Monday, January 20, 2020

Blues for M.F.

The LP "Soul Battle" was released on Prestige records in 1961, matrix (7223). It lands on Track 2, Side A. It featured three tenor sax players King Curtis, Oliver Nelson, and Jimmy Forest, Roy Haynes pick up drum duties, Gene Casey and George Duvivier sound out the session on piano and bass respectively. The John Handy Quartet covered it in 1962 for Roulette records with a burning bebop infused solo, which is what first brought it to my attention. For years I had assumed that MF stood for motherfucker, but the original Soul Battle LP spells out in parentheses that the M.F. stands for Mort Fega. The back of the LP spends a mere 26 lines describing the song, So I'll quote a bit of that as it's relevant to our story here.
"Blues for M.F. is a tone poem with a fine set of altered blues changes which lend themselves to distinguished soloing by all three of the reed men. The tune certainly captures the intensity, the sincerity, and the quiet humor which have made Mort Fega one of the nations most popular jazz announcers..."
The song is an exploration of a blues scale replete with flatted thirds, but woth a very steady meter to provide a platform to hold all nine minutes and thirty seconds of soulful sax solos. Each is worldessly singing the praises of Mort Fega who was at the peak of his career at the time. Unusually this wasn't even the first Jazz tune dedicated to Mr. Fega. In 1959 The Red Garland Trio Plus Ray Baretto recorded Manteca for Prestige (7139). Donald Fagen testified in a 2006 obituary for the man that the song was played on Fega's show regularly
"I looked forward to Mort’s between-track commentary as much as to the music itself. With Red Garland’s “Mort’s Report” playing softly in the background, Mort, with the grace and enthusiasm that reveals itself only in the most bona-fide jazz lover, would carefully list every soloist and sideman."
It was the New York jazz scene that brought all these people together. Red Garland moved to New York from Dallas in 1946. Oliver Nelson went to College in St. Louis, but moved to New York in 1958 after graduating. King Curtis was from Ft. Worth and moved to New York to become a session musician in 1952, and both George Duvivier and Ray Barretto were a native New Yorkers. These jazzmen all undoubtedly listened to Faga and knew his as a mover in the jazz biz. You couldn't be a jazz head in in New York and not know 1330 WEVD-AM in the 1960s.

Mort Fega, was from New Rochelle, NY which is where he had his first show at 1460 WNRC-AM on Saturday afternoons. New Rochelle was New York City suburb, so it's signal reached parts of New York City. The popularity of that show grew such that in 1962 he was able to jump to WEVD and launch a  "Jazz Unlimited" which aired six nights a week simulcast on 97.9 WEVD-FM. His show aired opposite Symphony Sid Torin, but by the 1960s Sid was old hat. While he was a His hep cat jazz delivery was decades old.  Fega was all about modern jazz he pushed artists like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk alongside jazz classics.

Fega left WEVD in 1966, and continued broadcasting jazz from WBAI, WRFM, and WTFM in New York City. His departure from WEVD is a bit mysterious but he debuted on WRFM in June of 1965 while he was still on WEVD and Cue Magazine lists him in January of 1966 already hosting Jazz in Stereo on WTFM. In August of 1965 Billboard specifically spells out that on his new station that Fega beat out Sid for the top spot.  Then he showed up on WBAI in June of 1966 with a Friday night program.
The quick shuffling around the dial came to an end three years later when in 1969 Fega and his wife Muriel relocated to Phoenix where he quickly got a radio show on 1400 KXIV-AM named simply "Night." That program continued midnight to 4:00 AM six nights a week until at least 1974. He moved to Connecticut in 1976 and started a program that aired twice a week, one on Saturday afternoons and one Tuesday evenings on college radio station 91.3 WWUH. He then added on a program at 1230 WINF-AM in Manchester and in 1979 a Sunday morning program on 1550 WMLB-AM in West Hartford.

Then finally the workaholic jazz man retired to Delray Beach, FL in 1986.  But the itch came back and he picked up a weekly show on 90.7 WXEL-FM. It was only once a week but it was five hours long! He also taught a History of Jazz course at Palm Beach Community College and wrote a weekly column for the Palm Beach Post newspaper. Mort Fega died on Jan. 21st 2005 due to complications from a recent back surgery. He was 83.

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