On a Wednesday morning last summer, my co-worker and I had just finished collecting our road signs since our job of the morning was complete. Sitting in the driver seat of our truck, I waited for my co-worker to get back into the passenger seat. When he finally did, he said “What the f*ck is this??” He was referring to the music playing on the radio station KBCS (91.3fm, Seattle).
As usual, I was listening to Joanie Nelson, who hosts 20th Century Jazz The First Half every Wednesday from 9am-noon. This is where I go to get my fix of old-school swing and jazz music, and it’s accompanied by a woman with a mild Australian accent who seems to be having the time of her life every week on the radio. At the time I didn’t know, but I always imagined that Joanie probably wore a lot of jewelry, maybe heavy perfume and a lot of scarves. Colored, light-weight, scarves.
That’s part of the beauty and mystery of the radio, being that (without Googling) you get to create an image in your mind of what people look like based on the sound of their voice. Sometimes my mind will create settings too. The soothing, yet bold voice of Al Barnes (Vintage Jazz on Thursdays from 9am-noon) had me picturing him as a white-haired man sitting in an old wooden rocking chair next to a fireplace, with a cat sleeping in his lap. A long haired cat. With maybe a cup of ginger tea close by.
Well, I was wrong on most parts, though Al does have a cat. He has no fireplace, and Joanie was dressed mostly in pretty plain, black clothes when I got them both together recently on a cold Sunday morning at Al’s house. On the car ride over, Joanie told me that people probably assume that she and Al hang out a lot because their shows are so similar, but other than during pledge drives (the station is publicly funded), they have never met, so this was a real treat for her also.
At Al’s house there was a huge old radio that looked about circa 1943 sitting in the living room and he dusted off the lunchbox-size remote control for us which he claims was one of the first. Classic pictures of old baseball teams, advertisements and cartoons were scattered throughout the place, though probably in a rather orderly fashion. He has bought one color television in his life: a 13” color TV back in 1975 until someone gave him a larger one and he only transitioned over because of the quality it gave for watching baseball games. He admits he might have to break down and buy a new TV.
But it’s rare for him to break down on anything and it shows with his taste of music. “Music is eventually going to end up in full-circle. Nowadays, music is so electronicized that there’s no soul left to it. Back then, even though they were recorded, it was live recordings where as everything is done in tracks today. I’d like to see people get back more into playing their own instruments. I’d rather listen to some crappy garage band who is actually trying to do something instead of a lot of this music you hear on the radio today.”
“I’m a little like Al and I can’t see beyond the 30s when it comes to music,” says Joanie. “At the same time, if a band comes out and it sounds like the 30s, then it gets on the show.” Surprisingly, Al will at least tolerate hip hop: “It’s actually kind of interesting and I like it better than typical radio stuff. But those stations are real repetitive and you’ll hear the same song about every third hour. Where I try to keep track and not repeat something for about six months.”
Joanie has been doing her show for over eleven years, and Al has been going at it for about fifteen; he thinks. Joanie used to be a fan of Al’s show. “One time I called [she was a frequent caller/fan] and asked him what he thought about me becoming a radio D.J. And he encouraged me to call the station, and I did. So I went in and practiced in this big room for so many weeks and the old director here helped me out for about a month with the buttons and such.”
Al was kind of shoe-horned in as well. A fan of the Vintage Jazz show hosted by Buck Dollars, Al wondered why Dollars had left the air abruptly. “So John Elwood was doing the show after that and he told me he that Dollars wasn’t with the station anymore, so I mentioned that I collect that style of music. They brought me in and put me through the training, literally by a blind guy. I don’t know how he did it. He used to do Drive-Time Jazz and I guess he would count the clicks on the CD player.”
So neither of them had prior experience in the radio industry, but a passion for the music of the past. Especially Al: he refuses to play anything newer than the 1930s on his show and he mostly stays in the 1920s. Even though neither of them gets paid for being on the air, it’s not money that they are interested in and Al says the whole reward is getting people to listen. “Payment is playing your heart,” Joanie says. “Playing what you like. All of us programmers are playing what we like and we’re not given play lists and I think that’s what makes the station.”
“I think our programs educate the young ones and we do have a lot of young listeners,” says Joanie. When they play a song, they’ll often list every musician that was on each track, which can be a pretty extended list with orchestras. But Joanie feels that they need mentioning because “these are people that played the music, passed on and kids don’t know about them. And I learn from listening to Al’s show.”
They listen to each other’s shows, though Al catches the second half of Joanie’s show because he doesn’t get up early enough to hear the whole thing, being that he works swing shift at his full time job.
One time Joanie announced that Al had died. ” Well, there was a tenor man named Al Fields. Dear Al; and he passed on. So I announced it one day and lovely Sarah comes in afterwards with big eyes and says ‘you just said Al Barnes died!’ I was like Oh, shoot!” Al says he thinks he was listening at the time. “Oh god Al, I’m so sorry!” We all shared a good laugh.
Between their two shows and meeting them in public, I’ve now been introduced to (or learned about) the Lloyd Scott Orchestra, Rex Stewart, Fletcher Henderson, Russ Columbo, James P. Johnson, Lena Horn, Bessie Smith and countless others I can’t even begin to recall. This music can have you think about pizza parlors, ballroom dancing, early cartoons, sweet serenades, old saloons and even the sultry sound of a burlesque show.
Al is extremely knowledgeable about this era of music. He shared knowledge of jazz in Chicago and recordings in New York City in the 1920s. He can pinpoint the exact years that swing music began and also when recording went from acoustic to electrical. He also stated that the string bass couldn’t be heard in the old acoustic recordings, but electrical allowed that feature.
Though much of this music was created by black musicians back in those days, it’s important to remember that racism was still a pretty common thing. “The black musicians would have to walk in through the side doors because there was no way a black jug band could walk through the front doors of a venue in the 1920s. Music had a lot to do with the advancing of integration,” Al said. “Musicians were inter-mixing not in public, but after hours. You read about Jack Teagarden staying up all night with Jimmy Harrison, the black trombone player. And they would play trombones all night and drive the neighbors nuts and stuff.”
On top of their music knowledge, they both had plenty to say about Zippy the Pinhead, Betty Boop (when she was actually racy), Major Hoople comics and Li’l Abner. Joanie: “This is something the kids don’t know; they haven’t figured it out yet.” It was admittedly cute to sit back and quietly listen to them reminisce about these past times that I was unaware of.
While I wasn’t rude enough to ask, it’s probably safe to say that there is over one hundred years of life experience between the two. So it’s not too much of a surprise that neither has a clear grasp on what HD is, but Joanie repeatedly told us about YouTube clips that we must watch with Jimmie Lunceford. Joanie doesn’t know about MP3s. “I have a phone that can do that, but I don’t know how you do it.” And unlike the youth today who prefer to buy songs, Joanie would rather just buy the cd in whole. Surprisingly, the music they play at KBCS has an older sound to it, but there is no vinyl, and everything is played on cd re-issues because they are easier.
The music that Al and Joanie play is almost 100 years old, so it’s obviously pretty out-dated. But as they both stated many times, that music is part of the musical foundation of this country and deserves homage, which is partly what they do. And maybe we should listen to them about other things that relate to current life. According to Joanie, “Singing and dancing movies with people like Fred Astaire were around after the Depression hit and that’s why they were there. To cheer people up.”
While giving Joanie a ride home, she talked even more about old music, and she stopped to point out a crow going through some garbage. “What rebels they are!” she stated. During the ride, I mentioned how I often get teased by friends my age because I enjoy the kind of music that she and Al play on their radio shows. Joanie then turned towards me, put a hand on my forearm, and said “That’s okay. You just tell them you’re an old soul.”