"Today is National Aviation Day ... so why not take a pilot out to lunch?"
Longtime WWUH Monday Morning Jazz host Dean Hildebrandt wasn't prone to cracking jokes or making small talk during his program. He kept his microphone breaks brief so that the music would always be front and center. But somewhere along the way, Dean started making his "national ... day" announcements, always with the suggestion that the listener treat a nurse, auto mechanic, convenience store clerk - whomever was being honored that day - to lunch.
It was kind of corny, yes, but somehow it suited Dean perfectly: a touch of lightheartedness, and a tip of the jazz beret to someone in the listening audience who deserved to be acknowledged for his or her contribution to society. Perhaps it was inspired in part by the patter of legendary New York jazz DJs like "Symphony Sid" Torin and Fred Robbins, whom he'd listened to as a teenager. Whatever the case, Dean's weekly lunch invitation became a pleasant WWUH ritual for a dozen years or more.
Dean Hildebrandt died on March 15, 2010, a month shy of his 77th birthday. Monday Morning Jazz listeners will no longer be implored to dine with people of varied occupations, nor will they be greeted at 9 a.m. sharp by Erroll Garner's distinctive rendition of "How High the Moon," which also closed Dean's program each week, just before noon. However, many of us will always cherish those memories, just as we'll always fondly recall his exceptional taste and knowledge of mainstream jazz, from the 1940s to the present.
Although Dean had apparently been ill for some time, he never shared that news with any of his colleagues at WWUH. Rather, he continued doing his show - and engaging in station duties - up until the week he died, never complaining or indicating that he needed a respite.
Dean joined the WWUH staff in early 1997, after he'd retired from a successful position at Travelers Insurance Company. Although he may not have fit the stereotype many have of an announcer at an alternative college radio station, Dean's passion for the music earned him immediate respect from his peers at 91.3 FM. Actually, his initial contact with the station occurred when he answered a request in the Hartford Courant for volunteer library assistance; he'd assumed the position was with the University of Hartford's Hartt School.
This proved a fortuitous "mistake," both for Dean and for the university radio station. He was able to further his love of jazz and classical music, while at the same time, doing a splendid job of reorganizing and expanding the WWUH recorded music collection.
As station manager John Ramsey explains, "With a collection of close to 100,000 LP and CD titles, it's a big job, but Dean was up to the task. It wasn't long before he had catalogued the entire jazz library ... and over the years, he continued to keep the library up to date in an incredibly efficient manner."
Jim Christensen, host of "Conscious Evolution," the program which precedes Monday Morning Jazz, is a carpenter by trade. Jim built many of the CD shelves used in the expansion of WWUH's library; he marvels at Hildebrandt's attention to detail: "Dean gave me a bunch of formulas [to help determine how much space would be needed.] He knew exactly how many inches we'd need, and how much time we'd have [before another expansion would be required.] "
Jazzyjayne, Tueday Accent on Jazz host, enjoyed assisting Dean with CD storage tasks at the station: "I could see the huge effort he put into commandeering the general library all these years." She proudly recalls that it was Dean who first encouraged her to become a WWUH announcer.
Once she'd completed training, Dean "was especially kind to sit in with me during my very first fill-in show, which was a Marathon [fundraiser] evening." According to Jazzyjayne, Dean guided her through that inaugural program and helped build her on-air confidence: "He was an amazingly caring, considerate, impassioned individual."
Curiously, when Dean began volunteering at WWUH, he had no intention of becoming a jazz announcer. I got acquainted with him during a series of conversations we shared on Tuesday afternoons in the station office. I'd be working on our jazz calendar after concluding my morning jazz program, and Dean would be painstakingly inputting artist names and album titles into the UH computer system, part of his ambitious cataloguing process.
Right from the start, it seemed obvious to me that he'd make a great announcer. Dean had been a jazz fan since the age of 13, when he purchased a couple 78 rpm recordings by Benny Goodman. As a teenager, he witnessed firsthand the bebop revolution of the 1940s and became an avid radio listener. His family lived close enough to the Big Apple to allow him to pick up the air signals of the most influential jazz stations of that era.
Dean didn't need much persuasion to try his hand at jazz programming. Once he'd completed his announcer training, he filled in on a number of classical shows until a jazz slot became available. Former UH Jazz Director Harvey Jassem, a U of H professor, had hosted the Monday morning program for about 10 years before deciding to leave Hartford on a sabbatical.
"I'd developed a good relationship with a lot of listeners but felt very comfortable leaving the slot in Dean's good hands," Harvey remembers. "Dean not only loved the music, he played the music ... it was fun seeing him performing with the various bands of which he was a member."
Dean had played clarinet as a young man, and he returned to performance after retirement, eventually adding saxophones and trombone to his musical arsenal, too. He played in several bands in the Simsbury area, where he lived with his wife Marge. One of his ensembles - the Farmington River Royal Ragtime Ramblers - even gave an in-studio concert on WWUH during one of our "It's All Live" days several years ago.
Friday Night Accent on Jazz announcer Doug Maine observes that "Dean set very high standards for himself," regarding show preparation and organization. Whenever he was involved with one of the summertime Bushnell Park jazz broadcasts, for instance, Dean would carry a notebook filled with questions and comments for artist interviews, as well as details about upcoming concerts.
He relished his Monday morning airshift because it allowed him to debut the latest releases; his enthusiasm for sharing these sounds with his listeners never diminished. As much as he appreciated classic material from the 40s and 50s, Dean knew that jazz is a living, ever-changing music - and he made sure to support young and/or local artists, on the air and at the many concerts he attended. But he honored jazz veterans too, frequently offering birthday salutes and previews of upcoming concert appearances.
Despite all his talents and the rich experience he brought to WWUH, Dean Hildebrandt remained humble to the end. He'd probably have scoffed at an article like this one, preferring to do his work quietly and behind the scenes. Yet, those who were privileged to know him won't soon forget his tireless efforts on behalf of the station, nor the good humor with which he approached his tasks. A plaque acknowledging Dean's music cataloguing contributions will be installed in the WWUH library in the near future.
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