Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bebop Hits The Radio

I like Jazz, but I have a particular soft spot for Bebop. As a genre, it was short-lived starting with Coleman Hawkins highlights in the early 1940s and petering out into novel but less atonal work by Sonny Stitt and his peers. Around 1948, at the relative peak of the genre it made the leap to radio in all it's atonal improvisational glory.

In the book Why Jazz Happened  author Marc Myers quotes Walter Gil Fuller describing how not just jazz but Bebop specially made it into the popular culture.
"The first promoters to successfully present 'bop' were Monte Kay, who produced the nightly concerts here at the Royal Roost, and Symphony Sid, the WMCA all-night disc jockey. In 1945 they sponsored the concert debut of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Town Hall and since then have been active in presentation and promotion of be-bop in New York.  Several other disc jockeys have been instrumental in bringing the music to a wider audience: Fred Robbins and Bill Williams of WOV, Leonard Feather of WHN, Willie Bryant and Ray Carroll of WHOM, Jerry Roberts and Bill Cook of WAAT, Woody Woodard of WLIB, and Dan Burley and Fred Barr of WWRL..."

This is your short list of makers and shakers in jazz circa 1950. I've written about a few of them before, namely Symphony SidWillie Bryant and Ray Carroll, and Fred Robbins. Those are certainly the bigger of the few names on that short list. Leonard Feather is also famed but more for his jazz writing at this date.Those other names you don't recognizance are all still worth knowing. Bill Cook was actually mentioned in Philip Roth's book, American Pastoral.
"...Bill Cook, the smooth late-night Negro disc jockey of the Jersey station WAAT. Musical Caravan, Bill Cook's show, I ordinarily listened to in my darkened bedroom on Saturday nights. The opening theme was Ellington's "Caravan," very exotic, very sophisticated, Afro-Oriental rhythms, a belly-dancing beat..."

That's all true actually.  William B. Helmreich even re-quotes some of the same passage in his book, The Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and MetroWest, making the connection between a major Jewish population center and black culture. Cook was actually popular enough he later had a program on WATV-TV called Stairway to Stardom. He started on WAAT-AM in 1947, in 1951 just 3 years later The New York age magazine was claiming that Cook had been the first black DJ in the New York metro. Around the same time in 1948 Jerry Roberts was doing a new midnight show at WAAT titled Top Flight Time. But they were both jazz men on the same station, Roberts often filled in for Cook when he was out. Though Cook was more popular, Roberts has been on WAAT since 1942 hosting his own program Swing Shift.

In 1948 Ebony magazine listed off what they claimed were the only 16 black DJs in America. (This website claims they missed one) On that list was Woody Woodard of WLIB-AM.  But Ebony also claimed in 1986 that Woodard was New York's only Black DJ in 1946!  That certainly predates Cook. In 1947 radio guides show him on a 7:00 AM news program on WLIB so I'll call it at least plausible. Above you can see a picture of two Girl Scouts present an award to Woody Woodard at WLIB in 1947.

Dan Burley wasn't just a DJ, he literally wrote the book on hipsterdom, the Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, published in 1944. He wrote for the Amsterdam News, New York Age, Jet Magazine, and Ebony. It was news when WWRL hired him to do a radio program, the Skiffle Club, in 1947. Then in 1948 he crossed the street to WLIB. But he was out of radio and back to writing by 1949. Also interesting to note he helped propel the Skiffle craze in the UK with his band "Dan Burley and his Skiffle Boys."
PD Fred Bar and SM Edith Dick ran WWRL, they wooed Hal Jackson to the station which is notable enough. But they also brought in Tommy Smalls aka Dr., Jive and many others. In 1946 after Fred returned from WWI and a 31 months at AFRS he started moving in some jazz programming. But he himself was never a jazz DJ.  Fred Barr hosted Gospel Time on WWRL from about 1958 through at least 1964. His connection to bebop was more like Monte Kay's. Without jazz men on both sides of the equationboth events and media, bebop wouldn't have prospered as it did.