Two photos of Reuben Jackson as a baby

Never Surrender: Vastness, Immensity, Possibility

If ever this website was about seeking out people you like with whom you would like to be friends and from whom you would like to learn about music, this is it. If we were in high school, I would sheepishly ask this man for a mixtape. Since I’m an adult now, I asked for an interview. We can speculate on the merits of this pretense all we want. At the end of the day, I have come to believe that those of us who are deeply in love with music are wired similarly. And we should connect because of all the beautiful alchemy that may await. In the interview below I found that for music archivist, writer, and radio deejay Reuben Jackson, being wired to deeply love music has led to feelings of imposter syndrome, but also a triumphant embrace of the fact that “once something is in you, it is.” He embodies the mixtape concept, cross-pollinating music communities and influences, and eager to share.

Sarah: You were the kid who was playing music for all your friends. And you were saying that your parents played all kinds of music in your house. Could you say more about what it was like growing up in your house and how you developed this encyclopedic interest or knowledge of music?

Reuben: My parents belonged to—some people will get this, I guess—those record clubs they had back in the day. Like Columbia Records. You could get six albums for a dollar and with the fine print in the ad, you probably ended up hocking your house to pay for all these records. But this box would come every month, and I knew what that box was. I could read that it said Columbia Records. It might be Ray Charles, Beethoven, South Pacific. My father loved country music—Roy Acuff or something like that. Chubby Checker. It was this wonderful array of big band stuff that my father loved. I thought everybody was like this! And of course, my parents would play these records. We listened to this stuff as a family. In the basement, sometimes.

Also, I would spend time with them and see what this was. I mean, I knew who a lot of these people were. But, what’s this new album like? I just dug in. And then you start reading whatever constituted liner notes then. Who’s on bass? Who’s the banjo player on this record? “Recorded in Nashville, August 22nd, 1959.” So it all kind of started to sink in. A lot of that curiosity and desire for detail comes out of love. You love this thing. And you want to know more about it. And then the sound of it- like that line in Ray when Jamie Fox says, “We gonna make it do what it do.” And then you’re trying to figure out how it does what it does.

And because my mom played classical piano, I could ask her things about music. I could play her something and ask her, “What is this in the third measure?” And she was self-effacing about her playing. We had this little piano in the basement. She’d say, “Well, this is like a ninth chord.” Just to have your first fox hole. And someone who didn’t laugh at you for asking questions about music. As opposed to just sitting there bobbing your head—which is cool, too! But it was very nurturing where that’s concerned.

Reuben with older brother

My brother had a little transistor radio, which I would sometimes borrow off his dresser, put the little earbuds in, and listen late at night and cover the light with the pillow. So I was always listening, certainly. That could have been mostly top 40 because of AM radio.

But it was like a house of music. It was safe. And I was naïve. I thought everyone liked music, period. We’d have show-and-tell in grade school. One day I brought Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra’s Greatest Hits. And I’m thinking, “Everybody knows who Tommy Dorsey is.” He hadn’t been dead that long. It was sort of like one of these memorial albums. Here I am playing Sunny Side of the Street. The kids are looking at me like, “huuuuuuhhhh , this is not Motown.” And I was crestfallen. And it was my enthusiasm overriding any potential self-consciousness. Self-consciousness came when I discovered that people would laugh at you and say, “There he goes again.”

I think my work on radio and me working here [at the University of the District of Columbia] as a music archivist is kind of like revenge of the nerds, because as much as it would hurt to be labeled as odd or ostracized, I knew I wasn’t killing people. Once something is in you, it is.

Sarah: We had talked previously about how growing up you didn’t really think about genre-ization- you really didn’t know what that was. I was wondering if that may be a generational difference between the two of us. But your story leads me to believe that that’s not the case at all—that the kids you grew up with were interested in a few genres and were not like you at all.

Reuben: Yeah. Boy. About four years ago when I was still at Vermont Public Radio, I told my boss who was also at that time a programmer on VPR’s classical channel—I did a show once a month that looked at film composers from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and stuff. And I said to her, “I don’t like what is so-called classical music because it’s classical music. I just love – you hear something and it might be Schumann or it might be Debussy, but it had nothing to do with some hard and fast allegiance to a tradition.”

Information about Friday Night Jazz with Reuben Jackson

Click above for an archived collection of Reuben’s Vermont Public Radio shows

It’s the same with jazz. A lot of people say, “Well, he’s the jazz guy.” But those labels are funny because a lot of musicians who are considered this or this or this have interests far beyond what people might expect. Jimi Hendrix loved Schoenberg. He loved Andy Williams. He’d say this and the interviewer would be waiting for the punch line. And he’d go, “No. No. I’m serious.”

And I think for my friends. I love them. But if it wasn’t on the radio, It didn’t exist, basically. So that meant adherence, consciously or not, to a certain style of music. A certain sound. Whether they call it urban radio or whatever. R&B, I don’t know if that’s a style, like baroque music, or if that’s a cultural categorization.

The other thing growing up, too, is that after like ’67, ’68, and things were starting to explode in this country, there were- we called them checklists- how if you’re Black and you want things to get better, you have to do this, this, this, and this.

I once told a student that I was in the basement one day and my father came downstairs, and he took out a Count Basie record. Then he took out the Supremes and put the album on that side. And he took out a gun and pointed it to me- I’m joking!- and he said, “Pick one.” And then I said, ‘Well what if you love both?” And that’s the thing with me. You can love both. To love the Supremes doesn’t refute your love for Count Basie. Especially jazz people can be so, “How can you sell us down the river?” It doesn’t mean you love it less.

I think that also ties into what we were saying earlier about becoming yourself. If I had not been that way, beyond music, it would have taken me a lot longer to get here in general. And it has to do with music and life. So you meet somebody [now] and you can talk about all kinds of things. Like Russian Romantic poetry. It was in there [before] but it’s not the same.

Like being a musician and you play the same instrument. You’ll never know everything but you keep developing. And curiosity ties into it.

But I made fun of it. Like the comedian Bernie Mack said, “Humor comes from pain.” And I’ll hear silly stories about turning over the B side of some hit, and saying, “Listen to this countermelody. The French horn does this.” And my friends just start slapping their foreheads like “Damn, we were having such a good time. And there he goes!”

So it took me a long time to venture, not internally, but socially, in that direction, because I just thought, “Yeah, a lot of people just aren’t like this.” It can do a number on you. If something is such a big part of who you are or who you’re becoming. And you’re looking for people who are similar.

I saw one of these Quincy Jones documentaries and he said that he would cut school and go to the movie theatres. He was born in Chicago. His father moved the family to Bremerton, in Washington, just outside of Seattle, because his father was a carpenter and he worked in the navy shipyards. And he said, “I would cut school and just sit there. And the movies were okay. But it was the film music.”  It was like Dmitri Tiomkin and all these people. And he said, “I just had to bathe in that music.” And I’m in the movie theatre. I’ve got a box of Kleenex on this side. I’ve got a box of Kleenex on this other side. And I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s it. When it’s in you.” And how his father would surreptitiously slip him money for a composition notebook, because he knew it was in him. I thought they were going to carry me out of the theatre. “There’s some guy in here who won’t stop weeping.” The story itself is moving. For me, connecting with this thing that means so much.

Sarah: And so you feel you can do that now. And growing up, that might have been more challenging?

Reuben: It was! Growing up, you had to be a lot of things. I don’t want to overstate this, because I don’t want people to think I am trying to make it sound like I was in some Jay-Z video years ago. But what people call bullying now, I think that’s too nice a word.

I knew about three different ways to get home from the movie theatre because I knew who was on this corner waiting to take what was left of your money. Gangs then were like fistfight gangs. They weren’t like TEC-9s and Uzis. But that was a reality. So you’re negotiating a lot of things at once.

I think even now, though, for men to be received as soft can be a challenge. I can’t say this was a cover because I was good at sports. I was a little more respected. I could play ball. Football, baseball, and all that. But I think it is a lot to handle at one time.

There were also guys in my neighborhood- by today’s standards, they would be considered quaint. Some of them dropped out of school. You’d see them. They knew when the report cards came out like they were school administrators or something. They would see me walking home from school. They called me “Bookworm” because I was always with books. “Bookworm, let me see your report card.” They’re saying this before my parents. This one guy, Clarence, would say, “Yeah, you gotta tighten up this math grade.” And I’m thinking, “They’re looking out for you.” So you have people looking out for you. And then people who can’t stand you because maybe your teacher is going on about some essay you wrote. And they want to beat your ass at 3:00. That’s too many jobs for a kid. Being a kid is hard enough.

I taught high school English for two years. I thought it made me a better teacher—not that you want to go through all that to become one. But It’s an understanding that at best the subject matter is secondary, maybe tertiary. It’s part of your development. I remember the kids would bring things into the classroom, whether it’s discussed or not. Because I did.

Brightwood Heritage Trail marker

Brightwood Heritage Trail marker, photo by Devry Becker Jones

I loved my father. My father was also a functioning alcoholic. I grew up in Brightwood [in Washington D.C.]. The house was small. I would try to hide his bottles before he got home. Well, in a small house, you don’t have that many places to hide. But I knew he couldn’t bring it up at the dinner table to my mom. He was supportive, and he had a problem. I think ultimately what happens is—and this is true of both myself and my brother—in a parent you hope for “better” for your children. What if “better” is different- like so different that you don’t quite get it?

So in my case, the geeky music loving kid –  [as an adult, working] at the Smithsonian, and I get to go to conferences all around the world and all this stuff. I have this indelible image of him: One of my first books of poetry won the Columbia Book Award, and they had a ceremony at the Folger Theatre.  And Joseph Brodsky chose the book. And I’m sitting on the stage, and they’re reading comments from Joseph Brodsky. My mom was a Language Arts teacher for DC Public [Schools]. She was the extrovert of the two. She’s beaming like those lights on the top of the Empire State Building. And my father, dressed to the 99s, he’s proud, but he’s a little like, “Who the hell is this dude?”  Even though we had a common love for music—like, I love ballet and opera—he’d say really nasty things about that. It’s like the combo platter.

Sarah: Man! Okay. I went with you on that journey and I’m not thinking about music any more. I think when we first started talking, you were talking about getting your friends to listen to some particular technical aspect of some song you were playing, and to me that was kind of a corollary to the mixtape idea, where you’re sharing music with people. So I’m a little thrown that we are actually talking about how hard it was for you to do that! But, that must have changed as your life progressed.

Reuben: Well, you find vineyards. I started doing radio when I was 18 at Goddard College in Vermont. And that was an outlet for both the continuation of sharing music and in a personal matter, it’s a way of dealing with all your feelings. Programming is like baking the cookies, but you’re baking them for other people. They really aren’t for you. And I think learning that is important.

But I always felt different. My first year of college, my show was Tuesday night, 9 until midnight. I’d go to bed early Monday night. I’d eat dinner, go back to the room, I had this whole ritual before I’d go to the station. And it was kind of funny but it was serious because it was this thing you love and you don’t want to mess it up.

You know- college radio, a lot of our friends had shows. And their friends would come to the station during the show to hang out and talk. And people would say, “Hey, can I come by the station?“  I would say, “No. ‘Fraid not.” Because it’s my time. I cut out the lights above the board. I got the playlist. Any notes I needed. That was me. So, that helped a heck of a lot. And like with poetry, I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with it to the extent I did.

And then the other surprise was that fall 1975, someone calls the dorm, the dorm phone in the lobby. Someone said, “There’s some guy on the phone for you!” So I come downstairs. And it’s the program manager for WSKI. It’s a country and western station in Barre, Vermont, which is the granite capital of the world. So this guy said, “I heard your show when I was driving.” At this time, the station was 10 watts. So he must have stopped and hung out by the gas pumps at the general store. Anyway, he said, “I think you’re like the best announcer in the state. Would you like a part-time job?” When you’re an undergrad, you don’t have that much money. And I said, “Okay.” He said, “Well come by the station Friday, and we’ll talk about it.” So I get this program. It’s 12 to 3 on Saturday. Country and western. Merle Haggard, people like that. A proscribed playlist. The station is about the size of this table. At the top of the hour, I read the mutual teletype. Rip and return. “Today, President Nixon…”

There are more people of color in Vermont now, but it’s the second whitest state in the country. But at that time, If I saw someone Black I’d call all my relatives, “I saw somebody Black!” So imagine you’re 18, you’ve got this job. This station. It’s a small place. They know your voice.

 

Barre VT downtown photo

Image of Barre, VT from Royalbroil on Wikipedia

So you’re at the grocery store, at the deli counter, and you’re getting an egg salad. People start turning around like this. “You’re that guy!” And they don’t mean anything by it. One day I was there, and this woman was with her husband. And this woman turns to her husband and says, “It’s that colored guy on the radio!” That’s what they know. It’s so isolated. I said, “Yes ma’am.” And she said, “You’ve made Saturday afternoons. We just love your voice, and of course the music you’re playing.”

Well, I’m from here [in Washington, DC]! And I grew up ducking gang fights and stuff, daydreaming. And it’s not like “Look at me!” But here you are, in this place where people just stare at you sometimes. And suddenly, by way of music, you’re part of a community in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be as “merely” a college student.

And of course, the difference between these two things is, even though I had a certain format I did with the college stuff, this was all you-play-the-hits. Part of you is like, “Am I selling out to the man?” And the other part- the ham part- is, “This is fun.” It can be fun to walk down the street and the pick-up truck goes by and people wave, and I’m thinking, “My friends would not believe this.” I think it comes from opportunity and people thinking to give you a shot. And it’s an extension of having heard so much stuff—getting back to my parents’ house and all- and never surrendering my love for music.

Sarah: So, let me ask you: as you got to know who your audience was—who you were baking the cookies for—did that change what you were baking?

Reuben: I don’t think so. I would call myself, and I have been called, a cross-pollinator, One of the nicest, most moving, and perceptive things anyone ever said about my radio show for Vermont Public Radio was, this woman said, “My family and I really appreciate what you do. No matter what the piece happens to be, you’re trying to point out where the jazz is.” And I started to cry in this grocery store. Because that’s really it. But first and foremost, it has always been: Isn’t it wonderful that this exists? It’s a little quixotic. But I feel that way. And I still marvel at the wonder of creation. And I think that’s never changed.

On Sundays, I do this show with Larry Applebaum on WPFW called The Sound of Surprise. It’s 4-6. You get phone calls from people who are appreciative because they’ll hear things that’s maybe a little different from typical jazz radio. I think jazz radio and classical radio can be similar—and I understand that there’s revenue involved- but, the strict adherence to the canon.

For me, like the joke about Count Basie and the Supremes, the continuum doesn’t mean that the other stuff is not of value. It’s like, isn’t it great that these elements are found in some seemingly disconnected source?   

I’ll play Lester Young. For me, he’s one of the most original people, no matter what. And I think, “Boy! It’s like Ezra Pound, the poet. Make it new!” It’s fresh. To go from that to a new recording. This kind of bothers jazz people.

There’s some new version of a tune from the late ‘60s- which was a while ago now- but that adherence to stick to the standards, the 32-bar songs, the Gershwins and what-have-you. You can love that, too. I try to give as much of a sample-of a smorgasbord- as possible. And you do it the best you can in terms of coherence. But it’s for them. Maybe the audience are like the kids in the basement I don’t see. (Except they will call.) But I’m convinced it’s an extension of that: Isn’t this great?

This guy, Ben Williams, is a bassist from DC. He did an album. He had a subtle bass rendition of that song Nirvana did- Smells Like Teen Spirit. That’s a standard. This guy’s studying with Christian McBride. And he can talk about Mingus and all these people that are sanctioned. And you hear from people that are saying, “I never knew jazz people COULD do that.” Like maybe they broke out of jail. [laughter] It’s interesting to work within those rules and unwritten rules about this.

My bosses were kind of ambivalent about jazz to begin with. And maybe I used that to my advantage. I think of that character the Hulk, David Banner, and then the big green bicep starts to pop out. But it’s still all done for the listener. And it all comes from love. It’s not like thumbing your nose at people. It’s fun, but when the woman said that about pointing out where the jazz is, I thought, “Okay. She got it.”

Sarah: She got it. I would like to ask you what you are trying to showcase and why. In all the venues that you’re sharing music, like radio programs or what-have-you, what are you trying to showcase?

Reuben: I’m thinking of an interview that Charlie Parker did in the early ‘50s, when he said that there was no boundary line to art. And the thing about music- it’s so vast. I think of the vastness of music. If you just say “music,” you could be talking about Buddy Holly, you could be talking about Fugazi, you could be talking about the Spinners, or Mendelson. It’s like- freshwater, salt water. And so I think the immensity of it.

I think one of the good problems to have is that most people will never hear even a smidgeon of it- even, we were just talking about what is called jazz. You’ll never hear all the stuff. And to try to share some of it- it can be overwhelming. It’s a good problem to have, the overwhelming variety and beauty in spite of societal conditions which in many ways, especially with Black musicians, made their lives hell. People can- you could blow up buildings. You could knock somebody on the head on the street. Or you could do this. AND you could do this. So, if you think about what humanity is capable of, there is that, too.

I’ve been preparing a talk about the lesser known works of Quincy Jones for the last couple of weeks. So there’s like film score stuff. Some big band charts he did for people like Lionel Hampton and people like that when he was like 19 years old. TV stuff. People may remember it or not. It’s like that kid in the basement saying, “Yeah, but there’s also this!” There’s the score from the movie In Cold Blood. So it’s variety, immensity, possibility. What’s that thing Patti Smith said? The sea of possibilities. That’s really it, it’s the sea of possibilities.

Sarah: That is beautiful. So, we also talked about how you and musicians you admire are always looking for something different. So, how was that done in an era before the Internet (where it is so easy to find new and different things)?

Reuben: How was it done?

Sarah: How do you find out about something that you don’t know about?

Reuben: I see. Yeah. Every now and then I hear myself saying to students, “Well, you know, there was no internet back then!” And I feel like Samuel Morse’s homeboy or something. It took a lot of digging and curiosity. Because even then, even with radio and artists, like you could live here and hear about some great jazz station in New Orleans, but you couldn’t necessarily get it. You could read Downbeat magazine or something like that. And there were record stores. But I’d say even up until relatively recent times, the record stores here weren’t always that great.

My restlessness and curiosity—if I’d hear about some book somebody’s written about ‘50s jazz in Sweden, I would go to the Library of Congress and just stay all day and read stuff and take notes. When it was cheap—and this was even in the 90s—when it was cheap to take the train to New York, I’d go to New York and hit these jazz record stores that someone referred me to.

So- word of mouth, the few periodicals which existed at the time. Downbeat. There’s one called the Record Changer. But, it was hard!

Or maybe your hip neighbor who might know something. The cool outcast. I used to always say, “You have to dig. You have to dig for it.” And it’s kind of lonely. But I was on the road. I couldn’t stop. While these weren’t always things outside the “mainstream,” my parents’ tastes helped. Because if you’d hear some drummer on a record, I’d want to know more about them. It’s funny in thinking about this, see I’m saying this to you now, but partially when 2021 hit, I’m thinking, “I’m going to take out my phone and type it in Notes.” But see, you weren’t doing that in 1969. Or much longer than that. But that’s where it helps for me.

Again, like in New York, some store, a guy says, “Yeah, I have this record” and pulls it off the shelf. You might pay goodness-knows-what. It was a more circuitous path. I’ll put it like that.

Sarah: So it sounds like you may have had an outsider neighbor here and there but it was really your parents more than anyone, when you think of the key figures.

Reuben: Yeah. Some of the stuff left them scratching their heads. Things that they just didn’t get. That’s okay. That happens with everybody.

Museum of Bethel Woods website image

In 2009, I gave a talk at the Museum of Bethel Woods. Bethel Woods is where Woodstock took place. The emphasis was on the last year of Jimi Hendrix- ’69-70- what changed compositionally. So you’re in this auditorium in the museum. First thing, walking around the grounds, I was like, “Damn, this is like my Gettysburg.” Not a war. But stuff that’s really in your head and heart. So I got up there after being introduced and I asked everybody in the crowd, “With left or right foot, [give me] four quarter notes.” [stomp stomp stomp stomp.] And people are thinking “What the hell is this?” Anytime I played Hendrix in the basement, my mother would say, “It’s too loud!”  And she’d go [stomp stomp] three four shut up.”  I said, “So we just brought my mom back.” That’s an example of, “We don’t get this.” That talk [at Bethel Woods]- it’s that nerd stuff. And isn’t it great?

I once caused some stuff at a class at Goddard. It was called the History of Western Music, and we were talking about compositional devices. And there’s this concept called contrary motion. And the teacher played a piece from Stravinsky. And I went, “There’s a record by Kool and the Gang with the same thing! Can I bring it in next week?” What’s the name of that song? Who’s Gonna Take the Weight. I offended some people. “You aren’t possibly comparing Kool and the Gang to Igor Stravinsky?” I said, “We’re talking about the use of this technique. Boom. Kool and the Gang, Jersey City, NJ. Stravinsky, Russia. Boom. That’s what it is. And if you like it or don’t like it, there’s nothing I can say about that. But I think it worked.

I love Stravinsky and Kool and the Gang. And for what it’s worth, someone asked Stravinsky, after he moved to America, “Who do you like? Who are your favorite composers?” And he said, “I like the three B’s.” The interviewer said, “The three B’s?” “Yes, Beethoven, Bach, and Brown. James Brown. It’s the American sensibility, and he’s a great composer.” This still baffles people. Stravinsky- you talk about “mad skills” as the kids used to say. I always said he had the funk in him. That rhythmic stuff if you think about the Rite of Spring. And then you put on James Brown’s Funky Stuff and you think, “Yeah of course! They’re coming from the power of rhythm.”

Fortunately, there are some people out there, like airwaves, that think this way. It does knock down a lot of things in people’s heads, understanding that it’s not a crime to love all of this. Again, it’s that immensity.

Do you know who Michael Tilson Thomas is? He’s a conductor. He’s been with many orchestras. There was an American Masters last year addressing his life. He was talking about James Brown. I met Michael Tilson Thomas in 1971. James Brown was here. He played the Howard Theatre for a week.  There had just been an article in the Rolling Stone magazine about Michael Tilson Thomas.  He was the young person shaking up the classical music repertoire. He was with the Buffalo Symphony at that time. So intermission. You’re in the john. There’s like one white dude in there. And I knew that’s who it was because I had just read the article. So I waited. I said, ‘Aren’t you Michael Tilson Thomas?” He said “Yeah.” I said, “I read that article about you in Rolling Stone.”

So he’s talking about this in American Masters, and he says, “Well, when I conduct Stravinsky, I try to get that same kind of precision that James Brown had.” James Brown referred to it as the Situation of Music. I don’t care if it’s Emmylou Harris or Chuck Berry. It’s the situation of music. If we’re rehearsing and someone says, “What do you want from us in this measure?” He says, “I want you to break out in a cold sweat.” So he’s doing James Brown. And that’s somebody who’s not saying, “Well I can’t say this because it’s not classical.” And he wasn’t trying to be cool. I think for him, too, it’s like, “Isn’t it wonderful that this music exists?” “While I was in conservatory, we were all studying Stravinsky, but we were listening to James Brown.” It’s generational perhaps. But still, what’s being done within someone else’s work and how does it work? That’s no different than Jo Stafford or anybody else—what happening with the orchestration? Like anything, what is it communicating? Is it communicating something?

To me, the Jo Stafford thing. She’s like [swooning sound.] She’s like up there with the ability. You can play soul and science. She’s got perfect pitch. And a very sagacious vocalist. You believe her. My mother used to play this recording of Some Enchanted Evening. And I’m thinking, it’s like she’s my sister and she’s telling me. And I’m thinking “What is going on with life?” and she’s telling me “Some enchanted evening you may meet a stranger.” And I’m hanging on the words and the beauty of it and the sincerity. And the sincerity in music, if it’s not there, it’s just technique. It’s got to have that feeling.

Right before I took early retirement from the Smithsonian, December 2009, one of the things I was hell-bent on doing was to get her to donate some materials to the Museum of American History. Right after the World War II memorial was dedicated, American History had this weekend of all kinds of programming connected with that. I gave a talk about her. A lot of times they would play her music in barracks before G.I.s went to sleep. They called her G.I. Jo. There’s this beautiful essay by a guy names Gene Leeds called The Voice of Home. She was called the Voice of Home. So you’re looking out in the auditorium and it’s like all these WWII guys and families. I mean this lovingly—old dudes. And they’re crying. And I’m thinking, “I knew. But I didn’t know.”

I reached out to her. I wrote her a letter. One of my former colleagues had her address. And I get this letter back. It’s that old cursive writing you don’t see anymore. Jo Stafford. And her husband had just died. I wrote to her, “I’m approaching you…your story is an important part of the American story blah blah blah” I said “I’m going to be in California in the L.A. area in the next three weeks. Is it possible to talk with you more about this?” And I’m thinking, be ready for the big “no.” She wrote, “That would be wonderful. Let’s get in contact right before you leave and we can have lunch.” Okay. My heart is Jo Stafford. This is my job. And it’s like my parent’s basement. So I go. She had a condo in Century City. We spent a couple hours talking and carrying on. She made lunch. She’s so unpretentious and funny. And I told her about my parents.

She is someone who quit the business at the height of her popularity because of her kids. She said if both parents are working, this is not good. This was late ‘50s. At that time, she was making big money. So I’m leaving her condo and I’m on cloud 99.

Then two weeks later I get a letter. She said “I hate the telephone,” which made me adore her even more. She said, “I was talking to my son about it, and I don’t think I’ve really done anything to merit this. But I really appreciate your request.” The irony to me was at this point those big congressional allocations we would get for years were starting to dry up. And I think a lot of yahoos with some half- interesting stuff and a lot of money to pay for cataloging and processing were suddenly more attractive to the museum because Smithsonian needed the money. And I’m thinking, “Here’s somebody who sustained people during a time of great tragedy, sacrifice, and she’s too modest to do it.” But I still have those letters.

She has a version of the folk song Shenandoah. Now with COVID and thinking of travel and loss and not seeing something or someone, it always has this added resonance for me. But it’s always been there.

Anyway, same for Karen Carpenter. Oh my god. You talk about somebody that’s believable. Plus she was a great drummer and didn’t get props for her musicality. “It’s going to take some time this time.” And you hear it and you think, “Yeah, this happened” And it doesn’t matter if it did or not. You believe it. This vocal is so fresh and sincere. And those kinda gooey suburban white picket fence harmonies underneath it. And then this guy Hal Blaine, a great session musician, he’s playing these beautiful things with cymbals. See, this is what my friends put up with. It’s all going on concurrently. And you think it’s like you got Newt Gingrich and Bernie Sanders together in the same room. But it’s all part of this thing. And it all goes back to isn’t this wonderful? It can be the entire piece. It can be like 4-5 measures.

I used to sit on the stoop of my parents’ house just kind of hanging out. And I think about my mom, who would embarrass me [about my career and travel] if she were alive: “My baby’s at a repository in Germany.” And I get kind of weepy about it. But I’m thinking, “Well the stubbornness kind of paid off.” Not that my aim was to be documented somewhere. But I’m thankful that that’s the case.

And I talk a little bit more now about stuff that I’ve done that I didn’t do before. I was a voting member for the Grammys. It’s been a wild ride. You find yourself in these ballrooms with all these people and you kind of act like, “O yeah, I do this every day.” And there’s Dionne Warwick and Ringo Starr or whomever. But when people see who you are, name tag and all, you can’t act like you don’t belong. I have to kill the second grader being worried about getting beaten up for being a nebbish.

My mother used to call DC a big, small southern town. Which I think it still is, even with these incredible changes which have occurred. Like a lot of small towns, there are people who look askance at people who– “You got this job. You do all this travelling. Don’t think you’re better than we are.” I don’t.

I would go to Sweden or somewhere for a conference. I’d come back. I’d go to the barber shop. People would say, “Where you been?” I would never say anything specific. This is my problem. But I didn’t want to risk having to deal with people who are like, “Who do you think you are?” So I stuffed a lot of stuff in the closet.

The Smithsonian had this big gala on the Queen Mary to get moneyed people to donate money. I’m staying at this hotel. It was black tie, which is funny enough just to see me dressed up. They had all these limousines leaving the hotel and heading to the ship. I missed my limo. And someone: “There’s one down at the end there. You can get into that one.” So I get in. You should live as long as this limousine! I get in the back and see this woman to my immediate left and I say, “Good evening.” Sitting across from me is Elizabeth Taylor.

You’re from 5th St NW, and you’re looking across at Elizabeth Taylor. So we’re chatting on the way to the Queen Mary. And it’s that, “Okay be yourself.” But the other side of your brain is going, “It’s Elizabeth Taylor!!!” I still don‘t believe some of it. I don’t know about “job of a lifetime,” but 20 years is a long time in the course of one human’s existence. I’m still unpacking a lot of this stuff. My mother would say if she were alive, “My god, you were even dressed up!”

I think I’ve succeeded despite myself. “Is it okay to do this? Is it okay to be this person?” I did dream about some things. I’d read liner notes and wonder how do you do this? How do you get to do this? When I was a kid, you didn’t really see many Black writers. I saw that Langston Hughes had done some. I thought “Maybe. Maybe.” But I kept it filed away. And when I had the opportunity to do it, to be considered for a membership in NARAS, you have to have a minimum of 12 liner notes credits. I had 15. They were looking to broaden their color spectrum with voting members. I said to my mother, “I have 15.” She said, “Just stop right there. Even if you don’t get in, just look at what you’ve done.”

Reuben Jackson is a Washington D.C. poet, jazz archivist, radio deejay, music lecturer and writer, and writing mentor, but in what order I cannot say. He currently works as an archivist with the University of the District of Columbia’s Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. His two poetry collections are called fingering the keys and Scattered Clouds, respectively. One of the first things he told me is that he doesn’t know bupkus about mixtapes.

Reuben in Van Ness, Washington DC

Reuben

 


Pop Goes the Warhol mixtape

Wish You Were Here

Before I had the self-awareness to even know that I was doing it, I was using music to connect with people in absence of understanding how to do so otherwise. One such glaring example has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s because the U.S. political landscape has made it difficult for me to set aside my differences with Republicans, even those I love. And there is a mixtape that I prepared and gave to someone many moons ago, when like now, I was afraid that any real engagement would set back our relationship.

In the seventh grade, I gravitated to the girl in my class whose hair was the highest and make-up the brightest. She knew who The Cure was because of her older sister. I soon learned that her older siblings were all in their twenties. She was a surprise to parents who were pretty much done with being parents. My parents, on the other hand, were still deeply engaged in the work of keeping me safe. For example, they had a rule that I must dismount from my bicycle whenever a car passed me on the 15 mile-per-hour road on which we lived. Unlike at my house, at Liz’s house, we smoked in her bedroom and experimented with alcohol and boys when her parents were away. She and I were perfect foils. Quiet and loud. Cautious and bold. I brought her security; she brought me spontaneity.

Throughout middle school, we enjoyed new wave, collecting band t-shirts, and playing with black eyeliner and hairspray. We listened to The Cure’s Disintegration in her bedroom while painting our nails black and plotting our next excursion, usually cutting through the neighbors’ yards in her parents’ development to get to the local bar where the cigarette machine was unmonitored by the door. We would be friends forever. I was sure of it.

But something happened. I can’t exactly remember what. Maybe I repressed it. We had traded boyfriends—that may have been the death knell. What I do remember is that as I became more enamored in high school with the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and The Misfits, Liz began wearing tie-dye shirts and moccasins. She had defected to the school’s hippie contingent. Her identity changed. Her friends changed. Our spheres diverged, and our close friendship collapsed.

Meanwhile, throughout high school, I was trading mixtapes with pen pals from across the country. They opened my mind. One pen pal made me a tape that bridged Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop with Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane. My little high school cultural walls began crumbling.

Track list for Pop Goes the Warhol mixtape

track list for Pop Goes the Warhol pen pal mixtape

After a year or so apart, Liz and I began exchanging friendly hellos in high school hallways. She told me about her long-term boyfriend. We were becoming reacquainted. One day, Liz and the boyfriend picked me up so we could spend some time together. Would we rekindle our friendship? We went to the boyfriend’s house. I watched in bewilderment while they took bong hit after bong hit. I sat awkwardly smiling, unaccustomed to drug use. I waited for conversation to commence between lighter flicks and the gurgling of bong water. It was a cordial visit, but one that was never repeated.

That year for her birthday, I did a strange thing. I wanted to tell her that I loved her and that I appreciated her for who she was and what she liked—that I didn’t expect her to always like what I liked. I wanted her to know that she would always be special to me, even after we grew apart. And I did not know how. I took that tape that my pen pal had sent me—the one with Pink Floyd—I dubbed a copy of it and gave it to her. The beautiful artwork on the tape given to me by the pen pal was replaced with a boring TDK insert for the copy for Liz. I wrote “Happy Birthday” on it. I explained to her that it was a copy of a mixtape that I had been enjoying. Any pride I may have normally had about selecting songs and assembling a mixtape experience for someone was eclipsed by this need to share, to try to connect, and to not think too hard about it–to try something imperfect.

Tape cover Renaissance painting

pen pal mixtape artwork

Liz told me that her boyfriend and she listened to the tape in his car before school and liked it. I was thrilled.

We never spent much time together again. As adults, though, we did reconnect. Now we get in touch on each other’s birthdays, on Mother’s Day, and at Christmastime. She moved with husband and children to a farm in the South-Central U.S. while I moved outside of the nation’s capital. Our conversations sometimes remind me of the city mouse/country mouse fable. I suspect we may have divergent politics to match. Last year, I delicately dropped a conversation about wearing masks during the pandemic when it seemed we were sailing into threatening waters.

One summer, my tiny backyard garden produced a freakishly gigantic zucchini. Liz sent me lots of suggestions for using it, including some zucchini bread recipes. She often jokes about how I should come visit the farm and how she will put me to work there. Recipes are our mixtapes now.

The gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feels insurmountable sometimes. Something like the same raw anger of adolescence possesses me when I hear people echo talking points from Fox News. It shuts me down. It feels incomprehensible. I don’t even want to understand. I rationalize that not talking or engaging with the loved ones with whom I disagree is best. But I know it’s rash, and it’s unfair. It’s unfair to them and to me.

Somewhere, deep down, I need to find the resolve to just connect, somehow, imperfectly.

Sarah runs this website for fun. She loves music and literature. She works statistics for a living. She saved all her mixtapes. She snapped the photo below upon completion of this blog post for posterity. And she changed the name of her 7th grade best friend.

photo of author sarah

sarah


 

Coming soon…An interview with HOST of Noise Network/ Noise Bazaar…

Thirty years ago this fall, I started high school. Around midnight on a Saturday night, my sister and I cycled through the 6 television stations received at our parents’ house. We landed on channel 40. “Hey! This is not Pat Robertson! This is not the 700 Club! What in the world is channel 40 playing right now?” And then Nick Cave came on the screen. “Quick! Grab a VHS tape! WHAT IS GOING ON?!”

Thus started the best high school education for which I could have hoped, every Saturday night at midnight.

Below is a clip from the VHS tape that we used to tape our first night of Noise Network. The show included mind-blowers like The Residents, PiL, Siglo XX, and Trotsky Icepick!

And coming soon, my interview with Jeff Moody, host of Noise, who tells me the story of this long lost jewel of a music video show made with passion in Kenosha, WI in the 1990s.

Mix tape with Bells of Strange Pair song

So Sick and Tired of Writing Your New Phone Numbers Down

This is a paean to perhaps one of my favorite songs of all time, put on a mix tape for me in 1996. I was thinking about how I take more solace from this song than from almost anything else. So why not anthropomorphize it?

I’m listening to you listening to me. It sounds so sweet. You are reminding me of that time I was feeling a variant of the same thing I feel now- restless, reaching, ready for something new. I heard what your vocal cords emanated. I heard the pathos in your tune. We bonded.

We are together in this existential morass of life. It’s cool.

Your sentiment was carefully chosen by someone who cared for me. A friend who knew I would enjoy your quirky plaintiveness. He knew me well. When it played in the car, we would sing along together with abandon. “Talking to you! Is like I’m talking to an animal in a zoo!” we laughed.

I hear you sing it and the good memories well up. Ah, there’s that joy again. Old friends are irreplaceable.

You remind me of other times, too. Of walking around my college campus long ago, of wearily studying my fellow train passengers on an early morning commute, of a lift in my step while returning home from a run. Sometimes I need to hear about you reading someone’s life story in her “wild, stray eyes” to feel connected to who I was, who I am, and who I will be.

Life is absurd and sad and kind, you tell me. Come here. I want to give you a hug.

http://www.teenbeatrecords.com/items/093.html

The Long Way Round Pt. II

Part II picks up where Part I left off–in the midst of an online chat (in several installments over 2 months) between Wrence and John focusing on a mix that Wrence sent to John in Berlin in January of 1993.  John had not listened to the mix for many years.  Wrence had not heard it since he made it 24 years ago.

Wrence: I had been recording Wilson’s shows on ‘ZBC for years before I met him.  I didn’t even know he was the same person as my fave DJ until around the third time he and I met.

John: Do you remember sitting around the apartment and pulling drawers from that desk where I kept my 45’s?  Each of us would take a different drawer (A-F, G-M, etc.)  And one of us would get Wilson’s box of 45’s.  And we’d take turns playing 7-inches.  That would have been in 88/89 I guess.

Wrence: Yeah, I remember you and I both were so energized by playing records, basically.  We’d only just met back then and that was about our only shared activity at first.  Others surely will know the activity, it was basically alternating turns at the turntable and saying, Oh yeah!  Great one!  Now I suppose it’s what we do with Facebook, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and whatever apps.

John: I liked your Mekons records.  Of course we shared a love of the Beatles.  You turned me on to Eric Dolphy, who I previous only knew as a Mingus side man.  I did not “get” all your 70’s Stones records at first, but came to appreciate them.

Wrence: You still have my meager vinyl collection, right?

John: You know, I also recently pulled out a WZBC aircheck from 2006.  I was back in Boston and back on the air for a few years around then.  Wilson was visiting Boston.  He sat in with me for a great show!  When Wilson came back to the states, he took your records and his.  He talks on the 2006 aircheck about going to sell some of the records, but then changing his mind.  He says you told him to sell them.  But he couldn’t do it.  I think he put the lp’s in storage for you somewhere.  I think he still has the 45s.

Wrence: What was in that collection?  Do you remember?

 

John’s desk, which still contains cassette tapes

John: Off the top of my head… La Peste, Candy Flip, Virgin Prunes, Paula and Paula … I’m running to that same desk, which I still have, with my 45’s and old tapes….

… From a mix  called, “John, Wilson and Wrence’s Jukebox, Vol. I”:

The Neats, ? and the Mysterians, Todd Rundgren, The Nazz, Mission of Burma, Colin Newman, Jane and Barton, Durutti Column, Bongwater, Eyeless in Gaza…

Vol. II track list seems to have gone missing.  But Vol. II was apparently taped over my little brother’s cassette of Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins!

Should we turn to track list of PRESIDENT CLINTON tape?

Wrence: The track I treasure most from the PRESIDENT CLINTON mix is Tina Harvey’s cover of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows?”  This is kind of a tangent but I posted that cover to the FB group called “scattered smothered & covered: songs by others” and it didn’t get the applause I expected.  But, that group really is the most fun group for music on all of Facebook.  Recommended.  The contributors there are all top notch lovers of great, rare music.

Sorry for the detour. We can get to the track list now. 🙂

John: Tina Harvey is a track I was never able to place when I got the tape back in ’93.  I was guessing she was someone like Marianne Faithful or something.  How did you and/or Wilson discover her?

Wrence: Wilson loved that track.  We never knew where she came from.  It may have been her only release.  Wait, let me check Discogs…

Very minor, but so great.  It was a real find.  Wilson had the lp.

John: Cool!  And what about the classical piece that begins the tape?  I never knew what that was, but it’s something I’ve since heard in the soundtrack of big Hollywood movies.

Wrence: Yes, it’s in many film soundtracks.  Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  It’s the kind of thing you listen to when thinking of 9-11 or Hiroshima or The Holocaust.  Very somber.  I mean the bombing of Hiroshima.  The city itself is actually a pleasant, vibrant metropolis now.

John: So then you follow Samuel Barber’s Adegio with all of side 2 of Peter Jeffries & Jono Lonie’s At Swim 2 Birds lp…. and near the end of that you start switching to the NPR broadcast and back…  Do you remember actually making this tape?

Wrence: At first I didn’t remember at all.   But…  As I kept listening it did happen that 1993 came back to mind.  I would say I don’t recall the actual session of making the thing, but I recall the time when all of these would have been my listening, my personal playlist in the apartment.  At Swim 2 Birds especially is something that I hadn’t heard since that time, 24 years ago.  And it sounds great even now, doesn’t it?

John: Amazing!  And I must say it was wonderful to hear it in 1993.  That was one of my own records, which you and Wilson were keeping for me.  It was a favorite of mine that I had not heard in about 2 years!

Wrence: Ahhhh! that explains why I hadn’t heard it since.

I think WZBC listeners would feel right at home with this tape.  Very “NCP” (No Commercial Potential), yeah?

John: Well, the mix runs the gamut.  Wire, Undertones, Television Personalities, Mekons… all very consistent with the kinds of rock that ZBC would play during the day.  At Swim 2 Birds more nighttime “NCP.”  But million-selling artists like John Lennon and Neil Young would not get featured very often on any show on WZBC.  The Eric Dolphy thing would have been fine on NCP, but as a practical matter, WZBC did not feature much jazz on NCP.

Wrence: Yes.  Very eclectic.

John: Back then, I had not listened to much Hi Records stuff besides Al Greene.  The Ann Peebles on side 1 was a door opener for me.  Great track!

Ann Peebles photo from I Can’t Stand the Rain

Wrence: “I Can’t Stand The Rain” has one of my favorite grooves ever.  God that is a good recording!

John: I visited Memphis.  Got a tour of the Hi Studios by Willie Mitchel’s grandson, who runs it now.

Happened impromptu.  He just happened to arrive while my girlfriend and I were gawking outside.  He had some time and invited us in for a quick tour.  We got to take our pictures singing into Al Green’s mic and stuff.

Royal Studios photo, from www.royalstudios.com/history

Wrence: omg

John: Stuff like that happened to us every day in Memphis.  Show up after the BBQ joint is closed.  They invite us in and feed us anyway….

Wrence: Ann really is like a female Al Green, eh.

John: I’ve bought stuff by Ann Peebles since.  I don’t think anyone is a female Al Green.  We went to his church too.  He gives 2 services every Sunday.  One for the real congregation.  One for tourists.  Pretty bad ass.

Wrence: Wow!

John: I’m wondering how spontaneous the NPR mix-ins were.

Wrence: I think it was very spontaneous.  For kids reading now, these were the days before social networking apps and “gays in the military” felt very big and controversial at the time.  Now it’s kind of a big yawn.  I probably just switched the hifi from turntable to radio spontaneously, as you say.  The tape itself, by the way, is in places not so fun to listen to.  All the scratchiness over the Adagio for Strings at the intro.  The radio crap interrupting the musical flow…

John: Yes, the radio switches are a bit jolting.  The final song from the Jeffereis/Lonie lp gets butchered!

But the Wrence spontaneity shines through.  I had to laugh.  It was like I was right there in the living room watching you do it!  And imagining Wilson yelling from the next room, “Wrence – what the hell are you doing out there?”

Wrence: Were you living in Kreuzberg 36 at the time?

John: I was living with a pastor at the time – near Alexanderplatz – in the downtown heart of East Berlin.  I can remember listening in my room in the pastor’s flat in Mitte.  He was divorced.  He had a place big enough for a whole family, but he lived there alone.  He let me live there for free for a year or so.  He was one of my English students.

Crappy iphone photo of East Berlin in 2017, from Sarah’s tourist photographs

Wrence: Did the pastor hear the tape, too?

John: Oh yes.  He loved listening to the NPR passage and talking with me about it.  He was very interested in learning what NPR was relative to commercial media like CBS, NBC, etc.  And discussing the content of the piece.  And getting to the point where he could understand the reports.  It was perfect.  They speak very clearly, but not in a childish way.  And the content was also interesting.  … and he could rewind it and listen again to the parts that were hard to understand at first.  He was less interested in the music!

Wrence: Großartig!

John: Ha!

Wrence: Thinking about how funny memory works.  I can remember some moments from 1963 better than 1993.

John: Yes, that’s why rediscovering artifacts like this can be so powerful.  Music seems to be especially powerful when it comes to memory.  I was at a wedding recently.  The groom’s uncle was pretty far into Alzheimer’s.  He couldn’t speak.  He couldn’t leave his wife’s side.  He would peer long and hard at every face, knowing it was someone he probably knew, but could not place.  But he could sing along to Irish drinking songs!  They played a bunch of those and everyone gathered around him and sang along with him.  It was quite moving.

Wrence: Many of us must have brains that function along that continuum someplace.  My memory seems both great here and lost there.

The connection between everything from the opening Adagio through to Eric Dolphy on side 1 of the mix sort of indicates to me that all that Widows Walk and Kraft-o-Matic listening probably added some new sophistication to the musical culture I’d taken as my own by then.  I was rock and soul as a kid, then punk and dub in early 20s, then this period.

John: Some of the other tapes you sent me had typed track lists.  You gave each side of the tape a title.  Raucous, Out There, Blue, Soulful…

Wrence: That sounds like me.

Do we need to get the other tracks covered here?  Or let the readers just go and listen if they like?

John: I don’t think we need to do song-by-song.  But if there are any stories that come to mind for a particular track or sequence…  Actually, do you have any photos of us from back then?  I have almost no photos of myself from the 80’s and 90’s.

Wrence: I’m going to be sorting through photos (stored up in the attic) today in preparation for the family gathering in Boston next week.  Maybe I’ll find something.

Editorial note from John: Wrence did not find any photos of us.  But here are a couple photos of us taken in Boston about 1 week after this conversation:

John: I’m now listening to the “Jukebox” tape that was missing a track list.  I’m just going to blurt out the songs as they come on – non-sequiter style.  But we can keep talking about whatever else.

Wrence: OK, go.

John: No Surfing in Dorchester Bay right now.

Wrence: Richie Parsons, Future Dads

I actually have to go soon and get packing for the trip and setting up my new iPhone before I leave for the states.

John: The reunions next weekend during your visit are going to be something!  There are so many people in Boston who I met long after meeting you, but who knew you years before you and I met each other.

Wrence: Right, it is funny how two people in a vaguely common set of circles of friends know some of the same people from different periods.  I know what you mean.

John: I’m going to lie down to sleep listening to this mix of our old records!

Chat Conversation End

Go to Part I of this story for more about John and Wrence and WZBC, Boston College radio in the last 1980s.