Whereas my activities at WFMR were often interesting, my connections with jazz at WYMS were a constant joy.
The station had jazz programs all day and overnight, with folk music and other ethnic music features some evenings and on weekends. It also regularly broadcast Milwaukee Public School Board meetings and, of course, (Your Milwaukee Schools) was in the administration building on W. Vliet Street.
I took over the mid-day program, 10 am to 2pm in 1997. It was previously hosted by Linda Scott who had decided that she wanted to spend her time doing other things, Linda, by the way, a kind and gentle person, was the first transsexual I’d ever met, something she and I also briefly discussed once.
The great thing about having more regular air time was the expanded chance to select and program the music, which every d.j. did. Bill Bruckner functioned as program director but chose to have marginal say in what any recordings any of us chose. We had two turntables and two CD players. Which meant that I could play my many LPs collected from my days at WNCN, WBAI, Radio Genova Sound, Rai and KHFM and those CDs I’d collected as a writer for Footlights Magazine (see below) as well as to explore the station’s extraordinary CD library.
By mid-1998., Bill, who’d hosted the morning drive show from 6 to 10 am, decided that he’d had enough of getting up way early in the morning and asked me if I ‘d like to switch shifts with him. I was delighted.
Coming in around 5:30 in the morning, by the way, I always heard the overnight syndicated feed “Jazz with Bob Parlocha.” I found his programming entirely wrong for that time of day, He featured hard bop. Jarring and noisy, Moreover he followed a programming pattern which seems to have remained common and unoriginal to this day, as if it were some required format. I’ve heard jazz d.j.s do it everywhere. Three unrelated tracks back to back, not of the same musicians or from the same disc, with no talk in between. Info about he first selection at the start and, at the end of the three, talk about what preceded. There’s no musical justification. Coming to Omaha in 2013, I was offered a show on KIOS. Asking if required to adhere to that so-standard pattern, I was told that that I needn’t, even though the other WYMS hosts has always been doing it. They still do. I quit after 20 months, but that had nothing to do with the them. (More about KIOS much later.)
Anyway, re WYMS, we had regular top of the hour newscasts at 7, 8 and 9 am read from wire copy by Peter Zehren. He read well. Amusingly he loved trying to pronounce the regional ways of naming states and towns e.g. “Missourah” for Missouri, “Norlens” for New Orleans.
I don’t remember Peter’s title but he was part of Station Manager Roger Dobrick’s staff. Peter had a major role in on-air fund raising drives. He was in charge hyper-energetically and easily angered. But the drives were always successful. WYMS fund drives resembled many others of non-commercial radio stations; we offered “gifts” in return for specific “pledge” amounts. In 1999 Peter and I came up with an interesting idea. We’d offer a CD containing four of my jazz interviews, all of them from my earlier days, with Billie Holiday (WFLN) Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington (WOND) and Cannonball Adderley (WNCN)
Certainly WYMS had a serious following including listener Keith Mardak, the CEO of Milwaukee’s Hal Leonard publishing company, evidently the world’s largest publisher of sheet music. In 1997, Mardak decided to create and sponsor a series of live jazz performances at the historic Pabst Theatre where there was already a chamber music series. Mardak created an advisory board to work with his company to organize and plan the jazz series. I became a board member; so did Roger Dobrick, I think. Who else, I’m not sure, but most likely someone for Pabst management, and perhaps music critic Dave Tianen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Why me? Probably because I volunteered, but possibly also because I was a well-known music broadcaster, on WYMS and WFMR and a writer about jazz for the monthly Footlights Magazine (more about that later.)
The board was thrilled to have a hand in booking some of most famous musicians and we quickly engaged Dave Brubeck for one concert and Gerry Mulligan for another (re Mulligan see above New York part of this memoir “Jazz Plus a Few Other Cats”). I was the m.c. for both of those concerts. No surprise. I had been hosting pre and post-concert events for the Milwaukee Symphony (more about that later too).
But the artists I most wanted to engage were the members of Toshiko Akiyoshi/Tabackin Big Band. In 1998 I convinced the board to book them. I had been a Toshiko fan since the late 1970s, meaning I’d broadcast her LPs on WBAI, Radio Genova Sound, RAI, KHFM and KUNM.
The Board agreed to have the band perform in the series. I was really happy about that. Once it was set, I’d hoped to broadcast one of the band’s more recent CDs, but there weren’t any like that in the WYMS library. After contacting Toshiko’s agent and then Toshiko herself, she agreed to lend us “Monopoly Game” from 1998, then only on a Japanese label. We had to agree to return it. Which we did.
I interviewed her on the phone where she lamented that so much of what the band had recently recorded for BMI was only being released in Japan. Evidently the company didn’t think big band recordings sold well enough to try to market them widely. Toshiko knew that the band wouldn’t get larger audiences without new CDs able to stimulate interest. And we at WYMS, a jazz station, consistent with BMI’s reluctance, had no new promotional discs.
That band did sometimes appear at jazz festivals. And there was an ongoing 1996- started series of Monday night performances at Birdland. But once a week in New York could hardly be considered a major source of income. That, by the way, was the best night for band members, more regularly engaged as studio musicians.
We talked about why Toshiko wanted to keep going, considering the high cost of maintaining the group, “People like to hear what we do. So do the musicians; without that enthusiasm we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
She and second husband Lew Tabackin started the 16 member big band in 1973 engaging L.A. studio musicians. It was not a profit-making enterprise, so much so that Toshiko copied the arrangements herself. It was always her own music that was featured, her choice. “I wanted to find an outlet for my writing and try to accumulate a real library to leave behind me when I’m gone.”
Toshiko felt that a meaningful big band had to have a specific identity rather than be a group that relied on playing standard repertory. She cited Ellington among others. Duke had said to me back in 1957, something he certainly had said before, “The band is my instrument.” Duke was able to keep it going almost full-time by taking funds from his substantial royalty earnings, So many of his songs had become standards. Toshiko didn’t have that option, but she regularly took piano solo and trio gigs and that kept some money coming in.
“I enjoy playing the piano,” she said, “and that’s part of what I like about being in this band. I didn’t start this because I wanted to be a leader.” She also had to take time out to be a mother. In 1963 she and then-husband saxophonist Charlie Mariano had a daughter. At that time Toshiko and Mariano had ongoing small groups in the U.S. but she “felt uncomfortable and insecure” away from her native culture. She went back to Japan and stayed with her mother while giving birth to a girl now known as Monday Michiru, actress, singer, songwriter.
As for Toshiko’s influences, musically and otherwise: “Everything you do, everything you see is part of your heart. My music is part of my experience, part of myself.”
When that tiny Asian woman in her late 60s stood up on the Pabst stage in front of that massive amount of instruments and all those men, I started to cry. I still cherish that moment. And her.