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Michael Bourne, WBGO Host for 37 Years, Has Died at 75

Michael Bourne, longtime radio host for WBGO in Newark, died on Sunday, August 21. He was 75 years old.

Michael Bourne was a presence on the air at WBGO between the end of 1984 and the start of 2022, when he retired from full time hosting duty. He was the host of the Singers Unlimited podcast by WBGO Studios. Previously, he hosted the popular Singers Unlimited (1985-2022) show on WBGO. He also hosted the equally as popular Blues Break for several years. Michael was a senior contributor to DownBeat, writing for the magazine since 1969. Bourne earned a PhD in Theatre from Indiana University -- which came in handy with his role as a theatre critic for the WBGO Journal.

WBGO founder Bob Ottenhoff with Michael Bourne

"I became a jazz jock by chance," said Michael in a piece for WBGO’s website about his retirement in 2021. "I was working on my doctorate in Bloomington. I'd been an occasional guest on the jazz show of IU's NPR station WFIU. When the regular DJ was going on vacation, the program director asked me if I'd like to fill in on the show. That was the summer of 1972 and I'd just survived my doctoral exams. I needed to do something fun, plus they were going to pay me to play records on the radio. I was supposed to fill in for four weeks, but the four weeks is now almost 45 years! I was offered the gig and I stayed until 1984. WFIU was a mostly classical station, but I played everything else, especially jazz, but also blues, Brazilian and Irish music, singers and Broadway musicals."

How he came to New York and WBGO also involved some chance. "I came to New York every summer for theatre and jazz, especially for the George Wein festival. I often stayed with my Indiana school friend Kevin Kline. When I first stayed with him, he was still beginning as an actor. When I came in 1984, he was a bona fide movie star. I also left a tape of my WFIU show with Wylie Rollins, then the program director of WBGO. I'd been thinking about venturing to New York for years, but I didn't know when or how. And on one fateful day in September 1984, Kevin called and said he'd be on location for a while and I could have his apartment for several months if I wanted to come to New York. That very afternoon, Wylie called and offered me work at WBGO. I couldn't resist what seemed a sign that New York was meant to be. My first shift was filling for Rhonda Hamilton on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, 1984."

Bourne's passion for music began early in his hometown of St. Louis -- but not for jazz. "I was a boy soprano. I wanted to be an opera singer when I grew up. I was crazy for Wagner especially. I eventually eased into Gilbert and Sullivan, then the Broadway shows." Bourne's passion for jazz came about -- again -- by chance. "When I was a junior in high school, my chem lab partner and the kid behind us were always talking about jazz. I remember a very animated argument about whether Miles Davis or Sonny Stitt was hipper. I asked them what was a good jazz record to begin with, and one of them said Dave Brubeck's Time Out. I bought the LP at a grocery store the very next day, and when I heard "Strange Meadowlark" I was addicted to jazz. I bought more records at the grocery store, and soon I was listening to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet. I even became a drummer as I fell in love with Art Blakey and Max Roach.” He connected jazz and theatre in 2016 when he c-created and performed “The Brubeck Songbook” with singer Hilary Kole and the Brubeck Brothers.

Bourne continued his love for theatre as an undergrad at what is now called Truman State. He came to graduate school at IU in 1967, and while working at WFIU he finished a PhD. in theatre -- but he enjoyed being a jazz jock so much that he stayed on the radio rather than become a professor somewhere. "I always meant to work in the New York theatre as an actor or a playwright or a critic, and when I first came to WBGO, I was also working on two musical theatre projects. Both shows crashed and burned just as they were about to happen, and I didn't want to be an always struggling actor, so my theatrical career became only critical."

Bourne became a frequent contributor to the WBGO Journal early on. Though he mostly reviewed theatre, he also wrote about movies, art museums, baseball, beer, and his travels (from his favorite park in Oslo to his favorite pub in Dublin). He hosted WBGO's syndicated show, “The American Jazz Radio Festival,” for five years, and he hosted or anchored 22 of WBGO's New Year's Eve broadcasts. Michael filled in on countless shifts at all hours until finally settling into the Afternoon Jazz shift. "Ironically, just after I'd come to WBGO, Rhonda Hamilton asked me what I wanted to do at the station, and I remember laughing and saying that I wanted her shift in the afternoons.” Bourne ended up following Hamilton’s shift on mid-days.

WNBC Remembers Michael Bourne

While working six shifts each week on Jazz 88, from 2001 to 2006, Michael also jocked on the "Broadway's Best" channel of Sirius Satellite Radio. He was an active arts and travel journalist, especially for DownBeat. He edited Corsage, a tribute to his favorite mystery author, Rex Stout -- "the most fascinating individual I've ever known," said Michael. He edited the mini-magazine Hennessy Jazz Notes from 1992-1997. He wrote countless album notes, and in 1997 Bourne produced four CD collections of Mark Murphy songs for 32 Jazz.

He was also a correspondent for the Bon Voyage newsletter. Traveling became his greatest passion after his first trip overseas in 1986. Bourne hosted the Jazz Yatra festival in Bombay. "I was almost 40 and I'd never left the United States. The culture shock was staggering, but I fell in love with the world -- a full-tilt epiphany! -- and I've been traveling ever since. I've always felt most alive when I've been 'elsewhere' -- far from home, far from work, far from myself." Michael also hosted the jazzfest in Amsterdam. "I was the MC for Stephane Grappelli on three continents: Bombay, Amsterdam, and Carnegie Hall." He was a WBGO travel host on trips to Brazil, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, and the Caribbean. Montreal every summer was Michael's jazz home away from home. "I first went in 1992 and I've been virtually adopted by the festival ever since. In recent years I've not only written about the festival for DownBeat, I've also been a judge for the festival's group competition, and I've broadcast live from Montreal on WBGO."

To celebrate his 20th year in Montreal, the festival honored Michael by christening the press room Salle de Presse Michael Bourne. "I only missed the festival in 2006, because of a heart attack — and I was angry, not because of the heart attack, but because I missed Montreal!" Other festival favorites over the years have included Umbria Jazz in Perugia, the NorthSea Jazzfest in The Hague, fests in Antwerp, Copenhagen, Berlin, Warsaw, Chicago, and New York. "What's been especially heartening is how often I've encountered Jazz 88 listeners from all around the world. I remember a jazz lover in East Berlin weeping at the thought of a radio station that played jazz 24 hours a day. Since then, the Wall came down, and now everyone can hear us on the internet, including in no-longer-East Berlin" Traveling offered other delights for Bourne beyond the music, including his passion for great paintings, the Dutch masters especially, and for great beers, the Belgian masters especially. "I'm a Nederlander at heart," he explained. He happily traveled to Amsterdam, Antwerp, London, Rome, or anywhere in the U.S. where his beloved Cardinals are playing baseball. "Pops" also enjoyed hanging with his grand-kids, Nora and Luke, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

He returned to performing in recent years. He hosted "Lyrics and Lyricists" concerts at the 92nd Street Y. He was a host and the musical director for the "Jazz on the Mountain" festival every January (since 2000) at the Mohonk Mountain House in the Hudson Valley -- where he frequently performed what he sometimes called"jazz acting" with drummer Michael Carvin, singer Hilary Kole, and in the "Parlor Games" musical criss-crossing that's a festival finale on Monday mornings. He co-wrote and directed the show “Singing Astaire,” a celebration of the Fred Astaire songbook at Birdland.

"A listener said to me that she read that I used to be an actor, and she asked me 'Do you ever act anymore?' And I said 'Every day on Jazz 88!’” The Daily News asked Michael when he turned 65 if he'd ever retire. "I said 'From what?' I get paid to play records and go to shows!”

Michael Bourne with an issue of DownBeat that he guest edited, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, in 2011.
Michael Bourne with an issue of DownBeat that he guest edited, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, in 2011.

In 2017, Ed Enright interviewed Bourne about his life in jazz in a story for DownBeat. He asked Bourne what he expected his legacy in jazz broadcasting and journalism to be. "Who knows?" said Bourne. "We’re all different. Nobody does what I do, and I don’t expect them to. And I don’t do what anybody else does. I never think of myself as being better or best or anything. All I want to be is unique. I want it to be what I did—and if you like it, great, and if you don’t, OK. I lost my travel legs, so I can’t meander all over Europe anymore. But I did that. And I’m really happy to have gotten the chance. Jazz took me around the world. I can’t complain. That should be on my tombstone: 'He could not complain.'"

The family requests that you consider donating to Actors Fund Home. Visit www.actorsfundhome.org and click on “donate” in the top right. You may also make a check to “Actors Fund Home” and send it to the attention of Jordan Strohl.

(The above includes material written by Bourne for WBGO’s website upon his retirement.)