March 2006

Mort Fega

(7.4.21-1.21.05)

The "Nightfly" character wasn't supposed to be a stand-in for any particular jazz DJ or even any particular person. But there were a few actual radio personalities of the time that went into the mix. In the early '60s, Manhattan's powerful stations were blasting hard bop throughout the metropolitan area. Out in the Jersey 'burbs, I could get "Symphony Sid" Torin (later pegged as the "jazz traitor" for switching to a mostly Latin and Afro-Cuban playlist). In the afternoon, I rushed home from school to hear Riverside Radio's fabulously erudite Ed Beach. I remember Dan Morgenstern's show and a guy named R.D. Harlan on WNCN. But my favorite--along with monologist Jean Shepherd--was WEVD's all-night man, Mort Fega, who died January 21, 2005, at the age of 84.

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Walter Becker, Mort Fega and Donald Fagen

Unlike Symphony Sid, whose growling hepcat routine was getting old ("No, dahling, I'm not goin'a play Etta Jones tonight"), Mort had no jive persona to sell. He was laid-back, knowledgeable and forthright, the cool uncle you always wished you'd had. I looked forward to Mort's between-track commentary as much as to the music itself. With Red Garland's "Mort's Report" playing softly in the background, Mort, with the grace and enthusiasm that reveals itself only in the most bona-fide jazz lover, would carefully list every soloist and sideman.

In those days, as they say, giants walked the earth. They also recorded quite frequently for labels like Prestige, Blue Note, Columbia and Impulse, and Mort played them all--Miles, Monk, Rollins, Mingus, Coltrane, Bill Evans and so on. But he also had his own, somewhat lesser-known personal favorites. One was Oliver Nelson, whose exquisite Blues and the Abstract Truth album he helped to popularize. I recall multiple playings of Kenny Dorham's "Sao Paulo" with Joe Henderson on tenor. And it was on Mort's show that I first heard the exhilarating jive tales of His Royal Hipness, Lord Buckley.

Mort also had his salty side. My partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker, also a huge fan, told me that he once heard Mort express his disdain for avant-gardist Albert Ayler by playing a minute of a cut and then halting it with needle-scraping finality. If Ayler's saxophonic rage seemed more understandable to my 18-year-old self in 1966, I can also recall the urge to scrape something across my roommate's face when he cranked up Ayler's "Ghosts" at one o'clock in the morning.

Not so long ago, Walter and I had a gig in Palm Beach, Fla., where Mort and his wife, Muriel, settled in 1986. To our astonishment, he came to the gig and gave us a nice write-up in his Palm Beach Post column. Afterward, we hooked up. He was just as cool and steady as he sounded all those years ago when he rode WEVD's signal through the swirling, bitter northeastern night. Using the hoary but handy language of jazz (Pops/Pres/Bird and Diz/Yiddish/British), he said that, if we had "eyes to get together," we should just give him "a schrei."

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