UH Jazz: A Legacy Supreme
Former WWUH Announcers Recall "The good ol' Days"
by Chuck Obuchowski
WWUH radio changed my life. Go ahead, call me a crazy brainwashed fool, but truth is, this radio station - or more precisely - the individuals who have broadcast at 91.3 MHz over the past 30 years - have had a profound influence on my appreciation of all sorts of music, most notably the idiom commonly referred to as "jazz."
I have been a fan of radio since I was 10; by the time I reached high school age, the redundant playlists of top-40 commercial stations were beginning to bore me. So I began tuning in to the left end of the dial (remember, this was the pre-digital era... we still had dials then), checking out provocative new sonic realms whenever possible. Tuning to 91.3 FM became a nightly ritual. I completed many a homework assignment while being serenaded by Accent on Jazz. What a treat all these years later to share reminiscences with some of my favorite announcers from bygone days!
Special thanks also to longtime Accent host Maurice Robinson and Program Director emeritus Sue Terry for their written recollections. WWUH has been blessed since 1968 with many dedicated, knowledgeable jazz volunteers; Maurice, Peter Michaelson, Doug Maine, Terry Weichand and Stuart Feldman have each been with the station over 20 years. Every ‘UH announcer is allowed complete freedom to choose the music they play over the airwaves; therefore our listeners are presented with 10 unique takes on the jazz spectrum each and every week. We are very proud of our long-standing commitment to provide the area with quality jazz programming, artist interviews, live broadcasts and our Jazzline service (860-768-5267). Jazz in the Wilde and Sounds of Hartford are two live recordings made in recent years which attest to the wonderful creative variety of musicianship in our region, and to the key role which WWUH has played in bringing the music to the attention of listeners everywhere.
Any survey of WWUH jazz history would be incomplete without mention of Mort Fega. Mort was already a veteran DJ when he joined our staff in 1976, having been a major voice on New York City radio stations for well over a decade. His bopster slang and staunch commitment to straightahead swing during fusion’s heyday made him a distinctive figure on the Greater Hartford jazz scene.
"I’m a confirmed bebopper," he laughs. Mort is not shy when recalling his impact on the station’s jazz block. "I brought a rich life experience with me," he proudly proclaims. Indeed, at time when most ‘UH broadcasters were students, Mort was literally a pro; besides his Big Apple experiences, he also worked at commercial radio stations in West Hartford (WMLB) and Manchester (WINF). Among his fans was Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, then President of the University of Hartford, who had grooved to Mort’s shows while a student at Columbia University.
Mort’s in-your-face style was not for everyone. He admits to "kind of a contrived arrogance" regarding his refusal to take listener requests: "If people liked what I played, solid." He relied primarily on his own voluminous record collection for material to play on the air. Despite his detractors, Mort actually did two shows a week for some time, one on Saturday afternoons and one Tuesday evenings. Fega and his wife have long since retired to Florida, but he still fondly remembers his ‘UH years. "The station did a great deal for me," he recalls.
Mort’s New York connections undoubtedly helped him persuade a number of noted improvisers to play Hartford’s 880 Club. The DJ produced concerts at the 880 by Chico Hamilton, Tal Farlow and Lee Konitz, among others. He also emceed shows at Paul Brown’s popular Monday Night Bushnell Park Jazz Series, many of which were - and continue - to be broadcast live during July and August.
Mike Crispino was also involved with many of the Monday Night shows during these years. His tenure at WWUH was from 1977-81. Mike is still involved in broadcasting, although, as many are aware, he moved to television long ago; first with Connecticut’s Channel 30, and for the past six years as a commentator and play-by-play announcer for the MSG Sports Network.
Mike had gotten his first taste of radio during his college days on Long Island; he chose to come to ‘UH when he returned to his Connecticut roots, determined to ultimately pursue a career in communications. He cites his broadcasting experiences in West Hartford as an important stepping stone, but just as importantly as a time for ample musical education and enjoyment.
"The thing that sticks out in my mind is being able to talk with these jazz giants - the best in the business." Among Mike’s happiest ‘UH memories are his saxophone jams with fellow announcer Peter Michaelson and the interviews he conducted with Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans.
Crispino’s frequent partner-in-crime at the outset was onetime WWUH Program Director Roger Stauss. The two collaborated on an interview series known as Conversations; subjects for the half-hour program included Elvin Jones and Eddie Jefferson. "At the time, I didn’t realize the importance of what we were doing," he admits. The pair also did a "morning comedy rock show" as part of the station’s FM on Toast block; Roger points out only half-jokingly that this program was a precursor to the team-DJ approach which currently dominates morning FM programming on the commercial airwaves ... another example of WWUH in the broadcasting vanguard!
Roger joined the ‘UH staff in 1971 while a University of Hartford student. He started out as a pre-med major, but once he’d had a taste of radio he switched to communications. "WWUH was my first and most important professional experience," Roger attests from his home in Vermont, where he now runs Noteworthy Recording Studios and Shiretown Records. He recalls how, during his tenure as PD, "one of the big pushes was to get the station on the air consistently." Perhaps our listeners take our 24/7 schedule for granted nowadays, but it was thanks to the efforts of folks like Roger Stauss that the station has achieved such a fine reputation within the region.
Another 91.3 1970’s jazz alum, Mark Smith, sums up his experiences at ‘UH in a way which will resonate with many other former and current volunteers.
"I’ll always treasure the creativity and experimentation we were allowed ... and all the camaraderie and relationships I built ... above it all, it was lots of fun!" says the former Development Director. Mark was a U of H student when he joined the station. "It was the first time in my life I got a taste of what it was like to run something, to have that challenge and that control," he continues, adding that his stint at WWUH allowed him to hone the management skills he now uses daily in his computer software career.
Mark claims "I didn’t know anything about jazz when I started ... I was exposed to a whole new world." In retrospect, he views his naiveté as a plus, since it bolstered his urge to experiment with different combinations of songs and artists; one of his trademarks was playing two pieces of music simultaneously ... ah, those were the days....
Mark’s favorite WWUH anecdote may give our listeners some idea of the lengths our volunteer staff has been known to go, in its quest to give the area the finest jazz on the airwaves. The year was 1978, WWUH had begun broadcasting live jazz events from the 880 Club and Bushnell Park. On a nasty February night, the Pat Metheny Group was scheduled to perform at Hartford’s now-defunct Mad Murphy’s Pub. Mark and John Ramsey loaded up a station wagon with broadcast equipment and set off for the club. Unfortunately for the two intrepid travelers, Storm Larry had arrived to wreak its havoc upon an unsuspecting state. Three hours later, they arrived at their destination, which under normal weather conditions should have taken about 20 minutes! Needless to say, the band never made it to the gig, nor did any patrons. Mark and John ended up spending the night sleeping at Murphy’s and lugging the equipment back to the station the next day. "We were the only car on the road," Mark remembers; the governor had closed down Connecticut’s roads in the storm’s aftermath!
More recently, WWUH has collaborated with the Beanery Bistro in Windsor to produce outdoor jazz concerts, and with the Connecticut Jazz Confederation to present the New England Jazz Ensemble on our West Hartford campus. The station has also begun to annually broadcast an evening of the acclaimed Hall High School Pops & Jazz series. We look forward to bringing the Jim Cifelli New York Nonet to Wilde Auditorium October 9 - and to working with the University of Hartford’s Hartt School to produce a major concert and recording next year. The ‘UH jazz department also has a new association with the Gavin Report, which will assure improved CD service - in other words, even more variety on the airwaves at 91.3 FM. Our commitment to bringing listeners the finest jazz available remains as strong as ever. Thanks to all of you who tune in every week; to those who provide us with feedback and moral support; and to everyone who shares our passion for this splendid music.