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Shards of a Jazz Life, by Michael Bourne

Michael Bourne in the studio at WBGO, on April 9, 2014.
Michael Bourne in the studio at WBGO, on April 9, 2014.

It's one of the retirement rituals. I'm looking back and I'm amazed how lucky I’ve been and how grateful I am to have known extraordinary people, to have traveled to extraordinary places, to have happened into extraordinary events.

I've been looking through a box of pix, miscellaneous glimpses of a lifetime.

Jazz enabled me to travel, and at every festival I've heard how much jazz embraces the world and how much the world embraces jazz.

I fell in love with the world on my first trip overseas. I emceed the Jazz Yatra (Jazz Journey) in Bombay in 1986. I eventually emceed concerts of Stéphane Grappelli on three continents.

I was an opera freak at 10. I thought I'd grow up to be an opera singer. I became even more passionate about Broadway musicals. And then, in high school in Saint Louis, I heard Dave Brubeck play "Strange Meadowlark" on the album Time Out, and I was enraptured by jazz. 

I attended the theatre school of Indiana University. I was educated to be a professor of theatre history. And, meanwhile, I became a jazz journalist, mostly for DownBeatI'd been invited several times on the jazz show of the classical station WFIU, and after I survived the rigorous exams for a doctorate in theatre, WFIU asked me to fill in on the jazz show for four weeks — that became 50 years.

I jocked my first show on WBGO Dec. 31, 1984.

I'll jock my last show on WBGO Jan. 9, 2022.

On one of the great days of my 37 years on WBGO, Josh Jackson recorded me talking with Dave Brubeck at his piano at his house in Connecticut. He played for me "Strange Meadowlark" and my heart leapt.

Hilary Kole and I created a show of the Brubeck Songbook, together with the Brubeck Brothers. Hilary sang the lyrics of Iola Brubeck, and I told Brubeck stories. We played the show at NJPAC, on the Jazzfest at Mohonk Mountain House, and in Dave's long-time hometown in Connecticut.

Michael Bourne and Tony Bennett at WBGO on Dec. 22, 2009.
Michael Bourne and Tony Bennett at WBGO on Dec. 22, 2009.

Tony Bennett and I became friends not talking about singing. We've mostly talked about painting. Tony Bennett the singer is also Anthony Benedetto the painter. We often have gone together to art museums. One of our best artistic times was on a Monday when The Met was closed. They let us see whatever we wanted to see, and I became a virtual docent for Tony in the Dutch galleries. Tony liked a colorful shirt that my Other Half gifted to me, and, inspired by a great Velazquez painting we'd seen, Tony painted me in the shirt.

I've enjoyed hearing and hanging with iconic jazz masters around the world. One photo shows me with Dexter Gordon on a Caribbean cruise. My advice to young jocks on WBGO is always "Be yourself, and if ever you're in doubt, play Dexter Gordon."

From the same Caribbean cruise, another photo shows me with Red Rodney and Benny Carter. Benny was one of the fountainheads of jazz. Knowing Benny was like being friends with jazz personified. I emceed his 90th birthday concert at Lincoln Center.

Red Rodney wanted me to write his memoirs, especially about playing with Charlie Parker. When he was a junkie, he pulled off various crimes to pay for drugs, including impersonating an Air Force general and robbing an airbase payroll. When caught in Copenhagen, an American agent shot him through a leg. I said folks might not believe his memoirs. Red showed me the bullet hole.

Another pic shows me with Toots Thielemans at the jazzfest in Istanbul. We were also together in his hometown, Brussels. Toots often recorded harmonica solos on already-produced tracks of new albums. He didn’t call these gigs "soloing." He called these gigs "peeing."

One day in New York when we were headed to lunch, Toots asked "Do you mind if I stop at a studio and pee on Vanessa Williams?" And he did.

When he was just getting started, Wynton Marsalis' group played at an International Brass Symposium in Bloomington. Hundreds of brass players and educators were at his concert, and I knew some of them were skeptical about Wynton as the new young lion of the trumpet. Wynton's poise playing for the skeptics impressed me as much as his playing.

I wrote a Master's thesis about plays of Amiri Baraka. He bought me a beer in Berlin, and when I told him how much I'd learned from reading him and Voltaire, Amiri laughed and said "Voltaire taught you reason and I taught you to throw it away!"

I attended Jazzfest Berlin seven times, and every year I observed a microcosm of quantum cultural and political changes in the world. I first went through the Berlin Wall in 1987. The Cold War was happening, and I felt I was walking around in a spy movie. I realized that day what freedom means.

I think of myself as having a Dutch soul. I attended the NorthSea Jazzfest six times in The Hague, and one year I also emceed the Drum (Tobacco) Jazzfest in Amsterdam. Michael Brecker and Johnny Griffin headlined a sax summit at the Concertgebouw. Bobby Watson was playing last with only 20 minutes before the hall’s curfew. "What should I do?" he asked. "Blow the roof off!" I answered. And he did.

I've known Janis Siegel more years than any others on Singers Unlimited. We've eaten countless dinners, including the biggest wiener schnitzel in Vienna.

I'm a sourpuss. Don't smile much. Frequently look goofy. Or astonished. I do sometimes laugh.

Guy Davis visits The Blues Hour with Michael Bourne on Jan. 23, 2014.
Guy Davis visits The Blues Hour with Michael Bourne on Jan. 23, 2014.

I've always enjoyed whenever listeners have been "host-an-hour" guest jocks — including Ed Bradley and Joe Morton.

Not every interview is with a jazz musician. Kareem Abdul Jabbar is a jazz aficionado and, like me, is seriously into mystery novels. Kareem came to WBGO to talk about the first mystery he'd written about Mycroft Holmes.

To celebrate my 40th anniversary scribbling for DownBeat, I guest-edited the October 2009 issue. I called upon four jazz masters — David Baker, founder of the IU Jazz Studies program; Dan Morgenstern, my first editor at DB; and two of the most open-eared musicians I’ve known, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. They answered the question "Why Jazz Endures."

Branford's answer: "Some say jazz is dead, some say it's more alive than ever. I say jazz is jazz, nothing more or less, and as long as there are musicians who have the courage to play it the way it was meant to be played, it will be fine."

In the guest-edited DownBeat, I featured 14 pages celebrating the biggest and best jazz fest in the world: Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal.

Very early on, my relationship with FIJM became personal much more than professional. In 2019 I attended my 27th of the festival's 40 summers.

I especially connected year after year with the brilliant press corps. They called me Oncle Michel. Here’s a picture of my nieces and nephews (all wearing me-shirts) when the festival honored me with a lifetime "black magic" press pass. They once even named the press room after me.

I heard a true cornucopia of great music at the jazz fest in Montreal. And it's  a drag that so many of the world-class Canadian artists I've heard at the jazz fest are rarely, if ever, heard below the 49th Parallel — including a colorful chorus of singers, especially Terez Montcalm, Susie Arioli, and Holly Cole.

Also always delightful: Streetnix, a street band that joyfully played everything from A to Z, Adderley to Zeppelin. Plaster, a trio playing electronic whizbangs that I heard as a continuum of the foot-patting riffs of the Basie band. The Jensen sisters, trumpeter Ingrid and saxophonist Christine, uniquely imaginative, even more so together. Lorraine Desmarais, a pianist so passionate that often she's physically catapulted up from the keys. Oliver Jones, godfather of the Montreal jazz scene, playing solo piano, with a trio, with a symphony orchestra, and especially with his lifelong friend and idol, Oscar Peterson.

Dave Brubeck played and Tony Bennett sang the best of countless concerts I've heard by them, inspired (they said) by the very appreciative Montreal audience.

I've especially enjoyed hearing Diana Krall growing up, as a pianist, as a singer, as a star, through the years in Montreal. Her first trio gig was seriously swinging. Her solo reminiscence about music she learned from her father was sublime. "I can still smell his cigarette smoke on the sheet music," she said.

Michael Bourne and Diana Krall during a session for WBGO in 2017.
Michael Bourne and Diana Krall during a session for WBGO in 2017.

I was there when Tony Bennett called Diana on stage and held the mic for Diana to sing "They Can't Take That Away from Me." An anointing.

WBGO and FIJM both began in 1979, and for a decade I broadcast live from the festival. We celebrated our 40th anniversaries together at the festival's jazz joint L'Astral. I co-produced and emceed the concert with the festival co-founders, Alain Simard and Andre Menard. We laughed a lot, mostly telling stories about some of the fabled musicians at the festival. Lorraine Desmarais was the musical director of a stellar Montreal band playing songs of festival favorites. Stealing the show was the singer who has headlined at the jazzfest most often, Holly Cole. And everyone joined in an ecstatic finale of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love."

Just as the 21st Century was getting rolling, I was invited to speak at the "Jazz on the Mountain" festival at the Mohonk Mountain House, a spectacular castle on a lake up the mountain above New Paltz. I was asked to answer a question: "Where is jazz going?" My answer: "I don't know, but wherever jazz goes is cool."

Michael Bourne at WBGO's Jazz on the Mountain on Jan. 16, 2016

I was invited back for 21 years as the festival's emcee and musical director. I booked artists who came not to play a gig but to play! 

On a most memorable weekend, clarinetist Anat Cohen, guitarist John Scofield, and saxophonist Ken Peplowski all joined in spontaneous trios with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson.

Scott Robinson, always bringing for me his bass sax, became a Mohonk mainstay musically and mirthfully. Dave Stryker and Martin Wind also became annual, sometimes as leaders or playing in the "Mohonky" house band. Martin's tribute to Bill Evans was the most beautiful of so many wonderful concerts in the parlor. In my last years I couldn't imagine programming the jazzfest without Scott, Dave, Martin, and the chops and charms of Helen Sung at the piano.

Hilary Kole awakened the actor in me and together we created shows we premiered at Mohonk . I also enjoyed performing duets for actor and drummer with master drummer Michael Carvin.

Retirement comes for me not long after into the new year. I was on the air on WBGO first at the end of 1984, and altogether I emceed or anchored 22 New Year's Eve national broadcasts on NPR. As 1999 became 2000, Rhonda Hamilton and I anchored the Y2K broadcast all night from the NPR studios in D.C.

I remember also, snow-deep in Chicago, 20 minutes after the tumult of midnight, Kurt Elling quieted even the loudest of the celebrants with a mesmerizing poem by Rilke. Benny Green and Bobby Watson, effervescent as the champagne, played in my hometown, Saint Louis. Donald Harrison in New Orleans whipped up a Mardi Gras Indians frenzy of drums and chest-butting. The Mingus Band at the Jazz Standard in New York celebrated Mingus classics with so much earthy panache that a recording of the concert won a Grammy.

Most memorable of all the New Year’s Eves happened at the Grand Hyatt in New York with the magical Nina Simone and the indefatigable Lionel Hampton. Instead of the usual “Auld Lange Syne,” midnight became surreal with Nina singing and Hamp swinging “Roll Out The Barrel.”

No wonder that, after 35 years of Singers Unlimitedon WBGO, I booked a lot of singers. One weekend was all singers, headlined by Mark Murphy. The 2019 jazzfest featured a Singers Jam. Janis Siegel and I co-hosted a concert of solos and duets with nine singers I have known and loved for 20 or 30 years, climaxed by Cat Russell and Roseanna Vitro singing "Mean to Me" and blowing the roof off.

I've been feeling downright Proustian as I've looked at these photographs, at these moments of my life. I've been constantly surprised as I've been reminded of all that I've relatively happily lived through.

Someone said that now that I'm retired I can do the things I've always wanted to do.

I answered that I've been doing all the things I've wanted to do for 50 years. And I thank everyone who's inspired and enabled me to enjoy the world. And all that jazz.

Michael Bourne, who died on August 21, 2022, 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 is the host of the Singers Unlimited Podcast by WBGO Studios. Previously, he hosted the popular Singers Unlimited (1985-2022). He also hosted the equally popular Blues Break for several years. Michael is a senior contributor to Down Beat, with the magazine since 1969. Doctor Bourne earned a PhD in Theatre from Indiana University -- which comes in handy when he's a theatre critic for the WBGO Journal.