Angelika Beener explores landmarks in music and culture with special guests on the MILESTONES podcast
Angelika Beener is the latest addition to the WBGO family. She brings with her a rich passion for music, journalistic integrity and the ever-present desire to know and share more about the music she cares for. You can see and hear the results of her skills on MILESTONES, the new program from WBGO Studios, our podcast platform. Recently, we talked of some of the highlights so far, and what she has planned for all to enjoy.
Watch our conversation here:
Gary Walker: What was your inspiration to do a podcast like MILESTONES?
Angelika Beener: It was the 10th anniversary of my time writing full time. I had sustained a long-term injury with the birth of my son and I realized that I wasn't going to be able to go back into the workforce in the way that I had understood what the workforce was in the traditional sense of the workforce. I was at a crossroads and I had to rethink the trajectory of my career. I started a jazz blog called Alternate Takes. It was a way for me as a new mom to keep one foot still in my professional world and still feel like I could contribute to the music that I love so much. I'm very proud of that work. It's been a decade, so I've grown a lot both as a writer and just as an observer and as a thinker. I've lived a lot of life. Then my writing shifted with raising a little Black boy. I started writing for Cultured Child, which is still my essay writing platform. Last year I was reflecting and I said, “Wow, it's been 10 years.” I think I'm ready to not stop writing, but I think I'm ready to expand the ways that I can reach people.
Your writing has also been featured on a number of albums, like People of the Sun, for example, with Marcus Strickland, among many others. You've been published, but you've also been not only a record co-producer, but also an event producer. But the writing actually took precedent. That was where your background lies primarily.
As I said, I realized it had been 10 years. I'm very big into these anniversaries, which sort of leads into how we got to MILESTONES. I said, “Well, I think I want to let people in and hear not just my pen voice, but hear my voice.” I love talking about music. It's my favorite thing to do. My good friends in high school, we would sit and talk about records and liner notes and things like that. A lot of those conversations were really good. Sometimes we'd be on the phone for eight, nine hours. No kidding. My mother would come in the room and be like, “Okay it's time to hang up.” It's one of my favorite things to do. I thought, “Wow, why not let an audience into some of those conversations?”
A fascinating look, indeed. I've listened to probably a half dozen of your podcasts and the thread that runs through almost all of them for me and for your guests was that this music is really a family affair. I think people on the outside tend to not notice that and not recognize it and not realize the fact that many times this music is what brings people together. Christian McBride talked about his father, another bass player. And his uncle a radio promotions guy who was responsible for Christian and his mom going to what Christian believes was his very first concert to see Marvin Gaye in Philadelphia. And Marcus Strickland talking about growing up in his family's home, and he says, “I remember that one record. My father had it and it had the picture of a gorilla or something on the cover.” Mandrill. He remembered that album cover. And later his father would introduce him to the music of John Coltrane. It was an inspiration for him to pursue music full-time as a career.
I think you make a great point because music is maybe one of those rare things that we have a very intimate relationship with in how it came into our lives. We never forget that moment that we heard something that changed our lives, or we heard something that made us fall in love. Music is unique in that way.
I remember Jeremy Pelt chatting with you on the 50th anniversary of a seminal Freddie Hubbard recording, Straight Life that he did for the CTI record label. Early at WBGO when I first started there, one of our first volunteers was a lady named June Kim. She would come in on a regular basis and she would say, “You know, my nephew's eight years old and he's just started playing the trumpet and you should hear him play, he's going to be amazing.” You know, every family member's got a story like that. But every family doesn't have a nephew who is Jeremy. That's who she was talking about. So I thought that all those years ago she was right about her young nephew when he picked up the trumpet.
Chatting with Greg Osby on the 60th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come, he talked about growing up himself as a kid and the variety that was around him musically on the radio, in the record stores where he could go in and look at different stuff. Then he connected the dots in a way that said “Miles Davis probably did the same thing.” You know, his wife was a professional dancer and she took him to a concert one night to see a dance troupe. And when he got out of the concert, he went to the record store and he bought every flamenco dance record he could get his hands on. Downstream a little bit comes Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain.
Music can bring these wild epiphanies. That album opened up what it meant to be a jazz musician. So much of what Miles did was a blueprint for what it meant to be a more holistic artist.
When you chat with Marcus, you talk about how John Coltrane approached a standard and made it his own. But then Marcus pointed out in that same podcast what you need to listen for in that recording is what McCoy Tyner does and how he takes that tune to another level. And this is after I also found out, and this was a surprise to both of us, that there was actually a pianist before McCoy Tyner.
When I talked to Christian McBride about Charles Stepney, he brought up that Joe Sample had played that iconic gliss down the piano right before “I Want You Back” comes on by the Jackson Five. I said, “You're like the perpetual student and the master teacher all rolled up in one.” He said something very important that really lends itself to what you are saying right now: that we never stop learning. If we're listening, we never stop learning. He said every day we will learn something new. And that's a fact. I think that that's the thing that I love most about music is that it's just a bottomless, topless thing. There's no mountain high enough or however you want to say it. We will never know every song. We'll never hear every song. We'll never know every album, every artist. But when McBride said, “You never stop learning if we're really listening,” that is also what makes me love talking about music. Even talking to you right now, I'm learning. If your mind is open and your heart is open, music can be one of the most gratifying things ever. Not just what we hear sonically on the record, but by having conversations.
What have been some of the major things that you have learned about this music through the people that you've talked to? What are some of the things that jumped out at you through conversations with your various guests that you went, “I didn't know that”?
Certainly finding out about Joe Sample being a part of the Motown scene. I didn't know how much he and the Crusaders had worked on a lot of the Motown recordings. I think every episode you'll hear me say “What?” That was a big one. Talking to Jeremy Pelt about some of the recording budgets that the jazz musicians had in the ‘70s, I couldn't believe all those zeros I was hearing from some of those people. They were getting like R&B budgets. I didn't realize that. In the same episode. Jeremy had to hip me to why Donald Byrd had gone the more commercial funk route, outside of just being brilliant and having a breadth of musicality. He also had Bell's Palsy and it had affected his playing. So I am learning about each person's foray into music. I certainly didn't know about what happened when these people were eight years old and their grandmother was playing something in the background or their uncle was a disc jockey. It’s just deepening my understanding of the person and then also these amazing fun facts about the people whom we were talking about. Even having one understanding and walking away with another deeper understanding.
It's going to have a life because so many times people look at the world of jazz people from the outside. What can we look forward to in the weeks ahead? Your debut with us is on January 13, which is a Friday.
I love Friday the 13th, thanks to a particular pianistic wonder in our jazz family, the great Thelonious Monk. When I found out it was on Friday the 13th, I said, “Yep, that makes sense, that sounds good." There will be some more recent milestones coming up because I love the ‘70s. I feel like I was born in the wrong decade. I was born in the ‘70s, but I wish I was born in the ‘50s so that I could really hang out in the ‘70s or the early ‘60s. There are always going to be some great milestones throughout the decades, but what I want to do and what is cooking for the upcoming new episodes is some more recent milestones because I think it's important to also celebrate our peers and the folks of our time and give them their flowers while they're still doing their thing. There'll be some 10-year milestones, some 20-year milestones. That's one of the things that I'm really excited about.
My goal is to talk to people who are doing music today about the past so that we can see the thread and we can rediscover it. We can unpack it in really fun and different ways. That's what music is supposed to be. It's supposed to bring us together. It's supposed to connect dots and close loops.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.