Pat Prescott reflects on a storied radio career, and her recipe for 'Favorite Things'
When WBGO rolled out Favorite Things at the top of this week, it represented both a new midday fixture for the station and a kind of homecoming. Pat Prescott, the show's host and curator, has had a distinguished radio career, including more than 20 years in the New York area, at stations including WRVR, WBLS and CD 101.9.
With Favorite Things, which is part of a new slate of programming at WBGO, Prescott will be exploring themes and connections within the music; her first, "Songs For My Father," was a tribute to Herman Prescott, the man who instilled her love of jazz.
A few days into her new shift, Prescott joined Nate Chinen for a conversation about the show's core idea, the parameters of taste, and how her career on the airwaves began with happenstance and a hunch. Watch (or read) the full conversation below.
Nate Chinen: Pat Prescott is here with us. Pat, I have been enjoying Favorite Things on the air at WBGO, and we are now just a few days in. What has your first impression been now that the show is out and people are responding?
Pat Prescott: Well, first of all, it means the world to me that you like it, because I'm a Nate Chinen fan. I got to say, I love your work and and really have a great deal of respect for you too. So that means a lot. I think probably for me right now, the biggest surprise has just been: I don't know what I was thinking, but in this digital world that we live in, this is accessible to people all over the place and I am hearing from everybody I've ever known in my life right now, which is so awesome. Especially since, you know, we started off the show with two days that were dedicated to my dad. If you listened, I'm sure you can tell how much he meant to me. I posted a picture of him laying on the floor in our house with the records all around and reading the liner notes. This was a scene that was played out in our home so many times. Music was such an important part of our lives. And you know, when you're a little kid and you don't have control of the turntable, you're listening to whatever they're listening to. This is seeping into your consciousness and just becomes an important part of who you are. And I think that's what happened for me with jazz, with my dad. So it has meant the world to me to be able to start off. I mean, he's been dead since 1971, but he's just as alive to me today as he ever was. And certainly through this program, I think is probably one of the greatest tributes that I can give to him.
Well, you know, as a dad with a turntable and a couple of daughters who are a captive audience, I'm glad to hear this — because it could have gone the other way. You could have just rebelled and strictly gotten into heavy metal or something, as a as a rejection of your father's taste. [laughs] But I actually did want to start there because the first song you played, of course, was Horace Silver's "Song For My Father." And this theme played out. So it did raise the question of that formative influence. What can you tell us about your father's taste in jazz, and what you absorbed; how that influence expressed itself for you?
My dad had very eclectic tastes, and he he bought the first Beatles album that ever came into our house. He had the Motown sound going as well. But jazz was really his favorite. And Daddy sang a little bit. He had a great a great voice, sounded a lot like Johnny Hartman, actually. I can't hear Johnny Hartman without thinking about my dad. You know, he went to Hampton Institute, which is Hampton University now, and was part of the Hampton Glee Club there, and he used to sometimes sing at this restaurant in Newport News, Virginia, the area where I grew up, and that that whole Hampton Roads area. But he loved music, was wall-to-wall music. I remember my mom telling me one time that on Fridays, when daddy would get paid, she said she knew that when he walked in the door, he was going to have a armload of new albums. He stopped by the record store on the way home. She's like, "More albums?!" And he did have thousands of albums, and it was everything. We heard everything from Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis to even, you know, Mantovani with strings and the little Gaelic singers. My dad had a record of German drinking songs. He was in Germany in the service, and he spoke German. And I remember we'd run around the house — "Drink, drink!" — you know, because we this is what we heard. And we absorbed all of that. Show tunes. I knew the words to every Broadway soundtrack, and it wasn't until we moved to New York that I ever even saw a Broadway show. And he took me to see Pearly. And I tell you, I was like, that's what this whole thing is about. You know, when I listen to music today, I hardly ever hear anything that I don't know what it is. I mean, I know what it is because I've heard all these songs so many times.
Just a lifetime of listening.
Now, when did it become clear to you that you were going to be playing records for others and and be a voice on the air, and also a guide to the music?
Didn't even consider it. I mean, when I went away to college, I took my record collection with me — and it was eclectic, and it was good. I was at Northwestern University, and around a lot of people who were involved in the music program there. And also, we partied, like you do in college. I would often be the deejay at parties and stuff. But I never thought about that as a career. I was an English major in secondary ed; I wanted to teach school. That was what I had always wanted to do, from when I was a little girl. And you know, Northwestern University has one of the best Radio, TV and Film schools in the country. I never went in the building. You know, that was not what I was doing. And it wasn't until after I graduated and had been teaching for a couple of years — I was living in New Orleans. I moved there after, you know, you have to throw out a little bit after Chicago for four years. And so I moved into New Orleans and I was taking some graduate classes at the University of New Orleans and I met this girl who was coordinating hostesses for a disc jockeys' convention that was going to be there. And so I said, "Sure, I'll be a hostess." And I went, and after that week of meeting the top radio personalities in the country and seeing what that world was like, I was like, "Oh, I know I can do that." And so I found a broadcasting school (in the Yellow Pages back then), and I enrolled in a six-month course, because I realized I'd never been in a radio station. I didn't know anything about how to do it. I knew I knew music and I knew I loved music.
And so I said, What harm would it do? I was off for the summer, so I started taking this course. And I got very lucky, met somebody who introduced me to Anthony Wilson, who was a program director at WYLD FM New Orleans, which was a very eclectic station, kind of mirroring what Frankie Crocker was doing in New York with that 360 degree total Black experience — where you might hear Eddie Jefferson and then you would hear some R&B and some blues and some rock, you would hear some of everything. And that was the kind of station it was. We did play a lot of contemporary jazz especially. But that was the beginning for me. I worked part time for a while and then they offered me a full time job. I took a sabbatical leave from teaching and that was 47 years ago.
From New Orleans, you then moved to New York City, right? Or was there a stop in between?
No, I went right back. I went back home to New York, because that's where my family was. Moved in with my mom, and and went to WRVR, which was located in Queens, had a great run. This was a wonderful radio station. We played straight-ahead jazz, we played contemporary jazz, and we played vocals that were either straight-ahead, contemporary jazz, R&B-oriented or rock-oriented. And so the mix was interesting. It was really fun putting those shows together, but the station got sold and they changed the format to country & western, which is a whole story in and of itself that I know a lot of people in the Tri State area are quite familiar with. But then after that I went to WBLS, and eventually in 1988 went to CD 101.9, and was there for 13 years before I came out here to Los Angeles to work at The Wave, where at the time I was co-hosting a morning show with Dave Koz. And over the course of the last 20 years that I've been here in California, we have seen that station transition — we've changed format about four times, and I've survived all of them.
Eclecticism has really been part of your portfolio, it seems, from the beginning: even though you're rooted in jazz, you've been in all these environments. In a certain way, you experienced what people now refer to as the glory days of of radio. And part of that was really being one of the people to cultivate the format that we call smooth jazz. So at CD 101 and then at The Wave, you've been a really prominent personality and sort of sherpa for people into this world. I loved your presence in the recent Kenny G documentary, because I feel like there were a lot of there are a lot of critics who are sort of like, "I don't know what to say about this guy." And meanwhile you were very clear about what he meant at the time, what he continues to mean, and why he was so effective as an artist, as a communicator. All of which is to say that you've got this, you have a really important role to play in the growth of smooth jazz and contemporary jazz. And you've still got a foot in that world. And I wonder where you see that music right now? What is the health of that community? What's happening? Because I confess that I'm not in the center of it. Sometimes I have to check in. And I know that you can tell me exactly what's going on.
I can definitely tell you exactly what's going on. Because I have remained connected to that music, and it's been interesting because as as The Wave has morphed from one format to the next now — and I don't even know how I would really describe us now, other than to say it's an adult radio station that plays pop music and, you know, and R&B — but a lot of the same people are there. And it's because I'm not the only one who has eclectic tastes, Nate. You know, people listen. Just because they listen to your station, that doesn't mean that there's not other music that they like as well. And I've found that to be true, and I've also remained really involved in the jazz community through the cruises. I'm one of the hosts on the Dave Koz & Friends at Sea Cruise, the Capital Jazz Super Cruise. And also Marcus Miller's Smooth Jazz Cruises. I'll be returning to those as well. And there is a community of people who are grown people who like to have a good time. Their kids would really be shocked if they could see their parents' behavior in this environment. But there are a lot of people who love a lot of different types of music. I've never really wanted to be boxed in. I love neo-soul. I think some of the neo-soul artists, some of the really more interesting and creative people that are on the music scene right now. But as far as the the "smooth jazz" genre is — and I don't really like to look at it that way. I like the way that Sirius XM approaches it, as "contemporary jazz." And I think that there are a lot of amazing, wonderful players there. But you know, you talk about the Kenny G thing, and I had a conversation with Kenny after the documentary, because when I saw it, one of the most stunning things to me was when Kenny said that that privilege never occurred to him. I was stunned. And I know Kenny, and I do believe that he was sincere when he said that. That was like a a moment for him, a moment of recognition of something. And so I interviewed him after that and I asked him about that. I said, "Tell me now, tell me the truth. You really never thought about the fact that you were a white guy who was getting a lot more credit than some players who could play most people under the table, you know?" He said, yeah, he hadn't really thought about that. Which speaks a lot about white privilege.
Because that's the nature of it, really, if you think about it. But I do believe that people like him have become very popular because — Kenny, especially, I think that he writes beautiful melodies. He really does. Even if you hate him, you know, You hear that song and it's stuck in your head, and that's something that every musician wants to accomplish. But the thing about jazz, especially when you examine the depth of the jazz music catalog, there is so much creativity and ingenuity in what these artists have done over the years. Particular, I think, in that very fertile '60s and '70s period. That music is timeless. It is incredible. I don't know if anybody will ever match what Miles and Trane and and Charlie Parker and those guys were doing. But then, you know, you look at what's going on today and you see your Robert Glaspers, your Matthew Whitakers. I mean, there is so much up-and-coming talent that is tremendous that we can embrace. And I think that this is one of the things I'd like to be able to bring to WBGO. I think that it's not so much what the genre of something is that you play, but the music needs to work, together. You know, in radio you are trying to create a flow It needs to make sense that this follows this. And one of the cool things about Favorite Things is that we get the opportunity to take a theme and have a little bit of fun with it. It's just another way to present an incredible body of music that grows and grows as time goes by. I don't think that contemporary jazz is going to go away, and I don't think that it should. I think there are a lot of players — you take, like Gerald Albright and Kurt Whalum come to mind right away. I've seen these guys in every kind of format. I've seen them play straight-ahead. I've seen them play sacred music. Seen them rock out. I've seen them, you know, with R&B, jazz, and so funky you have to get up and dance. And to me, if it's good, if the quality is good, the playing is good, the creativity of what they're doing on their solos, I like it. I embrace it, and I'd like to share some of that as well with people. But I do love the old stuff.
I was going to ask about that, because the addition of your voice and your curation to WBGO was announced, and then the show dropped. It was very quick. And I think for some people, because they do associate you with The Wave and with CD 101, they said, "Oh, it's going to be a smooth jazz show." And then if they tuned in, they would have heard Miles and Coltrane and Horace Silver and Nancy Wilson. So, can you talk about whether there is a sort of aesthetic or stylistic center to the show for you? What are the stylistic or sonic properties that you would say are the home base for Favorite Things?
I know that at WBGO, we're asking people "What is jazz?" This is a debate that could go on forever. But for me, What is jazz? is really interpretation. Every artist is going to bring a different interpretation. These are songs that we've heard hundreds and thousands of times, many of them. But in jazz, every time you hear it, it's from a different voice, and it's new. And I like the solos. That's the heart of it for me. I want to hear what you do when it's your turn to stand out there and interpret this melody in your own voice. And I think that there are a lot of people who do that very well. And those names that you mentioned, you know, from from the past were just the absolute best at it. But there are some people who do it very well now, as well. That, to me, is at the heart of it. The improvisation.
Yeah. That individual expression that we hear when when someone is is improvising over a theme. That's interesting as a definition, because that is that has much less to do with with stylistic properties and much more to do with, you know, the personality of the player.
Yeah, the individual voice of the person who's bringing it to you. And that's why it never gets boring. You'll never hear a jazz performance that's exactly like they did it the last time. There may be some elements of it that that you're going to hear, or that that you're going to want to hear. And stylistically, the things that different artists do. You know, like Nancy Wilson, I mean, you can hear a few notes from Nancy Wilson, you know that it is her. And there's certain things that she does with her voice, you know, that are distinctly Nancy. And I love those things, and those are the things that really mean a lot to me. It draws me in and makes me want to listen.
We are just a few shows in now, but I know you're looking down the line and you're thinking about other themes. Are there any sneak peeks, any little hints of of what we can look forward to with the show?
Nate, we're gon' have some fun. It's March, so we're going to do a couple of shows for women's history that are all women performers — and not just the singers. I'm talking about the players, because they are so many female artists who are amazing. And not just the Carmen McRaes and the Nancy Wilsons and the Betty Carters, but also this new crop of young singers who are just amazing and who are in the tradition but standing on their own two feet in their own world as well and bridging that gap. We've got that coming. We've got a show that I think you're really going to like, our Funky Fridays show. And I do kind of stretch the boundaries a little bit with this one, because the whole idea is that on Friday, we want you to get up and party (even though it's, you know, noontime). Nothing wrong with a lunchtime party.
It's five o'clock somewhere, as they say.
It's five o'clock somewhere. We've also got a show that our producer, Billy Robinson, came up with. Because we create playlists around these themes that we're coming up with. And he sent me a list of songs that mention body parts — you know, ears, eyes, nose, and the word "body" itself. And at first I said, "This is really silly, Billy." But once I started looking at the list and trying to put it together, we have the Head-to-Toe show coming. And I think you'll get a smile out of that, it will be nice. And also, every now and then, I'm going to do what I call "The P.P. Shuffle," where I just take my phone and just look at what I what I've been listening to recently. We'll share a show that'll have just those things that are things I want you to know. And one of the things I really want to do is a sit down with you, my friend. Because you're the man with the new music. And I think that's important. I think it's a place that radio has failed us in recent years. Radio used to be the place that you would go to hear what's new. People used to turn on Frankie Crocker because they wanted to know what was new and what was happening, and he would play the newest, right out of the cover. You know, just break the plastic and play it right then and there. And if he really liked it, he'd play it 10 times in a row. I'm not going to do that. I promise I will not be doing that. But I would love to have you come on, and let's explore some of those songs that you write about, some of those artists that you're writing about on a regular basis. So can I get you to commit to that?
That sounds fantastic. I would love to.
We'll have fun with that, and explore other people's favorite things as well. I have some other artist friends of mine who are going to be coming around. We have a conversation with young Matthew Whitaker, who I love and adore. He'll be sharing some of his favorite songs with us. Marcus Miller is going to be coming along with us. Robert Glasper is going to come on the show. Patti Austin is coming, and that will be fun. And eventually we'd like to have our listeners also share with us their favorite things. Because it's really a conversation between us and the people who do us the deep honor of turning us on and listening.
That's beautiful. I have one more question for you. You mentioned earlier the fact that the show can be listened to all over the world. And you hate to say "silver lining" when you're talking about the pandemic, but if one good thing has come out of it, it's realizing how flexible we can be. So we can we can record things and they can go out all over. We're having this conversation now over one of these platforms. So, that said, I wondered how you feel about being back on terrestrial radio in the New York City area. Does it feel in some way to you like a homecoming, as a radio person?
Definitely. This is full circle for me, for real. To be able to do this. And quite frankly, when I was working at, CD 101, it was frustrating to me that John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Carmen McRae and these people were not part of the mix. I did a show when I was at CD 101 called "In the Tradition." It used to air on Sunday nights, and it was my chance to be able to play this music, which is a music that means the most to me, and the music that I think really meets all those criteria I was talking about before, better than any. And so it means the world to me, and the response has been tremendous. There've been some people who I've seen who think that, you know, I was going to come in and it's going to be Kenny G all day, every day. And that was a big part, too, of why I wanted to start out with the Songs From My Father. To kind of establish my credentials: No, I love the same music you love. And so I'm just delighted to be back, and to be working with Steve and to be working with Billy Robinson, who was our producer when I was working with Ray White at CD 101.9. And just to hear from all the fans, they are still there.
Favorite Things can be heard every weekday from noon to 2 p.m. ET. at WBGO.