interstate, miles away.

Photo by Ryan Bonneau


At Telluride Jazz, the music was in three locations – outdoors; in the Sheridan Opera House (we set up in the tippy-top); and a small club. Jimmy Heath came; so did John Hicks, Kevin Mahogany, Susannah McCorkle, Regina Carter, Phil Woods, Louis Hayes, Marlena Shaw. After the Telluride Airport experience and adjusting to the altitude, those great performers gamely took to the stage and played to the faithful. The sound carried  into the mountains. Sunsets were amazing.

In the Northwest, we went to Mount Hood. Every afternoon the mountain emerged from the fog. People camped out on a hill by the parking lot of the Mount Hood Community College. In the morning, I walked among the jazz fans’ RV’s asking questions and taping “vox pops” answers. In the afternoon I cooled off in a campus building, which had a great photo exhibit of the history of the Mount Hood Jazz Festival



Dianne Reeves, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (all together), Eddie Palmieri were headliners with – on the side stages – newcomers like Diana Krall, Kurt Elling, Gonzalo Rubalcaba with Joe Lovano.

In the woods, in a Theater Department scene shop, John Blake played violin with Sumi Tonooka on piano and a young Russian bassist I’d never met named Boris Koslov. I believe Johnathan Blake played drums.

Here's Kurt Elling singing at Mount Hood, from Playdate #4.   



On the campus of Brevard College in North Carolina, carpenters and electricians were just finishing construction of a the Paul Porter PAC. I believe I learned the term “punch list” that day.

Later, post-producing coverage of opening night of the Brevard Jazz Festival, we “rolled in” the electric drill sound and Branford ad libbed questions like 'What’s the difference between a baritone sax and a chain saw?' 

Gary Smulyan, Nick Brignola and Ronnie Cuber

The concert was the Three Baritone Saxophone Band, which featured Ronnie Cuber, Charles Davis (not pictured) and Gary Smulyan, with Boris Koslov on bass and drummer Joe Farnsworth. A preview of this band from Playdate #7 is here. Ronnie Cuber makes the introduction.



The Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation made that era possible for JazzSet, and in addition supported select venues coast-to-coast with dedicated funding for each, and coordination among all.

Some venues (indoors, year-round) where we captured more shows, as I recall, are the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh; Discover Jazz in Burlington, VT; the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, MT; Outpost in Albuquerque, NM. Can others remember more?

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Support comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and WBGO.

Playdate funders

Produced for WBGO by Alexander Ariff,
with Becca Pulliam and Duke Markos, Executive Producer Josh Jackson.

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