How I Became a Music Journalist

Les Davis
Standard

Recently, someone asked me how I became a music journalist. I promised to answer that question on my blog.

A little back-story:

I’m a native New Yorker. The music I grew up on was what we heard at home, on the radio and records. (Home was the apartment of my brother and sister-in-law, where I lived after my mother passed away when I was eight.) At home, there were lots of jazz records with glamorous photos of people like Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, and Cannonball Adderley on the covers. To me they were grown folks’ records, but I remember really liking the mellow atmosphere they created. On the radio, my favorite music was doo-wop, rock & roll, and R&B.

Years later when I moved into my own apartment, I found a radio station, WRVR, that played music I’d never heard before–jazzy and instrumental, but with features of rock & roll and R&B. Names like Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Grover Washington, Jr., and Jean-Luc Ponty became familiar. This music, called “jazz fusion,” became my new favorite music. My favorite WRVR deejay was Les Davis, who not only played the music but explained it too; I began my record library and stocked it because of his lessons.

Then one day–no, it was a certain day. September 8, 1980–the WRVR format changed from jazz to country. Here’s my journal entry from that day:

Monday, 9/8/80
When I got home, WRVR gone country! Oh, I was so, so hurt, I cried & cried. I’d known it was coming & I knew they would go down with their jazz boots on, but it was so sudden. They played it to the hilt–kept it a secret. Oh, how I’ll miss them!!

After the station went off the air, it was Les Davis whom I missed the most. Where had he gone?? I fretted. I needed closure, and I needed to let him know how much he was appreciated. I kept my ear to the ground.

A few years later, while dial-surfing on the radio, I heard his voice! Still in New York, he was broadcasting overnights on an obscure AM station. I wrote him a letter introducing myself and asking if I could interview him for an article. (At the time, I had never had any articles published, but that didn’t stop me.) At first he declined, but I persisted until I got a reply, and an invitation to come to the station. Victory!!

Les was on the air from about 11 PM to 4 AM. I went down to the station, interviewed him, took photos, we had a great time, and it was a true honor for me. I wrote up a nice profile on Les and sent it to the Amsterdam News, on spec, plus I mailed a copy to Les. He sent me a note of appreciation…which was another honor.

Les Davis

Jazz broadcaster Les Davis, after our wee-hours  interview. (click on photo to enlarge)

A few months later, quite by accident I saw a little article in the New York Daily News with the headline “JazzTimes Convention Comes to New York.” According to the article, this was a professional convention of jazz musicians, educators, radio and TV people, and writers all in one place, organized by a music magazine called JazzTimes.

I only had one question: how could I get a piece of that?

The next thing I knew, I was in the Roosevelt Hotel, wearing a press badge in the name of the Amsterdam News, surrounded by the entire jazz industry! Since I was a newbie (and possibly an interloper), my plan was to keep my mouth shut and listen. I drank in the schedule of panels and performances, and wherever I saw a name I recognized, I showed up. Do I need to tell you, I was in HEAVEN???

By the third day, I’d met a few nice people, among them the magazine’s publisher, Ira Sabin. Emboldened by the atmosphere of fun and friendliness, I asked him if his magazine used freelance writers. He said yes, and that I should speak to the editor, Mike Joyce. I found Mike and told him that Ira Sabin had sent me.

Mike smiled at me like he’d been waiting for me all his life. “Do you know Jon Hendricks?”

WHAT?? It was all I could do to keep it together. “I love Jon Hendricks!” I gushed.

Which was no lie. As a young girl, while looking through my brother’s record collection, I had discovered Sing A Song of Basie by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Why I was attracted to this album, I do not know. But when I played it, I was tickled by what those voices did with that orchestra–and the lyrics made me laugh too. I later learned that that technique was called vocalese, a clever method of dissecting an instrumental tune into saxes, trombones, trumpets, etc., then writing lyrics to the passages that each instrument plays. The end result is that the vocal parts mimic the instruments, and to my young ears it was so cool to hear grownups having so much fun with music and language.

Sing A Song of Basie LP

A closeup of the label of Sing A Song of Basie, my first favorite album, by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. And yes, this is that original LP I listened to as a young girl.
(click on photo to enlarge)

(By the way: during my visit with Les Davis, I’d mentioned the album and confessed that I had the record, but not its cover. Whereupon Les mentioned that he had the album, and kindly photocopied the jacket for me. This was especially important, because the lyrics were on it.)

Anyway. Standing there with Mike Joyce, I explained most of this. When I finished, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Well, here’s Jon Hendricks’ address and phone number. I promised him we’d do a full-page story on him when we got a New York writer to interview him. You interested?”

And that’s how it all started. Not long after I submitted the article, I was invited to become a regular contributor to JazzTimes… and the rest is history!

Les Davis note

Note of thanks from Les Davis
(click on photo to enlarge)

Les Davis sent me an autographed headshot too...

Les Davis sent me an autographed headshot too… (click on photo to enlarge)

 

Jon Hendricks article

My profile of Jon Hendricks, the first of many articles I would write for JazzTimes magazine.
(click on photo to enlarge)

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11 thoughts on “How I Became a Music Journalist

  1. Thank you for sharing your admiration of Les Davis, who, in my opinion is the best living DJ. Period. End of discussion! P.S. You must know, also, that Les Davis is still performing, now on Sirius Radio’s “Real Jazz” program.

    • Thank you Ms. Bernard! Yes I know that he’s on Sirius and we have been in communication, as I wanted him to be aware of the post. He emailed this reaction: “Read your piece several times its good and flattering and I cant believe it was that long ago ,bet you cant either,Love,Les.” My heart is full! 🙂

    • I remember having dinner at the Green Street Cafe in NYC with my friend. Les Davis was upstairs doing his 2 day a week broadcast from there. I thought out loud I want to meet Les. so I walked to the stairs. but they would not allow me up. I always wondered what he looked like. Thanks to Dianne that photo is recorded. I spent my time as a graphic artist working from my studio at home listening to Les on WRVR and do remember that day in my car when it went country. I bought every record he would play when I could find it.
      Tim Barrall, NYC

      • Wow, Tim! Yes, Les is such a modest person (i.e., for him it’s all about the music, not HIM)… yet, as you say he’s the one responsible for us learning about and choosing it for our libraries. And I bet you still play that music he introduced you to. Which makes HIM a kind of hero! / dp

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