Local Anesthetic

“We express the distinctive and diverse character of the Chicago area,” reads the mission statement of WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. “We offer engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining programs of depth, breadth, diversity, and subtlety, that speak powerfully to those in the listening area, and have value to the world as an expression of Chicago.”

In the last year, as readers of this paper know, Chicago’s underground jazz scene has distinguished its hometown not only in the United States but also in Britain and Europe. Ken Vandermark landed a coveted MacArthur fellowship in part for his role in fostering it. A writer working for the New Yorker was recently in town to sniff out a story on it. The BBC has begun broadcasting concerts from the Empty Bottle’s Wednesday-night series, and local players have become staples of the European festival circuit. More musicians are moving here to get in on the action, more recordings are available than ever before, and the audience seems to be growing accordingly.

Yet during the 40-some hours of weekly jazz programming on WBEZ, the only local artists you’re likely to hear are middle-of-the-road vocalists like Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling. Over the past five years the station has been streamlining its programming, says general manager Torey Malatia. “It’s not supposed to be different shows by different people that just happen to occur on the same radio station. We want everyone working together, kind of like a theater troupe. I think that’s good broadcasting. It doesn’t mean that every person plays exactly the same thing, but they participate in the generation of the mix, and there happens to be one person leading the effort.”

In music, that one person is director Chris Heim, and in jazz the mix she wants to generate is a narrowly and sometimes mysteriously defined mainstream jazz. The shift has forced out DJ Neil Tesser, who played a lot of local jazz and brought to his shows a level of critical independence and historical background that’s been missing at the station since his departure. It has also diluted the distinctive personalities of hard-bop specialist Larry Smith and early-jazz expert Dick Buckley. “Any time you hear Larry Smith playing a tango record, you know it’s not his choice,” says Mark Ruffin, who replaced Tesser in late 1996 and was fired last month.

WBEZ plays plenty of great artists, from legends like Dexter Gordon to newcomers like Mark Turner, but it places a disproportionate emphasis on safe, midtempo material–especially vocal jazz. Jazz Record Mart manager Ron Bierma estimates that six instrumental jazz recordings are released for every vocal one, yet 11 of the station’s top 25 jazz albums from 1999 are by vocalists. Ruffin, a 20-year radio vet who says he was canned because he refused to run a list of questions by Heim in advance of an interview, gave me a memo she sent him early in his tenure, advising him that a dozen or so of the artists he’d played that week–including bebop pioneers Bud Powell and Charlie Parker–were “pretty marginal for us and tend to do stuff outside our sound.” During Ruffin’s slot, which ran from 10 PM to 1 AM, the note continues, “the vast majority of your audience is winding down, so keep it easy and relaxed.”

One night, says Ruffin, she put it more bluntly. “I was playing Charles Mingus’s ‘Reincarnation of a Lovebird,’ one of his prettiest tunes, when she walked in and yelled, ‘What are you trying to do? People are trying to sleep when they’re listening to you!'”

Other music Ruffin says he wasn’t allowed to play includes the lyrical, bebop-inspired work of Malachi Thompson and Ari Brown and recent recordings by Chicago institutions like Ramsey Lewis, Von Freeman, and Fred Anderson. And even when the station sponsored a concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he wasn’t permitted to play their records. Needless to say, no one less well-known than those musicians–like Ernest Dawkins’s New Horizons Ensemble, flexible postbop trombonist Jeb Bishop, popular jazz-funk experimentalists Isotope 217, or adventurous reedist Rich Corpolongo–has been deemed “easy” enough either.

Tesser says Heim once told him, “The avant-garde is a big cul-de-sac. It had its chance and it failed to find an audience.” But both Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman and Velvet Lounge proprietor Fred Anderson say the crowds for jazz and experimental music at their venues have grown consistently over the last few years, and more forums, like the Nervous Center and 6Odum, keep cropping up. Even Ravinia and Symphony Center, where WBEZ sponsors concerts, have broadened their booking: Cecil Taylor recently played at the latter, and Vandermark’s DKV Trio is booked for the former in June.

Malatia says it’s unfair to judge the station’s commitment to local jazz based solely on the jazz programming, because as part of his team strategy, programs that are not exclusively about jazz are supposed to touch on it. For instance, Ken Vandermark was featured on the station’s morning program Eight Forty-Eight. But that was after Vandermark won the “genius” grant, when everyone in town was clamoring for an interview, and despite that acknowledgment of his importance, his music has still never been included in the station’s jazz programming.

One way the station can support local music without actually having to play it is to announce shows. Heim regularly compiles lists of concerts for on-air personalities to talk about, but though she says she encourages input, the DJs are not to mention shows that don’t make the cut. “It’s to ensure that information is spread out fairly, so that no particular place gets more mentions than any other,” she says. Yet Marguerite Horberg, who as proprietor of the nonprofit HotHouse helped incubate the local free-jazz scene, claims WBEZ never ever plugs anything she promotes, even when she’s bringing in an artist they play. Ruffin says Heim told him no concerts at HotHouse should ever be announced because they don’t give money to the station. Heim denies that cash plays any part in what gets selected and says she has “no particular” bias against any venue.

Heim boasts that the jazz ratings at the station are higher than when she began her tenure as music director. But if ratings are what the station is worried about, couldn’t it at least grant the locals a little ghetto, the way commercial pop stations do for local rock bands? Tesser says he proposed this a year and a half before he left the station, but that Heim never gave him an answer. She says such a program is always under consideration, but there’s only so much time allotted to jazz as it is. She also says local music could become a feature on the station’s Web site once the technology’s implemented, but there’s no word on when that might be.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Jackson.