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What Is Jazz?



To the editors:

Before I get to the nature of my complaint about another in a long line of printed attacks on WNUA, I think you should know why I feel I'm just as qualified as Neil Tesser, if not more so, in defining just what is jazz [Culture Club, September 17]. Briefly, here's my resume: 1980-1981, WBEZ as an engineer and producer-host of Jazz Chicago; 1981-1985, WDCB program host and producer; 1985-1988, WBEE Music Director; and since 1988 producer and announcer at WNUA. Plus since 1984 I have been Jazz Editor at Chicago magazine.

I can think of no other person in town who has worked at all four of Chicago's major jazz broadcasting outlets. In fact, besides the two people quoted in the Culture Club column last week, Neil Tesser and Dick Buckley, there is no one else in town who has been involved in jazz radio in Chicago on a "continuous" basis longer than me. I'm certainly much more in touch with what the masses are buying and listening to than either of my comrades who tunnel-cast at WBEZ.

For a few years now, I have read the two major jazz critics at the dailies blast WNUA and blame us for everything wrong with jazz and the Chicago Jazz Festival. Even this year, when our profile was low, we continued to get blasted in print. I've come to expect it from them, but certainly not from Neil Tesser, someone who, while not agreeing with what we do, understands more than most jazz purists what we do. I was certainly surprised at his quote that we "think" we play jazz, and we don't play "any" jazz.

The second point first: While WNUA doesn't play pure acoustic jazz, I know Tesser knows that on Saturday nights WNUA does play a higher percentage of acoustic jazz from 7 PM to 5 AM on the Ramsey Lewis Show, the Sounds of Brazil, Jazz Chicago Style, and my own program. He knows because he was a guest on the Ramsey Lewis Show not long ago, and Tesser got a chance to play what he calls jazz. And if we don't play "any" jazz, why does he from time to time ask me to come back on the program and why has he sought employment at WNUA? I feel it was irresponsible for Tesser to make that comment. It was also self-serving, something he does know something about. As a friend, I took the slap personally.

As far as what we "think" we do. I've witnessed conversations between Tesser and WNUA management explaining our target audience and how we want to reach them. We don't appeal to a closed-minded classic jazz audience and he knows we know that.

Besides, if you look at jazz today, I do believe that WBEZ is being left behind. Let's say our great public station is on the right side of the jazz spectrum, and WNUA is on the left. If the middle is mainstream, according to what's selling and what most of the musicians are playing, WNUA may be closer to the center than WBEZ. Take a look at both of Billboard's jazz charts and you'll find that on both the contemporary and the mainstream charts, WNUA consistently plays more of that music than WBEZ. That doesn't make us more of a jazz station than WBEZ, but jazz is, and will always be, about change and growth. And like any language, jazz is evolving. And that does make WNUA a jazz station. Unfortunately, there will be people who know nothing about jazz except WNUA. That's a thought that frightens me as well as purists, but what alternatives does the average radio listener have? WNUA is heads and shoulders above the rest of the vast wasteland of commercial radio. And instead of being applauded for broadening the ears of the average listener, we're continuously blasted.

Every new genre of jazz has had to fight the purists from a previous genre. No one knows better than Dick Buckley how bebop (or what is now considered mainstream) had to fight the Dixieland and big-band lovers into accepting their music. The same thing is going on now but on a different level. In 10 or 15 years, Steve Coleman's M-Base jazz or England's acid jazz could be considered mainstream but some folks just won't accept the change. If a young kid who has listened to rap all his life falls in love with David Sanborn on WNUA and discovers that Sanborn is a disciple of Hank Crawford and Charlie Parker, WNUA has done jazz a huge service. Or if a kid at the China Club last Sunday listening to Guru's Jazzmatazz hip-hop experiment with Donald Byrd discovered who Byrd was and through that found Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, Guru certainly did more good for the future of jazz than Neil Tesser playing 10 minutes of Meredith Monk's wailing off-key vocal work.

But is it jazz that the young kid initially heard? Who's to say besides critics who have a closed mind to any instrument with AC current running through it? Actually what WDCB and Barry Winograd on WXRT's Jazz Transfusion program are doing is a lot closer to the center of what jazz is in 1993 than either WBEZ or WNUA. But it's all jazz. What separates a new-age meandering pianist on WNUA from a wandering avant-garde sax on WBEZ is a thin line of accepting what is good or bad to the individual absorbing the sounds. To say that Pat Metheny or Mark Whitfield are not as good at improvising as any bebop guitarist is ridiculous. They are bebop guitarists; they're just searching for a wider jazz audience, much like WNUA.

I could go on about how I feel the antagonistic attitude of the local press, WBEZ, and certain members of the Jazz Institute of Chicago are ruining not only the Chicago Jazz Festival but fragmenting our very healthy jazz scene. Or why what Dick Buckley plays will outlast everything Larry Smith and Tesser plays. But those are other stories and other letters.

Mark Ruffin

Producer/Announcer, WNUA

Jazz Editor, Chicago magazine

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