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"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


There has to be a large contingent of jazz fans today who started listening to the music during the 1970s.  This was quite a feat, and something I'd like to write about over the course of some time.

It's not that the '70s didn't produce some great jazz.  There was a wealth of great music during those fateful American years.  Beautiful music got released by ECM (such as Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds), Miles Davis produced five years of fiery, mad, electric thrills, Ornette Coleman and The Art Ensemble of Chicago were flying high, the World Saxophone Quartet got started, and much more.  But, as these examples suggest, the signature jazz of the 1970s was not easy for beginners.

How, I'm wondering, did we kids of the '70s get weaned onto this music.  This is the first in a series of meditations on that question.  And I eagerly invite you to chime in with comments.

The most important tool of indoctrination for me was the astonishing and late WRVR, 106.7 FM, a New York radio station broadcast out of the Riverside Church in Manhattan.  Precisely, my young friends and I were obsessed with RVR's quirky and brilliant DJ Ed Beach, a true jazz scholar who made his detailed lessons on jazz history fun with a mad, Shakespearean delivery.

In the '60s, RVR was a noncommercial station, and Beach's daily "Just Jazz" radio show was uncompromised.  But my the time my friends and I were really digging him, the station had become commercial, and there was increasing pressure to play more vocals and fusion.  But through all that Beach remained a gem, and I'll never forget hearing him spin—and explain—Max Roach and Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and Django Reinhardt.

Then, right around the time I was head off to college, Beach suddenly went off the air.  WRVR had changed ownership and management, and Old Uncle Eddie wasn't happy.  Not long afterward, in an overnight shocker, the station went country.  My youth was gone.

Ed Beach in 2003 at his home in Eugene, OR, chatting with me.
About ten years ago, I got to wondering where Ed Beach had gone, and so I tracked him down to a nice apartment in Eugene, Oregon.  I called him up on the phone and was lucky enough to be invited for a visit, during which I spent two days interviewing him, learning his story, and laughing at his incredible tales.  Not long after, I published a version of the following piece in the radio industry magazine Radio and Records.  Here it is again, based on interviews and research done in 2003.

Ed Beach: Alive, Well, and Still Ready for the Airwaves (2003)

“Just Jazz — Ed Beach with you."

Those words were once the promise of great music to fans of New York’s legendary WRVR.  They were crooned, from 1961 to 1973, in a resonant baritone over the swinging line of Wes Montgomery’s “So Do It,” by a trained Shakespearean actor and journeyman jazz pianist — and by the finest educator and disk jockey in the history of jazz radio.

Today, over 2,000 hours of what The New York Times once called “the most notable nonplaying contribution jazz has witnessed in New York” are not only being preserved at the Library of Congress but also are again available for broadcast.  Ed Beach, who turned 80 this January and lives in Eugene, Oregon, hopes the tapes that are his legacy will survive and find a new audience.  Many highly influential members of the jazz community agree that Beach’s contributions to broadcasting and to jazz should not be forgotten.

A citation from the City of New York honoring Ed Beach
In the 50s and 60s, New York boasted several legendary jazz jocks.  Sparkling pianist Billy Taylor did a show on WLIB.  Mort Fega was a hip sensation with “Jazz Unlimited” on WNRC and then WEVD.  And you can’t forget Symphony Sid.  But even in that crowd, “Just Jazz with Ed Beach” was the jewel of jazz radio.  The show may be less well-remembered only because Beach and his program were less about style and more about music.

Innovative Broadcasting
Beach in his prime

“Ed Beach set a precedent for intelligent jazz broadcasting that has yet to be equalled,” according to Gary Giddins, longtime jazz writer for the Village Voice and author of biographies of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby.  Giddins speaks from personal experience.  He recalls first hearing “Just Jazz” on his car radio while driving to and from an early job.  “Ed Beach was absolutely an inspiration,” Giddins states.

“Just Jazz” was a revolutionary radio program.  Each two-hour show featured a single artist — and often focused on one period for a prolific artist like Ellington or Armstrong. While Symphony Sid broadcast a “personality show,” Beach put the music first and used his dry wit to bring in new listeners.  “Ed told you what you wanted to know, but he let the music speak for itself,” explains Giddins.  “He told you who the musicians were, he gave you the recording dates, he never blathered, and you never felt it was about him.”

Phil Schaap, archivist at Jazz at Lincoln Center and broadcaster on New York’s WKCR who started listening to Ed as a kid in 1963, states it simply:  “Ed Beach is the greatest.”  Schaap explains the “Just Jazz” approach this way:  “This is a guy who had enough stage presence to bring off discography as the language of a radio program.”  Giddins similarly recalls that Beach was funny as well as educational.  “He had a lot of fun with it.  So it was very easy to get involved with the music without feeling it was a college course.  This was music he loved.  He also had incredible taste."

Creating a Generation of Jazz Fans

Dizzy Gillespie loved Ed Beach.
A list of Beach’s devoted fans reads like a Who’s Who of today’s jazz world.  In addition to Giddins and Schaap, the Ed Beach Fan Club includes figures as disparate as the Head of the Music Division of the Library of Congress Jon Newsom, classical and jazz expert Gunther Schuller, jazz historian Lewis Porter, as well as jazz musicians like pianist Hank Jones, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and drummer Danny Gottleib.  Newsom’s assessment of beach’s impact is definitive: “Ed Beach created a generation of people who are today keeping jazz alive.”

Danny Gottleib, an original member of the Pat Metheny Band, was hipped to Beach by his high school band teacher in New Jersey.  “I lived for that show.   It was a very meticulous approach to the music but done in a very compelling, entertaining style.  He had a very beboppy, erudite kind of voice, almost like the great Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Shepard.  He had such a compelling voice that you couldn’t wait to listen to it.”  The New York Times wrote that Ed’s voice “suggests Louis Armstrong as a Harvard man.”

Like Giddins, Schaap, and Gottleib, the Library of Congress’s Jon Newsom was a teenage Beach fan.  So when the preeminent jazz historian, composer, conductor and Beach fanatic Gunther Schuller tipped him to the availability of well-preserved “Just Jazz” tapes, Newsom contacted Beach and acquired them for the Library in 1992.  Today, tapes of his best programs — over a thousand of them — are carefully preserved and seeking a new audience.

The tapes exist because RVR started broadcasting “Just Jazz” in the morning with a repeat each afternoon and a block of repeats on Saturday — as well as sending the show to Boston’s WBUR for rebroadcast.  A copy was kept in a cool, second-floor storage room in the Riverside Church, which both owned the station and housed its studios.  The tapes span the broadcast years 1965 to 1973 and cover all of jazz history up to that point, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Scott Joplin through George Benson and the Jazz Crusaders — as well as everything in between.

“There are so many rooms in the house of jazz,” Beach recalls today.  “I loved the variety and energy of it.”  After his morning broadcast, Beach would spend the whole day in an office at the back of the RVR studios, auditioning, timing and choosing tracks for the next day’s show.  “I would get home in time to catch the rebroadcast at six, then spend the night doing biographical and discographical research.”  Ed used records from both the WRVR collection that he built with the help of RVR DJ Max Cole and from his personal library of 8,000 jazz albums.

Jay Kernis, today the Senior Vice President of Programming for National Public Radio, was a summer intern at WRVR for five summers from 1969 to 1973.  He vividly recalls Beach as “tall, theatrical in his precise, deep speech and revered by all.  He mostly kept to himself, but was always available for a chat at his desk, especially if you wanted to ask him about jazz.”  Robert Seigel, NPR’s host of “All Things Considered” was also at RVR during that time and recalls that Beach “loved and knew jazz with encyclopedic authority.”

WRVR's Demise

Robert Seigel worked at WRVR with Beach.
By 1973, however, the grant that had made WRVR a radio utopia ended, and the station went commercial.  Although — largely on the basis of the success engendered by “Just Jazz with Ed Beach” — it started broadcasting jazz 24 hours a day, it also began using play-lists.  Beach’s meticulously researched shows gave way to more mundane fare, and “Just Jazz” was no longer preserved on tape.  Beach left WRVR at the end of 1976 after the Riverside Church sold the station to Sonderling Broadcasting and, as Beach puts it, “the writing was on the wall.”  On September 8, 1980 at noon — after it had been acquired by Viacom International — WRVR went from playing Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” to Waylon Jennings.  It had become a country station.

Folks who heard Beach will never forget him.  Lewis Porter,  a leading jazz scholar and author who is Professor of Music at Rutgers University and founder of its jazz masters program, recalls:  “I listened every day after school, for hours and took notes.  ‘Just Jazz’ was an important early education for me.” Danny Gottleib remembers “specific shows that changed my life.  One was the Maynard Ferguson show – I went out and bought every Ferguson album I could find.  I remember the Oscar Pettiford show.  It was Ed’s demeanor.  He was like a friend because he was so cool and knew so much.”

But Gary Giddins worries that “Beach is already forgotten.  There is no awareness of him any more.”  Phil Schaap may be even more pessimistic.  “Not only do people not remember Ed Beach — they don’t remember Duke Ellington.  As recently as 1998, Ed was interviewed by Schaap on WKCR for Louis Armstrong’s birthday, but otherwise Beach has no interest in returning to the airwaves in real time.

The Ed Beach Collection at Clackamas Community College
Tapes Available

The “Just Jazz” tapes may be another story.  Van Jay, who worked with Beach at WRVR and is currently a jazz and gospel programming consultant and producer for WKBY in Chatham, VA, and WWDJ radio in NY, is working toward getting the show back on the air. “The diehard jazz fans really appreciated Ed Beach.  Ed was not a commercial guy – he could care less if he sold a record.  He was a dedicated man.  Ed was an in-house historian who knew the music very well.  But some people took Ed’s knowledge for granted and took Ed for granted.  Now,” Van Jay says, “my goal is to get the music, and Ed’s brilliant commentary, back out there where people can hear it.”

The recordings are now owned by the Library of Congress, and Jon Newsom explains that he too wants to makes the shows available again.  “My vision is to have the entire Ed Beach Collection on line so that when you’re out there and you’re wondering what went on with Charlie Parker in 1946 you could hear Ed’s entire program on Bird.  I’d love to put it out for free, accessible to everybody at all times, on demand.”  However, legal clearances from the owners of the copyrights to all the recordings on the “Just Jazz” tapes, at least for now, are holding up Newsom’s vision. 

“Some people are interested in putting Ed’s programs on radio again,” Newsom adds. “We’d be delighted to have that happen.  Rebroadcasting the tapes on public radio will not require the broadcaster to go back to the owners of the copyright.  Anyone who wants the tapes — including public radio — can have them for the price of a copy.”  Both Newsom and Van Jay agree that, as soon as possible, the goal is have the whole archive converted to a digital format.  To date, the Library has converted only about ten percent of the archive, though Newsom reports that the condition of the originals is “pretty good, as they were made during an era of ‘sticky tape’ that does not deteriorate quickly.

"Legacy of the Highest Magnitude"

Ed himself is also in good shape. Born in Canada as the only child of Eupopean immigrants, Ed grew up in Portland, Oregon and first heard jazz on the radio broadcasts during the ‘30s.  “I remember loving Ellington and Fats Waller.  I ran out and bought those records.  They thrilled me.”  Senough, Ed learned to play piano by ear and he was catching gigs with local bands.  He led played and sang with a small group that he says “shamelessly copied the Nat Cole style.”  Once in New York, he fell further in love with swing and bebop, carching Dizzy’s big band at the Spot light club, as well as Billie Holiday, Don Byas and others along 52nd Street at its height.  “New York back then was glorious,” recalls.
Ed Beach's Music Room in his Eugene apartment

He returned to Oregon for college and then found that his voice was a natural for the stage.  He played Shakespeare and other work off-Broadway and in summer stock before landing his first radio gig.

Phil Schaap gives Ed Beach the highest praise, calling him a champion of the music when it had too few.  “His is an important legacy of the highest magnitude.  When no one else was doing it, Ed was keeping the music alive on the radio.  Today, we’re looking for the next Ed Beach, the person who’s going to take the next watch.  Ed did his as well as it could be done.”

Gary Giddins is excited about the prospect of hearing “Just Jazz on the radio again.  “I’m a very enthusiastic Ed Beach fan, and I think that people should remember what he achieved.  I think those tapes should be played again.”

Ed, however, remains modest about his achievement.  “Why did I spend so much time on ‘Just Jazz’?  I did it for me.  I was learning the history of jazz.  And I thought — well, why shouldn’t the listeners learn too?”

Ed Beach and Will Layman in 2003
To this day, Beach listens to jazz recordings for hours every day.  He’s still enthralled by the power of the Basie band, the melodic invention of Sidney Bechet, the harmonies of Bill Evans.  And he still gets out to hear music — in the last few months he caught the Dave Holland Quintet and was knocked out by trombonist Robin Eubanks.  But some things can’t be put into words even by a legendary jazz educator.  Like, for instance, what is it that makes jazz so great?  Beach hesitates and shakes his head.  “It just swings, man,” he says.

And he’s right.

* * *

The last I heard from Ed Beach was a holiday card two years ago.  Ed has gracious stayed in touch with me, and he usually sends a hilarious card consisting of a photocopy of one or more New Yorker cartoons that are then inscribed with his precise handwriting and unmistakable wit.  Based on those cards, I can tell you that the man—at least until a couple years ago—was still lively, liberal, and wonderfully cranky about the world.

But, to my deep sadness, Ed died on Christmas Day, 2009, in Eugene.  His New York Times obituary is HERE.

Many of us owe him the greatest passion in our lives.  In the 1970s, we needed the likes of Ed Beach.

Next Installment of "How Did the '70s Wean Jazz Fans": Soul Jazz and the Groove of "Compared to What"


  1. Great stuff, Mr. Layman. Keep on writing. Surf on by my Passing Notes site sometime...


  2. Thanks, Mark. I've been over to your site. I'd like to listen to you show!

  3. Hey will, thanks for the nice post about my dad! He had good things to say about you and the article you had written back in 2003! Mark Beach

  4. I grew up on 50's pop and then as a teenager on pop rock, acid rock and heavy metal. I started listening to more blues as I entered my 20's and then, in the very early 70's, I stumbled on Ed Beach's show, Just Jazz, one night while scanning the radio dial in Boston. I was hooked immediately. I found his show, and jazz, irresistible. It quickly became my favorite musical form I have been listening to jazz almost every day since. And I have never forgotten Ed Beach's Just Jazz since I found it that night scanning the dial, 44 years ago.

    Thanks Ed.