When Rus Perry arrived at WTJU in 1972, he was really into rock ’n’ roll. But the more he hung out at the station, the more he expanded his musical horizons, playing the latest Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello cut next to Ornette Coleman or Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“We learned from each other,” Perry recalls, reading liner notes that led from one artist to another. “My introduction to jazz was curated by friends and acquaintances who knew the music. That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he says.
With his “Jazz at 100” series now airing Fridays on WTJU, Perry introduces listeners to the history of recorded jazz—which began 100 years ago, on February 26, 1917, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”/“Dixie Jazz Band One-Step” recording. And he knows the music well.
Perry is not a historian or a musician, but he is a deep listener. For years, he commuted to Washington, D.C., by train and filled his alone time with music, sometimes listening for 40 or 50 hours a week.
About eight years ago, Perry started listening chronologically to recorded jazz. He consulted “best-ofs” compiled by scholars and critics and came up with a massive list he’s been working his way through. Perry is up to 2003 now, and he plans to arrive at 2017 in early 2019—the same time when the last of the weekly episodes will air. The 100 shows are organized by theme rather than date.
Perry has amassed a collection of more than 7,000 discs totaling 68,000 unique tracks. He’s watched documentaries and read books of jazz history and criticism, including Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins’ Jazz. He’ll listen to something if someone says it’s important. (The exception: Kenny G. “I do not have a single Kenny G record. You may publish that,” says Perry.)
To listen closely to the history of recorded jazz is to listen closely to the last century of American history. Perry says it’s no surprise that a bunch of white guys—the Original Dixieland Jazz Band—made the first jazz recording, despite the fact that jazz was the music of black New Orleans artists. Perry points out that a few black musicians turned down the chance to record, for a number of reasons—cornet player Freddie Keppard feared that fans wouldn’t come to shows if they could just listen to a record at home. Keppard also played with a handkerchief over his hands so no one could see what he was doing on his horn.
Jazz spread throughout America because talented musicians left New Orleans, Perry says, due to economic racial oppression and the diaspora of musicians; they left because New Orleans had no recording studios. Then the rise of big band music corresponded with the rise of radio, and it fell when gas was rationed during World War II—big band travel took a lot of gasoline. When big band music fell, bebop rose. “And then there’s free jazz in the 1960s,” Perry says—it’s not hard to imagine where that came from.
Perry delights in tumbling down the rabbit hole of jazz, learning about alto saxophonist Art Pepper when reading about Charlie Parker. Pepper emerged on the scene after Parker’s death and “killed it” until about 1960 when he disappeared—he went to jail and did an extended stint in rehab before re-emerging in the 1970s to make some of the most “ephemeral and profound” music that Perry will play. “It’s truly profound in its emotional content, and I think that’s one of the things about jazz that moves me the most—this range of emotional possibility. The same music can have profound romantic content and also be intensely angry. It can be cynical, comedic, narrative—there are so many possibilities, and it all comes out of the same musical tradition that evolves over time,” says Perry.
He’s also moved by the uniquely democratic nature of jazz, a medium that “requires individuals to go on stage and listen to each other and interact in a conversation—that’s fundamental to the art form.” It matters that Lester Young and Sweets Edison played in a small group context behind Billie Holiday, and it matters that Holiday often stepped aside to let the band shine.
“Jazz is always moving, always changing, and it never forgets anything. There’s this continuity, not only of pieces, but players and attitudes that builds from one thing to the next over the generations,” Perry says. And if he has anything to do with it, “Jazz at 100” listeners won’t forget, either.
1959: A record year
“Total killer,” a year full of significant records, Rus Perry says. There’s even a BBC documentary titled “1959: The Year that Changed Jazz.”
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out: “Takes jazz improv away from the usual 4/4 time signature, with ‘Take Five’ being one of the most popular jazz tunes ever.”
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um: “Classic cool jazz.”
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come: “‘Lonely Woman’ is free jazz.”
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: “Quintessential, essential modal jazz played by jazz heavyweights Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans. And those solos, man.”
John Coltrane, Giant Steps: “This chord-dense record changed saxophone forever.”
Perry has listened to thousands of jazz records to prepare for WTJU’s Jazz at 100 series. Here are four picks from the first half of a century of recorded jazz to get you started.
Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (1925-1928) Here, the first great jazz soloist “expands the realm and possibilities of music in a small ensemble setting,” Perry says.
The Blanton-Webster Band (1940-1942) Perry says that this is Duke Ellington’s creative peak. Tenor player Ben Webster and bass player Jimmy Blanton “just kill it,” Perry says. “There are 16 people in this band, but it’s named after the bass player and the tenor player who totally defined the sound. Talk to any jazz fan about this band and they know you’re talking about a three-year period of Duke Ellington.”
Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1957) A strung-out, white alto sax player from California re-appears on the scene after a stint in jail and records with Miles Davis’ New York-centric rhythm section; they choose material they all know, including “Jazz Me Blues,” first recorded by Bix Beiderbecke in 1927. Pepper is “one of the nakedly emotional players ever,” Perry says. “He’s heard it and you share in that” on this recording.”
Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (1957): “A real instruction about musicians listening to each other, and about the possibility of the tenor saxophone,” Perry says. Hear the extraordinary differences in the two tenor players on “La Rosita” in particular.