Russ Davis reflects on his 3+ decades in Jazz Radio!
Russ inside the MOJA Radio studios…I THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT!
I was just thinking about the fact that I began my jazz radio career back in the year 1978! With all the changes in technology and the business in general it strikes me that to simply be actively involved in programming and presenting this area of jazz and still be thriving is pretty astounding. I sometimes feel like a jazz musician who has chosen to express himself in a personal way and just let the chips fall where they may as opposed to crafting something that might get me more work in the jazz arena as it exists today. It isn’t that brave an endeavor really. I’m simply doing what I know how to do and building on something that began for me way back in the 20th century. I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell this story.
The beginning was 1978 in Atlanta where my bosses at WQXI-FM (AKA 94-Q) commissioned me to create a Sunday night (7 PM-Midnight) “jazz” show to complement the album rock format that the station presented the rest of the time. I was a bit confused as I told them I wasn’t a “Jazz expert” and not very conversant with the more straight-ahead forms like bop, hard bop, free and other related genres. My mother had raised me listening to the big bands she loved in the 30’s & 40’s and that was cool, but a bit out of date and the sound quality was not up to par with what could be programmed on the air. Plus I couldn’t quote chapter and verse on that music either. At this point in jazz history the Fusion Era was in full swing and this was a music I knew and loved. I remember hearing Miles Davis’s “Right Off” from the album Jack Johnson, the electric shuffle featuring John McLaughlin’s chunky guitar and Herbie Hancock on organ, and thinking “if this is jazz today then I’m a Jazzer!” Contemporary jazz artists like David Sanborn, George Benson, Joe Sample and the Crusaders, Bob James, Pat Metheny and others were starting to move the music toward a more mass appeal and accessible sound and style. My bosses simply said “Do Something!” So the program Jazz Flavours was born with a blend of fusion and contemporary that seemed to strike a chord with the Atlanta audience. For 10 great years the program flourished, expanding to a nightly show and achieving great ratings. Anyone who knows about jazz from 1978-1988 will remember how Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Herbie, Metheny, Sanborn and so many others were hitting their stride and leading the way in creating an engaging and popular form of improvised music.
The format we’d created in Atlanta was noticed elsewhere and in 1988 I was offered the job of programming the startup of a new contemporary jazz radio station in New York City owned by The Tribune Company. They were flipping the pop station WPIX-FM to WQCD-FM (CD 101.9 it would be called) and I accepted immediately but asked that I be given the title of Music Director instead of Program Director as I wanted to spend my time with on air work and music programming instead of with administrative duties. We assembled an all-star, powerhouse staff with a unified vision and a wealth of new music to present that filled an obvious void for a jazz-hungry audience in the world’s jazz capital, New York. Not only did regular programming please the audience but our special programming including my interview program Words & Music, our New Age and Traditional Jazz shows as well as occasional live performances from venues as varied as The World Trade Center Plaza, The Bottom Line, JVC Jazz Festival shows from Houston via satellite and many more added extra spice to the programming. We were playing the music of the established stars and developing new ones with each passing week and expanding our playlist to include new trends like Acid Jazz, the fun and funky style born in the dance clubs of England. Jazz purists might not have heard a lot of what they loved but what people thought of as a new kind of cool jazz was certainly a hit in New York.
For almost a decade we rolled along, achieving ratings and sales figures far beyond the original projections. All was fine until in the mid 1990’s deregulation of broadcasting was made law followed by a group of researchers, consultants, gold-diggers and snake oil salesmen who came along to talk our general manager, and obviously the GM’s of a lot of stations around the country, into abandoning a more adventurous way of programming for one that was totally formulated, predictable (by design) and constrained to include only the music that qualified by achieving a certain score in what was called “auditorium testing.” The methodology for this was placing a number of people in a room for a couple of hours, listening to 8-10 second “hooks” of a few hundred songs. As each segment played they were asked to turn a dial to the right if they liked the song and to the left if they did not like it. Or was that to the left if they liked it and to the right if they didn’t? I can’t seem to remember and I have a feeling neither could the participants. Ear fatigue would set in pretty quickly for many people. Another problem with this testing was that we were not only testing the supposedly most important segments of instrumental pieces but also songs by the likes of Rod Stewart, The Doobie Brothers, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder ballads, Anita Baker…you get the idea.
I remember asking the guy who brought this into our station whether or not we could test “The National Anthem?” I figured that would get a good rating and we could start every hour with it. He didn’t like that idea and I’m sure he could see I wasn’t on board. We were instructed to take the results and implement the findings into our programming immediately by taking out anything similar to whatever tested badly and put more in of the style that did. What happened was that the Contemporary Jazz format that we had established and with which we had been having such great success was changed overnight to one called “Smooth Jazz,” a name I always thought would be great for a laxative. Our contemporary jazz format was dead on the spot and though these guys would argue that their new format flourished and had great ratings success I ask you where is that format now? I rest my case. I had been keeping my creative chops going with syndicated programs including versions of my original Jazz Flavours show for the Atlanta market and in other cities around the country as well as my interview show that I called Conversations. I had also been hired to do weekly shows overseas, Cool Cuts for Bay FM 78 in Tokyo and New York Jazz Week for England’s Jazz FM, but after a decade of fun, games and success at CD 101.9 I was ready to leave and when Tribune sold the station to a Midwestern radio conglomerate, they were apparently ready for me to leave too.
Luckily satellite radio was starting up and I was hired in 1998 to create two channels for what was then called CD Radio, later to be named Sirius. One channel would be a true contemporary jazz channel and the other more of what would be, for lack of a better term, a smooth jazz channel. This was my first chance to actually delve into the conscious difference in the two formats and to actually formulate the lines of demarcation between them. For a couple of years I worked with a great group of programmers as we did the preparatory work for one of the largest technical rollouts in broadcasting history. We created the formats from scratch and tested them out on the in-house system. Sirius had the philosophy that satellite radio would basically be a music streaming service with minimal interruption only for short bits of identifying audio. The original programming heads had been hired from the Music Choice service so they were doing what they knew how to do, create a form of muzak for satellite transmission instead of cable delivery. I remember one day the staff was called into a meeting to discuss the most recently revealed activities of our competition, XM Satellite Radio, which had just posted their programming intentions online. As we listened and viewed the announcement of what they would be doing it was clear that they were going to “re-invent radio.” It was also clear that this would include real, live people talking about the music, special programming and all the trappings of what people-to-people radio has been about since the very beginning. Drats! Sirius would now have to create “real radio” too! Not long thereafter I found myself at odds with my immediate superior and packed up my things and found the door in 2000.
I was not lacking a creative outlet though as in 1999 I had been hired by the U. S. Government service Voice of America to program and present a 2-hour weekly show that we would call Jazz America. My superior, John Stevenson, told me that I was following the legendary Willis Conover who had presented the only jazz show on VOA for over 40 years. His time on VOA had spanned the years of the Cold War and he’d had a very special relationship with and impact on listeners around the world, but most especially on those behind the Iron Curtain. His form of jazz was almost totally traditional or straight ahead and his personal relationships with artists included the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I had by this time developed similarly solid relationships with Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and many others from the more modern side of things and I wondered why John had chosen me over the many other presenters who might have been more qualified to pick up where Willis had left off with a completely traditional jazz approach? He told me that Willis simply would not program the more modern forms of jazz and that this was precisely why he hired me. He knew of my background and that a blending of the new and the old was what he wanted. Well this was thrilling to me and now, sixteen years later, I continue to present what I term “The best of jazz, past and present, and conversation with the music makers” on Jazz America. I find this work completely satisfying as I have had the luxury of learning about and presenting as much as I want from the glorious past that jazz has created in over a century of evolution while keeping up with all the trends as they’ve emerged. Seeing how all of these styles can blend together seamlessly has been, and still is, a great thrill and learning experience for me and I hope for the listeners around the world.
Michelle Sammartino & Me back in the XM BEYOND JAZZ Days (or was that DAZE?)
While I was embarking on the beginnings of my work at VOA and finishing up my work at Sirius I was given another great opportunity, to continue my work in satellite radio and to create a one-of-a-kind radio channel that could define what modern jazz is for the 21st century. I was hired to create the channel Beyond Jazz for XM Satellite Radio. About a week after leaving Sirius I received a call from and took a meeting with Dave Logan, the VP of operations at XM and one of the most brilliant, driven, hard-working and charismatic leaders I’ve ever met in all my years of broadcasting. He asked if I would be interested in creating two channels for XM, a new age music channel called Audio Visions, and a jazz channel that would occupy the space between smooth and traditional jazz called Beyond Jazz. My answer was quickly an affirmative and though the seeds for what would become MOJA Radio had been planted with Jazz Flavours in Atlanta, CD 101.9 in New York and at Sirius, the plant began to grow and reach for the sun with Beyond Jazz.
One of the earliest promotional phrases used to describe the service was “Beyond AM…Beyond FM…XM Satellite Radio!” So when Lee Abrams, the mad scientist and VP of Programming for XM, decided on the name of my channel he envisioned a jazz channel that would be more than jazz and one that would, like other channels in other musical genres on the XM lineup, re-define the genre, just as XM would redefine radio. With Dave Logan giving the staff all the facilities, materials and motivation we’d need and Lee Abrams giving us all the direction and inspiration we’d need there was no way we’d create anything other than radio that was, if not brilliant, at least interesting and different from what had come before. I dare say few people in any field are given a more inspiring commission! Lee Abrams would stage what he called “Bootcamps” for the programming staff at which he’d present his inspirational pep talks with suggestions like “tap into your George Martin gene!” References like this were not lost on anyone who understood how producer Martin had transformed what would have possibly been only a regionally popular little skiffle, rock & roll band from Liverpool into a world-wide phenomenon by redefining the sound and style of what they recorded that was beyond comparison with even the most talented competition. The more ground breaking and creative we could be the better. With my new age channel I could create a meditative, flowing channel that was fashioned to please listeners musically while simultaneously “casting a spell” under which they would be until they turned off the channel. With Beyond Jazz I had something a bit different in mind.
It seems to me that the turn of the century was a perfect time to create a new, re-defining channel for modern jazz. Though Free Jazz, Hard Bop and Soul Jazz had certainly marked a shift from straight swing, the Fusion Era had opened up things in an entirely different way, in that it had introduced electric instruments, most especially electric guitar, piano and violin, synthesizers and assorted other devices, into the mix of improvised music. With that came the new rhythms and energy taken from rock and the infusion of world music…thank you George Harrison & Ravi Shankar and all you Brazilians and Africans out there! Contemporary jazz had learned a lot from the soul music of Motown, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Disco was the bane of the existence of many a jazzer and rocker but dance music and it’s electronic percussion and rhythms were having an effect on the younger generation of improvisers, most especially in Europe and other parts of the world outside of America. Americans would eventually catch up with Drum & Bass, Techno, Jazztronica, Jungle and other forms emerging over the years. For about a decade the movement of fun, up, funky danceable music called Acid Jazz, born in the English clubs concert halls and off-shore pirate radio stations, had swept across the globe capturing a whole new generation of listeners, dancers, music lovers and consumers who may have never thought they’d like jazz. The same can be said for the fans of another America movement called Jambands who took their lead from the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and Phish. When greats like Branford Marsalis and John Scofield began collaborating with these guys the jazz world knew something was up and that is was not to be ignored. Many may have thought that Hip Hop would come and go and that it would certainly bypass jazz, but when Miles Davis’s last recorded effort Doo Bop embraced the style and legends like Clark Terry recorded with Digable Planets while Greg Osby and Russell Gunn took Hip Hop head on then you knew it was here to stay, in pop music AND in jazz. All these musical elements, and many more, came into the mix as I created Beyond Jazz. In addition I plugged in specials programs to highlight certain aspects of the movement. They included the all-day Saturday interview special Words & Music, the one-hour focus on one artist or group called Monday with the Masters, This Is Acid Jazz, Jammin’ Jazz-Jazz For The New Generation, hosted by my associate Michelle Sammartino (more on Michelle later), the one-hour live show staged at an “imaginary modern jazz club” called Live @ BJ’s, and the all-day special If It’s Friday, This Must Be Fusion. I also created a four-hour special documentary, The History of Fusion that aired twice each year on the 4th of July and New Year’s Day.
From the time that XM Satellite Radio launched in late 2001 to 2008 when Sirius took over and did away with many of the channels and people of the original XM lineup, Beyond Jazz and yours truly included, the service attracted over 9 million subscribers. Of that number internal metrics indicated that Beyond Jazz had gathered an audience of about 400,000 regular listeners, fewer than the smooth and straight ahead jazz channels as well as the pop music channels, but still a substantial audience for what was in essence a new, never-before-heard jazz entity. And, probably most importantly, the people who loved it REALLY loved it! Those who “got it” REALLY “got it!” They loved not only hearing the artists they’d known and loved from the Fusion Era and beyond, but all the new artists they were discovering at the same time I was discovering and presenting them on the air. There were no “auditorium tests” needed here. The Beyond Jazz listener was a music lover who was hungry to learn and hear more all the time and they told me so in hundreds of emails I received and saved over the 7-year run of the channel while on XM. Plus, the ARTISTS “got it” too. They knew that for many of them this was their best outlet to get out their musical message, and for some their ONLY outlet. When we got the word that Sirius would be taking over in what was billed as a “merger of equals” but was in essence the creation of a monopoly, in total disregard for the original agreement set up by the government, I began to put the word out on the air that I was appreciative of the support the listeners had given me during the past 7 years. I began to receive urgent messages from listeners who were angry and confused about what I meant and said if I were leaving they would follow me to keep getting the music and special programs they loved. A plan to create the next phase of Beyond Jazz was in the works at that time.
Early in the life of Beyond Jazz I received contact from an XM employee in the Miami office where designs of the XM units and designing of all kinds were done. Her name was Michelle Sammartino and she introduced herself by telling me she couldn’t believe there was an XM channel where she could hear the Jambands and Frank Zappa! I asked her point blank if she’d ever done on air work and if she’d be willing to volunteer to produce a show of her own creation for the channel. Though our plans were big at XM our budget for adding headcount was small if not non-existent so there was lots of volunteering going on among the channels, a testament to the strong, collegial attitude of the staff in general. Michelle had indeed been on the air in San Francisco and began to produce the weekly show Jammin’ Jazz-Jazz For The New Generation that became an instant hit! Her personal connection to the main artists in the genre from Karl Denson to Will Bernard to Skerik to Dr. Lonnie Smith to all the great artists from New Orleans to Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and many more was invaluable. Plus Michelle was a design and web specialist so when we were both “downsized” in the Sirius takeover we plotted to take the channel to the web as soon as we could get it together. If not for Michelle and all the hard work she did on the web side, MOJA Radio could not have been created. Though Michelle left a few years ago to pursue other work she left an indelible impression and her memory lives on in the spirit of MOJA Radio. She even returns from time to time on the air with a special presentation. While she put together the pieces for the website and continued to work on the programming of Jammin’ Jazz, I assembled the audio and technical elements we’d need to put the channel on the air. We did all the tedious work of acquiring the hardware, scheduling and automation software, setting up the streaming, web-hosting and domain name accounts, affiliate programs and social media accounts and licensing agreements with BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and Sound Exchange. Once all this was done and our business was registered as MOJA Radio LLC we were open for business, but how would be pay for all of this?
I was opposed from the beginning to playing constant advertisements on the air as I wouldn’t listen to that myself. We decided to see if the folks who were so upset when XM gave up and let Sirius call the shots, would really follow us in large enough numbers as subscribers to pay the bills and give us a chance to truly create, maintain and grow “The World’s Modern Jazz Radio Channel.” The answer is that they did and we have. Folks pay about a quarter a day to hear the stream. The name MOJA is not really a flippant moniker. Yes, it is a bit of a silly anagram that is constructed from MO for MOdern and JA for JAzz but people in the past seven years of the life of the channel have now come to call this blending of all these many sub-genres of jazz MOJA without any hesitation. Sometimes I’ll get together with subscriber/listeners and we’ll listen to music and say to one another…”that’s definitely MOJA” or “that’s definitely NOT MOJA!” When you live with this music you just simply KNOW. In addition to serving up the constant variety of MOJA over these seven years we’ve continued to present the special programs that have become a big part of what the service is all about. A couple of years ago I was joined by an old friend from New York radio days at CD 101.9, Carolyn Bednarski, who loves the vocal side of things and now programs and presents the special show “The New Jazz Singers with Carolyn Bednarski” each month. One member of MOJA Nation wrote me an email once that included the following, “if citizens of America are Americans then we citizens of MOJA Nation must be MOJANS.” The name stuck and even artists like Randy Brecker calls himself a MOJAN now as he did backstage in an interview at The Blue Note not long ago.
In conclusion, I must say how proud I am of what we have created, a platform to present the work of the artists that I believe are the most creative in jazz today. I must say how inspired I am each time I read a message from one of my fellow MOJANS who tells me how they couldn’t go through a day without listening because this is “their music.” A true music lover knows the music that helps him or her define themselves TO themselves, and this is no small thing. Communicating with citizens of the MOJA Nation may be the single most fulfilling thing about doing this work for me. That is besides, of course, the fact that I get to continue my relationship with all of these brilliant, creative musical creatures who come up with the newest forms of jazz, a music that has been around for over a century and refuses to stand still, much less die! When I get a new CD or download a file that presents me with some new pianist from Eastern Europe, a new guitarist from Indonesia, a band from Sweden, a vocalist from Brazil or India, or some funky new group from Texas, a player from Chicago or San Francisco that’s doing something completely different with a horn, some musician with a new idea that I discover walking into one of New York’s many clubs then I know that when you hear talk about how jazz is dead or dying it’s coming from people who just aren’t interested or are not paying attention. I know this multi-culti, electro-acoustic, genre-bending, multi-faceted music I call MOJA is alive and well and that for seven glorious years it’s been living and thriving in the home I built for it, online at MOJA Radio!