Bob Perkins: The Art of Listening
"It's BP with the GM!" That's how the famed and venerable jazz disc jockey Bob Perkins signs on the air, with the code for "Bob Perkins with the good music." And it's not just a slogan. Perkins has a way of selecting jazz that resonates with his listeners' tastes and represents thoughtful choices on his part that invariably convey something important about the music. His program always flows along and entices the listener. As he himself notes, his trade secret is "big ears"his ability to listen. And he is listening not only to the music but to the musicians, the audience, and the tenor of the times. He wants to know what's on his listeners' minds, and he uses that information in his programming. Plus, Perkins frequently has musicians as guests on his show.
Indeed, Perkins has always heralded and supported Philadelphia jazz players, bolstering the local jazz scene and appearing regularly as a lecturer and concert emcee. (Recently, he gave talks on Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis to accompany related musical performances. In addition, he has emceed the Cape May Jazz Festival and other regional events.) Philly Jazz owes a great deal to Perkins, who has been in jazz radio for over thirty years, and in his current slot at WRTI-FM for more than a decade. And now Bob can be heard on the internet worldwide at wrti.org, so readers anywhere can tune in.
Before he ventured into full-time jazz broadcasting, Perkins was for many years News and Editorial Director at the Philadelphia radio station WDAS, and as an African-American, he helped make inroads into the local political scene that helped the Civil Rights and Equality cause through his advocacy of discussion of issues rather than personalities. More than a jazz disc jockey, Perkins has had radio in his blood from the time he was a child. Appropriately, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia for his work.
AAJ: Since you're always spinning the "good music" on your show, what do you personally listen to on your car radio or at home?
BP: Actually, I very seldom listen music at home. I like the feeling of sharing with an audience, so it's something of a revelation to both myself and the audience, and we're both surprised at the same time, and hopefully delighted by what I play.
- Growing Up during the War Years in South Philadelphia
- Doing Time in Detroit
- Radio Times in Philadelphia
- All About Jazz Music
- Jazz in Its Heyday
- Advice for Aspiring Musicians
- Daily Life and Approach to Living
- Doing Time in Detroit
AAJ: Let's start with your beginnings in life. You grew up in South Philadelphia, and your website biography states that your father was an amateur radio hobbyist, so you came up listening to radio from dawn until midnight. Tell us about your life during those early days, and especially what stimulated your interest in jazz and led you eventually to become a disc jockey.
BP: Well, our radio was set up by my dad, who loved broadcasting, and I remember all the old newscasters: Gabriel Heater, Eric Sevareid, H.V. Kaltenborn, and the master of them all, Edward R. Murrow. I recall his overseas broadcasts and his team of reporters who were broadcasting a nightly reporta roundup of what was happening in the war. These turned out to be my mentorsI didn't know it at the time, but I kind of stacked the experience away until I got into broadcasting, and then I used it. And my dad was a radio nut who listened to shows like Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club," and Dorothy Kilgallen, who had a show on WOR in New York where they would sit around the table and discuss what shows they saw last night and so on. Arthur Godfrey had a breakfast showhe sang and played ukulele. There was all manner of stuff. Radio was still eclectic in that era. And my brother, who was nine years my senior, brought in Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and things like that.
AAJ: So, it was your brother who initially led you to jazz?
BP: Yes, he was my mentor. He taught me everything, including how to throw a football, play baseball, whatever. I saw the Harlem Globetrotters when I was five years old, courtesy of him. He just took me by the hand to movies, sporting events, and so forth. He went into the service in the Second World War, and all my goodies somewhat stopped, but my sister took up where he left off. She was a little older than him, and so then she took me downtown to the Mastbaum and the Fox Theaters and all the movies downtown, so as a kid, I got a pretty good exposure to everything that was going on, maybe more so than the average kid.
AAJ: You were very close to your brother and sister.
BP: Yeah, we had a great family. I'm the youngest of five sibs. I guess my mom and pop thought they were done with kids, and then nine years later, here I come! So I was always around adults, and I heard adult talk and adult radio, and I heard good music, so I was kind of set up, and there's no reason I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing.
AAJ: Did you hear recordings as well, or just radio?
BP: My brother brought in records of Ellington, and before that, Fats Waller. We had a little wind-up Victrola, and it was my job to step on this pedestal and wind the thing up and put the needles in there. Then my father got sophisticated and brought in a combination phonograph and radio, and I started hearing Ellington and Andre Previn, when the latter was a child prodigy. And Previn, when he came over from England, interpreted some of Ellington's works.
AAJ: Did you go downtown to hear Philly musicians perform?
BP: I was too young to get into clubs, so most of my exposure was from radio, and they played mostly good standard pop music, and then later, when in my teens, I listened to some of the disc jockeys, like Doug Arthur, who was a master at WIBG. He stood up when he talked because he said he could emote better on the air.
AAJ: So, then, what prompted you to move to Detroit in your youth?
BP: After the war, the guys came back to the States, and it was hard to find jobs, so my two brothers and their families moved to Detroit to work in the automotive industry. Detroit was a wide open city in those days. There was zero unemployment, and if you didn't have a job, it was because you didn't want a job. Blue-collar workers were living next to doctors and lawyers and high level professionals, because the auto plants were booming, and people were making money hand-over-fist. So I said, "Boy, this for me!" I was in insurance at the time, and in September of 1964, I went there to live, and I got a job at an insurance company. Now, fortuitously, the firm was located in a big mansion, and the insurance company was on the first floor and a radio station on the second. When I was getting ready to go home that day, I looked up and I saw a sign that said, WGPR-FM, and I said, "Boy, I always wanted to get into radio." I was about 28 years old.
AAJ: So you weren't looking for a radio job, you just got hit with it?
BP: I went to radio school in Philadelphia, but I didn't have any experience. The Philly stations told me to go out into the hinterlands and gain some experience first. So I just dropped it until I saw this radio station sign saying "second floor." I went up there, and the guy said, "I don't want you to go on the air, but I would need you to sit at this console and turn the knobs to bring in all the remotesthey had mobile units in the area. So that was my starting gigto bring in the remote locations at the assigned times. As fate would have it, I went downstairs and quit a job I never started, to start one upstairs! And the insurance guy said, "Do you realize you can make ten times more money with me than up there?" And I said, "But that's what I really want to do." So that was my start in radio.
AAJ: It's a good lesson for young peopleto follow your dream.
BP: It was a dream come true. It didn't matter how much they paid me, as long as I could get involved in radio. I was with my first wife at the time, and she got a good job at the J.L. Hudson department store in Detroit, but I still had to get a job at the Ford Motor plant in order to continue to work in radio at the same time.
AAJ: That's similar to when trombonist J.J. Johnson worked at Boeing doing blueprints when the music business slacked off in the 1950s. So did you get to go on the air in Detroit?
BP: Yes. It was a small station owned by an African-American, a member of the Masons. The station had about 1000 watts. One day, a recording machine broke, and the guy told me to read the material live instead. The manager was impressed and said, "Hey, I didn't know you could speak that well. From now on, you can do more of that." Soon, I got a show playing records, and the rest is history.
AAJ: Was Motown an active force in Detroit at that time?
BP: Yeah, they were hot. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and so on. And, I could get an interview with the musicians most any time I wanted to. They had a club there called The Twenty Grand, and I did interviews there to put on the air. Later on, when these guys hit it big, it was impossible to get interviews with them!
AAJ: It's interesting that you were doing interviews way back then, because that's one of the special features of your current show in Philly, half a century later! You have a special knack for it, so you bring a lot of color into the music that way. It sounds like you were having a ball in Detroit, so why did you come back to Philadelphia?
BP: It was a great time then, with Motown and all that. And at that time, the DJ could format the music the way he wanted to, so I could play some B.B. King and then some John Coltrane, and then some Motown. It was eclectic. I could do what I wanted. Then, a couple of years later, the Beatles and all the music from the U.K. became popular, the stations started formatting and choosing the music, and they put DJs like myself in a straitjacket.
AAJ: We still hear stories like that, but more in the recording businesswhere the executives tend to over-control what the musicians do. But on another level, did you have any contact with the jazz scene in Detroit? At that time, Detroit was a jazz beehive.
BP: Yes. I was at that station for about a year-and-a-half. Around the corner, there was another station, also owned by African-Americans, and from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., they played jazz on their FM channel. They heard me on the air and invited me to work for them as their FM Program Director. I'd gather news during the day and do jazz on one of the night shifts. I liked to play jazz, they had a voluminous jazz library, so I came on boardby day, doing news and by night, broadcasting and programming jazz. And I did that for about a year and a half. I became very popular because I had kept up on jazz on my own when my brother went into the service, so I was very good with programming, and everyone liked it.
But I wanted to be more eclectic as a news director, so I took a pay cut to work at another station and worked as a news assistant. Soon, however, I made a connection with radio station WDAS in Philadelphia, and for a while we exchanged information about the two cities. After a time, they invited me to work for them. They gave me a raise and paid my travel expenses, so that's how I got back to Philly in September, 1969. That began a 19-year stay at WDAS as a newsman, and then I went on to become news director. They were one of the few African-American stations to have an editorial director as well, and when the latter became ill, they gave me a dual position as news and editorial director.
AAJ: It sounds as if, in principle, you could have become another Walter Cronkite. But, apparently you stayed away from television.
BP: Truthfully, if I'd have stayed in Detroit, I might have become the second coming of Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes fame [Like Perkins, Bradley, the late, great reporter for CBS-TV, was an African-American who grew up in Philadephia]. When I was in Detroit, many radio people were making the transition to TV, and had I stayed in that city, I might have done so myself and also made a lot more money. But when I came back to Philadelphia, I became acquainted with two mentors, and learned a lot from them, so I might have been richer in Detroit, but poor in terms of my knowledge and skills.
BP: No, the problem was that I had it so good at WDASthey let me do anything I wanted to. I liked being news and editorial director, doing my thing, making enough money. I liked it too much to do something else! Plus, they let me work at the public station, WHYY, at the same time, and I did a jazz show there for 20 years.
AAJ: Since you were doing so well at radio news, what made you decide to pursue jazz broadcasting again?
BP: It was 1977, and Ed Cunningham, their well-known announcer and chief cook and bottle washer, said, "Come over and do an audition." Terry Gross was there at the time as well. They liked what they heard and invited me to come over on Saturdays from 10 to midnight and broadcast jazz. It was a chance to pursue that passion again, and it progressed to a four hour show that I did for 20 years, while also working at WDAS. And I wrote a commentary column for the Philadelphia Tribune, so I had three balls in the air at once. I kept stretching myself. I started emceeing at jazz performances.
AAJ: You were invited to attend a couple of presidential news conferences. That must have been when you were doing news broadcasting. You attended White House events with Jimmy Carter?
BP: The Association of News Directors set it up for a bunch of us. We got a chance to shake the President's hand. Carter invited us for a chat, and Dan Rather was there, among others.
AAJ: Carter was a jazz pianist, and once had Cecil Taylor to the White House. He liked the progressive jazz of the time.
BP: I didn't know that about him. It seems that only recently is Carter getting the kind of appreciation he deserves.
AAJ: Bob, you come across to me as a very modest and unassuming person, surprising for a celebrity. Nevertheless, you've won a large number of awards and accolades for your work in media. Which of those awards meant the most to you?
BP: Without question the Philadelphia Broadcaster's Hall of Fame. To be in the pantheon with John Facenda (well, I thought I died and went to heaven. Facenda was "the man") and Larry Kane and all these great broadcasters, some of whom I listened to before I got into this racket. It amazes me that my name could be emblazoned somewhere along with all these people. I never thought I'd go to the White House or that my name would be included with all these giants. It knocks me out. But I will say that I had great mentors. And I listened, and I thank my dad and my brother, and John Facenda and all the disc jockeys I listened to and Arthur Godfrey, and H.V. Kaltenborn, and Gabriel Heater. I can't believe that I'm included with such guys. I must be dreamin.'
AAJ: There's another side to you that's really impressiveit's that you're totally immersed in your work. You're not focused on fame and fortune, you're just doing your craft to the utmost.
BP: Working in this industry is something I never thought I'd be able to do. When I started out, I was kind of shy, and I thought, "If I can't make it in Philly, how can I make it elsewhere? In a way, it was just Divine Providence that led me into that insurance building that had a radio station.
AAJ: When we think about Facenda, Kaltenborn, Murrow, Sevareid, and all those great broadcasters, we realize how much they were part of their lives back then. Their voices brought the world into our homes, and it was almost as if they were part of our families. And similarly, when people listen to your show, you become part of their lives. You don't just play record tracks. There's a contact there that's wonderful.
BP: Thank you. I appreciate that. Personally, I see myself as a conduit for a thousand people, such as the musicians, and they all become part of me.
AAJ: You have a real gift, and you give that gift to us on your show. So let's turn to the music now. First of all, what are the qualities of jazz recordings that turn you on?
BP: Well, people have asked me over the years, "What's your favorite album?"
BP: I would always say, Duke Ellington. And truly, he'd be at the headone of the first artists I listened to, and a darned good bandleader and songwriter to say the least. If a musician played in Duke's band, his reputation was such that he'd get hired almost everywhere else. And when they ask what records I would take to that desert island, the truth is I just love the straight-ahead sound you get from the Modern Jazz Quartet or from Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan, in Mulligan Meets Monk. I just love the way they challenged each other! That recording is one of the most wonderful things I've heardthe interplay between two great musicians. They played even greater when together, as on that record. I never heard Mulligan play like that before. Then there's Sonny Rollins,' Way Out West: "Wagon Wheels," with just Ray Brown and Shelly Manne.
It's that old question, "What is Jazz?" It's like asking "What is Love?" It's "candylicious," like that old candy bar commercial. You know what it is, but you can't quite put it into words. You know it when you hear it, but try to explain it, it confounds you. It's nothing short of amazing to me that a guy can pick up a horn and play "Sweet and Lovely" or "Stella by Starlight" a hundred times, and each time it's different. And each time, it's like he's telling a new story.
And, very importantly, you really have to listen to jazz. But I tell you, everything's so busy now, and there are so many distractions, that some of the interest has been taken away. People are so busy, they don't have time to really hear what a master jazz musician is trying to convey to them. Jazz is like looking at a piece of fine artwhat is the artist trying to convey? The same for musicit takes a little time. But everyone's so busy nowadays.
AAJ: When reviewing albums, you become acutely aware that you really have to listen very intently to hear the nuances.
BP: Yeah, it's not just background music; it's someone pouring out his or her heart. How many years of study, how many music lessons, does it take to do that successfully? When I hear Larry McKenna or Bootsie Barnes, it's amazing how they can talk through the horn, better than through speech. And it all comes out extemporaneously. They use the instrument as an extension of their souls.
AAJ: As Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn." And Larry and Bootsie express so much on the tenor sax.
BP: They're two of the greatest tenor saxophonists, and they're right here in Philadelphia. There's a certain feeling you get with some players that you can't put into words. It's like that Prego tomato sauce commercial: "It's in there!"
AAJ: Given that it's true that there's something intangible about what makes for good jazz, how on earth do you go about picking the very many tracks that you play week after week, year after year?
BP: It's the "feel" of it. I'm psyching out what my audience would like to hear today. Not what I like, but what the audience has told me over the years that they prefer to hear, and what new things are close to what they want. And I'm fortunate that certain people who love jazz like what I play. Now, some would say, "You're not modern enough," but I love melody. Our demographics at WRTI are like me. Our core audience is 50 and older. As for the young people, I don't want to chase them. I want them to chase me. I want to turn that scenario around. I want the young people to get excited and say, "Where are those gray hairs goingwe want that, too!"
AAJ: Young people tend to go far out and experiment, but at least some of them come back to what's traditional and stands the test of time. There are many new jazz musicians and fans. The college circuit, for example, is quite active.
BP: As you grow older, you're able to listen harder and longer. And I'll play something like a Miles Davis tune, and it will ring a bell, bring back a memory, and the listeners will be surprised. I like surprise.
AAJ: You know, I have that same feeling when I listen to your show. I frequently find myself asking, "How did Perkins know I was just thinking about that musician or song?" or, "How did he know I've been wanting to hear that one?"
BP: Yeah, I even surprise myself some time. It's as if I'm out in the audience listening to me! I try to put myself in the perspective of the audience.
AAJ: Let's get down to some specific concepts. Soon, you're going to give a talk on Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1949) recording. The Birth of the Cool album changed the face of jazz forever. Can you give us a synopsis of what you plan to say about it?
Two images from Barkley Hendricks' Birth of the Cool Collection
BP: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts has a current exhibit of the paintings of Barkley L. Hendricks that is coincidentally entitled The Birth of the Cool, which the Pew Foundation funded. It is a traveling exhibit that will subsequently be shown elsewhere. They contacted the Philadelphia Clef Club, and the Clef Club eventually contacted me and asked if I would do a narration about the album built around bebop and post-bop music. They suggested I put the accent on The Birth of the Cool and talk about how the recording came about. So I plan to tell about how Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, John Lewis, and some of the other composers got together in Gil Evans' small apartment, and brought together the musicians, like J.J. Johnson and others, to take jazz down a different road, that laid back style that Miles and the others took up.
Don Wilson's trio will play some of the tunes from the album. And then I'll go into the post-bop era with how Miles and others got into more advanced things in the 1970s and 1980s. So I plan to piggy back on the visual artist's work, with all due respect, and put the accent on the musical Birth of the Cool. By the way, I don't know for sure whether the artist was thinking of that album, but he must have at least heard the title!
AAJ: Regarding the transition from bebop to cool, let's take that back a step. Where do you stand on the controversy about whether bebop is on a continuum with the swing bandswhere guys like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie cut their teethor whether it represented a radical change of concept? More generally, do you think jazz represents a continuous evolution or a series of distinct stages based on revolutionary ideas?
BP: Of all the art forms, jazz is the most democratic and interactive. Van Gogh couldn't go over to Gaugin and say, "Hey, baby, can I paint on your canvas?" But a jazz musician can sit in on someone else's group, and it enriches the music. Everyone can bring something to the table, and it all belongs in the mix. So there's always something new popping up. When bebop first came in, people were put off by it, and when the cool happened, they didn't like that! Some people didn't like either one, because "We wanna dance, and we can't dance to that!" So you can always bring in something new, and it's OK. But I don't care what you do, you can never match the great music of the late 1940s, when bebop came inthe more progressive stuff with Parker and Gillespie and so on. That lasted for quite a while, from the late '40s to the mid '60s when the kids from the UK came over. For over a dozen years, modern jazz flourished.
BP: You know, here in Philadelphia, we had a commercial jazz station with Sid Mark and Joel Dorn and those guys. Their programs featured all jazz. Then in the 1960s, WDAS set up an FM stationin fact you could hear them building the FM facility when you listened to the AM station! They had guys like Ed Bradleynot the CBS Ed Bradley, another guyand Dale Shields working there. And you had the clubsthe Riverside, the Blue Note, et cetera. So you had a triumviratethe radio stations, the clubs, and the record labels supporting the musicians, sending them out to be interviewed, and they were playin' at Pep's, the Showboat and so on. So it was an unbroken thing then for quite some time.
Now, one of the things that broke the chain, so to speak, was that the people who were supporting the music grew up and got married, and got two cars and a house. Things changed, and they no longer supported the music as much. I remember when Pep's had a Saturday jazz matinee, and people went there like they now go to a Phillies game. And the clubs would keep a group for two weeks if they drew a crowdthat's almost unheard-of now.
Groups are lucky now if they get a weekend gig. So those were the halcyon days of jazz, and I don't care what music you bring in after that, free jazz or whatever, it will never match those terrific times when you had so-called straight-ahead jazz. And for some reason, the clubs, the radio, and the record labels all worked in tandem for a while. Then we all grew up, married, and we had different interests and would no longer spend money to go to the clubs. So jazz faltered. And we also made the mistake of not telling our children and getting them interested in what we'd seen and heard. We didn't tell them how great jazz is or take them to a jazz show. And then the new pop music came in with the kids from the U.K. and so on. Jazz got lost in the shuffle somewhat.
AAJ: It sounds like such a creative and exciting time in Philly, for example, and everywhere, like Detroit, New York and L.A. At that time, Miles Davis and all the guys from New York would come down and play at the Blue Note and the other clubs on a regular basis.
BP: And it troubles me that we don't have much documentation of that time period. We need a mini Ken Burns to do a documentary or something like thatget all the information together and do something like that.
AAJ: That's something the new Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Project at the University of the Arts is shooting for.
BP: I'm glad. Right now, there's no book, no video, no film about Philly jazz that tells the story.
AAJ: Don Glanden recently put together a marvelous video documentary about Clifford Brown and his coming up in Wilmington and Philadelphia which could serve as a model for what you're talking about. That led to a conference on Clifford Brown and to his induction into the Walk of Fame. At the conference, Lewis Porter gave a fascinating lecture on Clifford's recordings of "Cherokee." But everyone says how difficult it is to get accurate information and documentation on the clubs and all those events that took place.
From left: Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane
BP: A year ago, I did a short documentary on Bird (Charlie Parker), and found out about the apartment he lived in at Broad and Stiles near Girard Avenue. And he also lived in Newtown for a while. I talked to several people, including his daughter, Kim, and his son, Baird, and also an individual who actually went to Bird's apartment and looked through his recordings and found that, in addition to Stravinsky and Ravel, he had records of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. And he collected all the "bird" groupsthe Crows, the Sparrows, and so on!
Bird was very eclectic in his musical tastes. Curiously, I lived in the same building 30 years later. Bird was there in 1952 to 1953. I lived there in 1980, between marriages. And, believe it or not, Dave Brubeck also lived there! He told me that, personally. It was called the Flamingo apartmentsa hot place to live at the time. Arthur Prysock lived there. So I researched all this and did a half hour documentary on Bird's Philadelphia connections, and it was very revealing to talk to Bird's drummer here at the Blue Note, and all these other guys.
And the first club to cater to the modern jazz music was the old Downbeat at 11th and Ludlow, where Red Garland played. They did a piece on him in the Icon magazine. Trane lived at 33rd and Oxford, and Garland lived at 17th and Oxford, and Trane would often walk almost a mile to Red's house, where they would trade ideas and rehearse.
AAJ: These stories are very touching. It's truly amazing how many of these legendary jazz cats have done time in this city.
BP: Garland lived near the great Shirley Scott. Shirley told me he used to come over and mentor her. We really need to establish a gold standard, such as the recent Billie Holiday Tribute concert at St. Luke's Church, for getting the message out about jazz, especially in Philadelphia. And we should do more of thatcombining talks with live performances, not too costly so folks can afford it, and at a place where people can really pay attention and not make a lot of noise and conversation like at a club. That's the way to do jazzput it in an environment that's conducive to people listening and learning. Entertain and enlighten people at the same time, and everyone goes home feeling great, as they did at the Billie Holiday Tribute. You can sometimes add an educational component. You need a situation where people are going to let go of their daily preoccupations and the noise in the room, and really listen.
AAJ: True enough. Yet, paradoxically jazz really developed and thrived in the context of those small, noisy nightclubs.
BP: But jazz is really spiritual music and you need to really listen to it. What could be more expressive than a man or woman pouring out his or her heart in a jazz interpretation? The word "concert" itself means people playing together, in synch. To think of a group of cats playing in synch with no notes in front of them, that's amazing! Each one is telling his own story, but they're in unison.
AAJ: Having sat for a long while in the "catbird seat" as a DJ, what advice would you give an aspiring jazz musician to develop his or her career?
BP: Good ears; big ears! I often tell young people, "Don't open the book at the end to see if the butler did it. Go to the front of the book to get the whole story." Learn about Miles when he couldn't play well, when he was in Billy Eckstine's band and Eckstine was passing through St. Louis and invited Miles to sit in, and he said Miles was "terrible." Then Miles went to New York, studied at Juilliard, played with Charlie Parker for a while, came back to Eckstine's band for a short time, and then he could really play. You can't hang around with a master like Bird and not learn something.
So, listen. Have big ears. Like I didI listened to people smarter than me and figured out what they were doing. I may have copied them in the beginning, until I got my own sea legs. Your personality will emerge after a while. Pretty soon, no one will be able to identify who you "sound like," because you'll sound like yourself, you'll be a composite of so many people whom you listened to. And even listen to musicians you don't like, because that tells you what you don't want to sound like.
AAJ: Guitarist Vic Juris said something similar, that it's the listening that makes for great playing. You should base your playing on what you're hearing when you're listening to the other guys in the group.
BP: Concentrate on what you really love, and get in tune with that.
AAJ: Saxophonist Ben Schachter has a similar viewpoint and feels that when you're playing, it's not "you" calling the shots. Rather, you're a conduit for something other than yourself.
AAJ: To change the topic, you're an African-American who came up at a time when society was still segregated, and then you lived through the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and so on, until now, when we have an African-American president. In the midst of all that, you just steadfastly pursued your career without much obvious attention to race. But is there another side to you? Were you ever were involved in Civil Rights, and do you have some particular views about race relations and minorities?
BP: Of course. In fact, I wrote and voiced my views when I did the editorials for WDAS. I made a point not to attack any individual or group. Instead, I talked about issues. Several organizations gave me awards for my work. I came in on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. Many of the politicians in Philadelphia got into office on the basis of my editorialssome of the city council members, for example. When WDAS supported black candidates, most of them got swept into office. The station was called "the voice of the African-American community."
Back in the day, in the 1970s and 1980s, we put a lot of people into state offices in Harrisburg, and many into city council. I wrote the editorial endorsements for Congressman Chakah Fatah and State Representative Dwight Evans. I wrote about fairness and what you can do to counteract unfairness. How and where you spend your money. Buy from your friends and don't give your money to your enemies. If someone's unkind to you, don't patronize him. Spend your money with people who are fair-minded and love equality. I never attacked people, although we did have something going with the late Mayor Rizzo.
AAJ: Everyone had something with Mayor Rizzo.
BP: He was a very controversial individual. But I never attacked him as a person, just the issues. Nothing stridentdeal with issues, vote your conscience, spend your money with people who treat you right. I did those editorials for about fifteen years, and they went over very well.
AAJ: You're an advocate rather than an iconoclast.
BP: This country is based on money. Money talks. Just withhold your money, people will come around. Think of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King drove a bus company into the ground. But the people had to walk, they had to suffer. All you're asking for is quid pro quo.
AAJ: But you're leaving out the dark side of the cash register, especially regarding the music. Mediocrity rises to the top with money. The best musicians are often not taken seriously, not even given a decent wage for their gigs. It takes as much training and experience to be a good jazz musician as to be a physician, and many of them get paid next to nothing when they perform. Also, the executives take control of the music for monetary gain. J.J. Johnson became very upset when Verve took control of a couple of his later albums and told him what to play and not play. Here's a man who had over 50 years as one of the world's top jazz musicians, and they're telling him what to do!
BP: The truth is that jazz was born in the brothels and the bars, and then later drugs came into it pretty heavily. So there's always been a social stigma attached to the music. And of course, there is always racial prejudice. Someone once said that if Duke Ellington were white, he could have run for President or even run for God, and won.
Unfortunately this country is not as strong as it used to be. We're very fractured as a nation. We've bought into the idea of survival of fittest too much. It's not very good for the country. For example, for the first time, we owe other countries like China and the Arab Emirates tons of money. Foreign businesses outdoing us.
AAJ: Yes, we seem to have lost touch with certain values, like tolerance and trust for others, and valuing ideas that differ from our own.
BP: Ellington wrote "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and Porter wrote "Anything Goes." They were prophetic.
AAJ: Jazz and popular music have a strong socio-political element.
AAJ: Now, before we wrap it up, could you tell us about your family and what you do when you're not working?
BP: Actually, my avocation is my vocation. I go around looking for unique recordings that I can spring on my listeners. I get euphoric when I find something interesting because I know I'm going to "hit someone's hand," as they say in pinochle. Someone's gonna say, "I haven't heard that in 50 years! I'm gonna call Perkins and thank him." I also write for a good magazine called Icon, which gives me a chance to write about some of the musicians.
AAJ: Do you ever talk to your wife? [laughter.]
BP: She's not much of a jazz fan. But we go lots of places together. She's more into classical music and vintage rhythm and blues. She's a professor at Pierce College and is also working on her doctorate degree in education, like Bill Cosby. Sometimes we pass like ships in the night. We'll have a late dinner at home, and catch up with each other then.
AAJ: One more questionColtrane said that music was his spirit. Could you tell us about your philosophy and life and spirituality.
BP: We're at the crossroads of the spiritual and secular, and we make a "joyful noise." People are creative and shouldn't be pigeonholed. Consider vocalist Miss Justine, for example. She was a banker when I knew her way back when, and then decided to become a singer. Recently, people were amazed by her at that Billie Holiday concert. For me, a good upbringing with loving parents and siblings helped a lotthe apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Respect other people. Carry yourself the right way. Be yourself, don't put on airs. And my mentors had a lot of humanity. I learned from them. I'm a walking composite of a lot of people. I have big ears. And I surround myself with the right people. I owe them a great debt of gratitude.
AAJ: And we all owe a debt of gratitude to you for your big ears, because we all benefit from them! If you have a secret, maybe that's it, because you play the very best music on your show.
BP: If you have a gift, pass it on. Someone once asked Einstein, "What's our purpose here on earth?" He said it all very simply: "Man's mission on earth is to help his fellows."
AAJ: There's a funny story about Einstein. He played the violin pretty well, but he wasn't a polished professional. One time the great classical pianist Artur Rubenstein came to his house to play duets. Rubenstein became very frustrated, and at one point shouted, "Einstein, can't you count?" [Laughter.]
Page 3 (Barkley Hendricks Collection): Courtesy of Barkley Hendricks
Page 4 (Charlie Parker): Frank Driggs Collection