Bob Perkins: The Art of Listening
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.