06/28/11 By Tom Wilmeth
A Portrait of Leigh Kamman
A Minnesota jazz radio legend turns off his mic
Leigh Kamman is alive and well and living in Edina, Minn. Recently retired from the airwaves, Leigh (rhymes with say) had been a fixture on jazz radio for many years before I met him. That was in the summer of 1980, while interviewing for a board operator position at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Leigh had caught up with the person who was interviewing me to discuss a jazz event taking place that weekend in Minneapolis. Leigh’s program, The Jazz Image, was the late-night show which the statewide network of stations ran each Saturday from 10 P.M. until 4 on Sunday morning. It was a voice well known to me long before this meeting, and I quickly realized that this unerringly polite man was its source.
More striking than the familiar and well-articulated speech patterns of this announcer was his professional attitude, clearly evident in his manner and his clothes. While most everyone I encountered in the halls of the radio station on that hot July day wore shorts, t-shirts and sandals, Leigh Kamman had on a tailored three-piece suit. Since this was a job interview for me, we were the only two in sight formally dressed. Leigh’s professional attire fit his voice perfectly and, as I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever saw him in anything but a suit and tie.
I landed the job and was soon fulfilling the various functions of radio station board operator. Before long, Saturday’s late-night shift fell my way. Most thought this an unenviable position, but I was glad for the opportunity to serve as Leigh’s engineer. The near-empty station and Leigh’s jazz selections created a relaxed atmosphere compared with the frenetic pace of the broadcast day.
Leigh is a Minnesota native who spent some time in New York City in the early 1950s and then returned to St. Paul to work in radio and later for the 3M Corporation. That’s about all I knew about his past. His taste in jazz was a bit different than mine, but that was not surprising. Leigh was deep into Johnny Hodges and the big bands. I liked Paul Desmond and fusion. But to pigeonhole either of us by these narrow overviews would be a disservice, as I quickly came to see. As the weeks went by and my number of Saturday night shifts mounted, my interest in older jazz increased. Leigh played a mix of old and new, but largely stayed with the music of the 1940s and 1950s, which his listeners had come to expect.
As my father prized arrangements over solo virtuosity, I grew up hearing Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman and, especially, Glenn Miller. Leigh played a little of the Dorsey Brothers and less of Miller. He too liked Benny Goodman, but was even more interested in bands that I knew little about. I was aware of the bigger hits of Duke Ellington, of course, and had even participated in two high school jazz clinics run by Stan Kenton, but Leigh played material from these artists that I had never heard before, deep catalogue stuff. I learned a lot about music on those Saturday nights, but was usually ready for 4 A.M. to roll around so I could start the syndicated Jazz Alive reels and head home to bed. It wasn’t until Leigh was assigned the task of recording individual jazz modules that my Master Class in Jazz Appreciation really began.
By the early 1980s, the Minnesota Public Radio empire had multiple FM stations positioned around the state and one AM station in St. Paul. I think the AM had been a donor’s gift, but it was sort of a white elephant for the place. We filled the signal with news and some simulcasting, but the FCC demanded that the station not just be a “repeater” of the FM signal. Leigh was asked to put together a series of one-hour shows that could be run on the AM station at night. These were to be self-contained shows that would fill time while providing original content. Leigh agreed to come in to record these shows after his 3M day was over, and I volunteered to be his board operator.
We were well aware that these were production-line shows, cranking out three or even four of them a night if we could do them in real-time without stopping. “Sausage links” is what Leigh called them, but he also knew that there was precious little space given to jazz on any radio station, so was glad for the opportunity to fill this void. He took the task very seriously. Because of repeats, these shows could ultimately have a larger audience than his Saturday night statewide broadcasts.
Every module needed to be exactly 55 minutes in length in order to allow for the five-minute newscast from AP at the top of each hour. No problem. We started with some basics, recording four hours on Louis Armstrong. Featuring only one artist per show, Leigh was able to give his listeners a well-rounded musical portrait of each artist. While rolling tape in the control room, I learned of artists never heard in my youthful years: Jimmy Lunceford, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter. Fascinating material, with each selection back-announced by Leigh’s informative but concise commentary. Sometimes he was reading liner notes, sometimes jazz reference books, but most often he was giving information from his own knowledge of jazz and from years of living with the music.
Leigh was open to suggestion, direct or circuitous. At one break between tapings, I asked about baritone sax man Gerry Mulligan and his unexpected tenure with Dave Brubeck. After answering my question, Leigh decided that we would next do a series of Mulligan modules. Fine. I think we did six hours. I even provided a couple of albums. And then we did two more hours of lesser-known material by the classic Brubeck quartet. It was work for both of us, but simultaneously a luxury to be able to record as many shows as we wanted on whichever artists struck Leigh’s fancy.
We were in the studio when the wire services reported the death of Earl “Fatha” Hines. We assembled a four-hour special on the great pianist that very night that was picked up the next day by the NPR network and distributed nationally. Leigh had the knowledge and the recordings; I knew how to operate turntables and tape machines. We flew.
Leigh Kamman was successful in providing jazz to the Minneapolis/St. Paul region and beyond. As suspected from the first, those modules were aired frequently for a period of several years, but because there were so many of them we never had a listener complaint concerning duplication. Also, each hour would stand up to repeat listening. This is because Leigh would play the well-known material by an artist from the station’s music library, but he would also dig into his personal record collection and into that of his friend Ray Marklund. Together they would regularly come up with fascinating recordings from deep within their own archives.
Leigh consistently kept the focus on the music, and never on himself. He had spoken to Duke Ellington on numerous occasions, first as a 17-year-old fan at a train station! But he wouldn’t think of dropping this fascinating nugget into a conversation in order to impress. I had worked with Leigh close to three years before I heard him mention, in passing, about speaking with Charlie Parker. I froze at the tape deck with reel in hand. I asked him to expand a bit, but he drifted away to another subject.
It makes sense that Leigh would not stress his conversations with Charlie Parker. For one thing, hard bop was not his favorite form of jazz. And there weren’t a lot of upbeat aspects to address in Parker’s life during the 1950s, when they met. Leigh played Bird on the air, but not frequently. One time when I pressed him a bit, Leigh did say that he had talked to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Oscar Pettiford. As I recall, Leigh said they were all together at his New York City apartment after their respective gigs. I asked Leigh if he had any overall remembrances of the conversation. He paused for a long while and then finally said, “They were all quite bitter about money.”
“You mean,” I asked, “they felt cheated?”
“Yes,” was all Leigh said, but this short response said worlds.
Leigh had very little to say about various musicians’ public struggles with substance abuse or their detrimental personality quirks unless these things had to do with the music itself. During his time in New York, I’m sure he had seen the darker side of the music alley up close and had no interest in lingering there.
If Leigh was a jazz fan first, he also knew the realities of the business side. He was slow to get involved with anything that might step on the rights of musicians, keenly aware that paying gigs were a professional musician’s lifeblood. I never knew Leigh to take a comp seat; this would hurt ticket sales and the bottom line for the performer. He was also very aware of who owned the rights to which recordings and was determined that no one was to be cheated out of a fair share. One night I showed Leigh a recent Joel Whitburn book that listed a record’s peak position and overall statistical performance on the Billboard charts. Leigh looked at it for a while and proclaimed it of limited use because it did not include the copyright holder for each song. Wow. But that’s what he wanted to know! Chart position and sales figures can be manipulated. Ownership is ownership.
Leigh was responsible for helping keep jazz not only on the airwaves but also on the stages of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Whether from weekly promotion on the radio or actual involvement with booking artists, he remained among the greatest supporters of jazz in the area. One time Leigh told me that an old friend from New York was coming to town and that he wanted the station to record his talk. I didn’t think much about it until he later casually mentioned that the name of his friend was John Hammond!
Some younger jazz aficionados, usually new to the genre, were critical of the playlist heard on the Saturday night show. True, it did not always reflect the latest trends, but that wasn’t because Leigh was unaware of them. I would regularly see him investigating the Minneapolis jazz scene, from locals like the Natural Life band and the talented Peterson family to touring individuals like Phil Woods, Howard Roberts and Jon Hendricks. I saw him at Minneapolis’ famous First Avenue club when Wynton Marsalis first played there in 1981, checking-out the new young lions. Leigh was easily identifiable in the packed house by his suit and tie, the only one so dressed except the band. Just as with his radio show, he was drawn to the music. He had a very open mind and a broad musical perspective; but he also knew what would and would not work well on his weekly Jazz Image broadcast.
When the numbers were counted, we did a total of 187 modules and I worked at least 150 Saturday nights with Leigh. After that, the MPR network acquired a long sought-after deal with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the need to fill time became less critical. We would plug into the CBC for long stretches. The modules project was suspended and even the length of Leigh’s Saturday night show was scaled back. Formats shifted.
In the fall of 1983 I made plans to depart Minnesota for Texas. I didn’t have direct contact with Leigh for several years after that. Even so, it was clear that he was keeping his ear to the ground. When I received an academic accolade, he sent congratulations through mutual friends. On the rare occasions when our letters did form a pre e-mail conversation, he was always encouraging me to return to radio—even going so far as to point out jobs he thought appropriate. His confidence was encouraging, of course. But I left radio, in part, because I had already enjoyed the good fortune of doing everything in broadcasting that I wanted to do, things almost exclusively related to music. I would later have other fine teachers in various fields of study, but Leigh Kamman’s lessons on jazz and on personal grace have stayed with me the longest.