XM and Sirius Satellite Radio: Jazz in the Air

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Jazz and Satellite Radio
By Jason Raish

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Flashback to New York’s 52nd Street circa 1948 at the Five Spot: Miles Davis and Charlie Parker are scorching through a set while an elbow-room-only crowd unknowingly bears witness to a defining moment in American culture. Bebop in all its glory had arrived.

This scene and others are the kind of storytelling delivered from Les Davis on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Pure Jazz channel. He’s one of a seasoned group of air personalities cherry-picked to lead the company’s four million listeners through the jazz canon. Davis isn’t there merely to announce who played on the record; a 40-year veteran of the jazz scene, he’s more like a travel guide nudging the listener along through the nuances of improvisation and offering biographical sketches of the performers who define jazz. “As in the renaissance, there were certain years when the talent was remarkable,” Davis says. “And they had personalities that were edgy or eccentric. You not only came to see and hear Miles play, but who knows what he might do.”

Meanwhile, Maxx Myrick of XM Satellite Radio’s Real Jazz channel has snatched a sound clip from the archives to give listeners a glimpse of old-school radio from the likes of Symphony Sid, the first and only national jazz host in the ’40s and ’50s when bebop was at its height. Symphony Sid, aka Sid Torin, would often broadcast live from Birdland and the Royal Roost. In the audio clip, Sid is being ribbed by Parker for making a song request. “How many people have even heard Bird speak,” says Myrick, who creates snippets of interviews from jazz greats that play in between songs and sets of music. It gives the channel what he calls “jazzitude.”

The rise of XM and Sirius comes at a time when jazz programming on traditional radio continues to decline, with stations in a number of cities either abandoning classical jazz formats or limiting airplay in favor of other programming. According to radio ratings outfit Arbitron; the number of jazz stations in the U.S. totaled 71 in all of 2000 and fell to 66 by the spring of 2005.

“I don’t know if people would hear jazz in some markets if it weren’t for satellite radio,” says Carol Archer, an editor at industry trade publication Radio & Records in Los Angeles. “There is no full-time commercial jazz radio. That’s been the case since KJZZ in San Francisco went off the air years ago. The audience for straightahead is passionate but small and aging. There are some new and exciting jazz talents, and I hope as they emerge they will attract a younger fan base and bring kids back to jazz.”

And if young or old fans want to tune into jazz, XM and Sirius have created a national platform for the music in all its forms from big band to fusion that’s heard across the U.S. and Canada. “When Charlie Parker plays his horn here, he’s playing in every city in America,” says Sirius’ jazz format manager, Matt Abramovitz. “This is at a time when there aren’t jazz clubs in the cities and jazz musicians coming through all the time. Those days are gone, but now we’ve overcome the issue of access.”

The lobby of Sirius’ New York headquarters is dominated by 24 electronic billboards that constantly shift song titles giving visitors a slice of what’s being played. The company’s programming space and air studios overlook Radio City from inside the McGraw Hill Building in Rockefeller Center. Sirius expects to grow its current 4 million subscribers to more than 6.2 million by year’s end.

Seated in a glass-enclosed conference room, Abramovitz looks out onto a mob of busy staffers huddled inside wood-grained cubicles tapping away at their keyboards. He’s shifted his pace to pause to talk about bringing jazz to the station’s listeners. “Sirius is always looking to do something interesting with jazz,” he says. “The other day it was the birthday of Charles Mingus; [his wife] Sue Mingus came in and picked the music we played and introduced each song with something about the composition. So we are always looking for opportunities to enhance the presentation.”

Sirius’ jazz programming comprises a smooth-jazz channel (Jazz Café), a straightahead jazz channel (Pure Jazz), a modern jazz channel (Contemporary Jazz) and a standards channel (Standard Time). In the beginning of the year, Sirius rode a wave of publicity, fueled by the arrival of popular radio personality Howard Stern to the station’s talent roster. Abramovitz says he’s spoken with a number of listeners who originally signed on for Stern but then found their way to Pure Jazz.

There aren’t figures to show how many Stern devotees found the genius of John Coltrane, but Abramovitz says giving listeners access helps bring new fans to the fold. He recalls an e-mail from a serviceman stationed at a Nebraska Army base, who is enamored of a quote from Parker: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The phase is played on Pure Jazz throughout the day. “He plays vibes and drums, and he’s going to post it in his band room,” Abramovitz says. “I’ve heard that since I was 15 years old, and it’s kind of old hat in some ways, but for a lot of people it is new and still cool.”

When Abramovitz conceived Pure Jazz he wanted to create a sense of community giving listeners comfortable points of entry into jazz. That meant finding announcers who could deliver a sense of history and context that separates one song from the next. “This is not just for jazz buffs who know what Charlie Parker was wearing in 1947,” he says. “It’s for people who are just listening casually, and they can say to them, ‘Pay attention to the piano solo because the guy taking it is a real innovator and this is his breakthrough recording.’”

Davis has been doing his Pure Jazz show for more than three years from his home in West Palm Beach. He admits that his initial attraction to New York’s jazz scene wasn’t for the music, but a more visual melody, in the form of a curvy stripper named Lois Defay. “I remember vividly standing there nursing a beer and there were these guys onstage, and I didn’t realize I was looking at Charlie Parker; I was just waiting for the stripper to come out. But I did take note of the music those guys were playing.”

Davis continued to soak in jazz for several decades and gave listeners tuned to New York radio a steady diet of real jazz. Today, he is excited to bring the music into small town America, where the sensation of a John Coltrane riff is virgin experience. “One of the big kicks, and you wouldn’t think there would be any kicks left, is getting into the crevices of small towns and getting e-mails from places I never knew existed, which I know have to be one-radio station towns, or two at the most, and lot of these people have never heard these musicians before.”

Leafing through e-mails, he calls out obscure towns like Gilbert, Ariz., New Tripoli, Pa., and Shakopee, Minn., a question mark lingering in his voice after each name. “The gratitude that pours out from the listener is not to be believed.” What they are clamoring for, says Davis, besides the music are his stories. “To be able to say, ‘I remember sitting on a park bench with Horace Silver.’ We lived around the corner from each other, and he was morose. He had been ripped off for the second time and he was through with New York and was going to move to California. We argued about it; I lost and he left.”

Davis played jazz on 15 different stations throughout his career. He had become worried in recent years that with the decline in jazz on traditional radio, the music was getting harder to hear. “That’s why I feel this is a major development and a damn important one for jazz.”

XM and Sirius each offer more than 100 channels, many commercial free, that give their subscribers news, talk, sports and what seems like an endless menu of musical styles. The content is beamed from satellites launched by the companies to radio units designed to pull in their respective signals at home, on the road or in planes. To hear either service, subscribers have to buy special radios equipped to receive satellite signals and pay a monthly fee.

A little before 3 p.m. East Coast time, XM’s Myrick settles into a broadcasting booth that’s part of a suite of offices and performance spaces housed inside Jazz at Lincoln Center. At the start of his show, a Real Jazz channel voiceover boasts: “If you like Kenny G, you’ve got the wrong station.” Myrick is insistent on keeping the channel swinging: in-the-pocket, acoustic, straightahead all the time. An e-mail from a listener requests a Christen Scott tune called “Paradise Found,” but the piece is too contemporary. It’s not “smooth”; it’s just too modern to be played on Real Jazz. Myrick tells the listener to check for it on the fusion channel, Beyond Jazz.

Myrick’s nursing a cold and his voice is strained. He’s tweaking his show, which is usually preprogrammed, to celebrate the life of pianist John Hicks, who died on May 10 at 64. Myrick interviewed the Art Blakey sideman in 2002. As the interview progressed, Hicks felt more comfortable and opened up about his life and reminisced about his high school classmate Tina Turner. “You know, I pushed her to join the glee club, and she would say, ‘I can’t sing in front of all those people,’” Hicks says in the interview.

“I think a lot of these cats appreciate it when someone takes an interest in them,” Myrick says. “Not everyone can be Miles Davis, but without the John Hickses there would be no Miles Davis. Cats like John Hicks had to go out there and get it.”

XM is based in a sprawling multilevel warehouse space near downtown Washington, D.C. The company has 6.5 million subscribers and is on pace to reach about 9 million by the end of the year. XM’s presence at Jazz at Lincoln Center is an outgrowth from the station’s ties with Wynton Marsalis and gives the station access to Lincoln Center performances, which can be rebroadcast for listeners. The station’s other jazz channels are Watercolors (smooth jazz) and Frank’s Place, where Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald forever swing. On the weekends XM offers up special programming, with airtime devoted to music on the Hammond B3 organ, followed by a Latin-jazz show titled Manteca, named after the famous Dizzy Gillespie recording.

When Myrick envisioned how the channels would sound, he wanted to play as many branches of the jazz tree as possible. But his overarching goal is give listeners a good time. “We wanted to put some fun back into it,” he says. “We have musicians cutting up and having fun. When people feel something they express it, and we wanted to create that atmosphere on the air.”

But he’s even more interested in offering a peek behind the bandstand, giving artists a chance to talk about the music, how they create it and why it’s important. Since 2001, he’s produced In the Swing Seat With Wynton Marsalis; the one-hour show gives listeners a chance to hear about jazz as the musicians see it, and Marsalis makes connections between artists and genres like the gospel and blues commonalities between Mahalia Jackson and Bessie Smith.

With about 10 minutes left in Myrick’s show, Marsalis, the artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center drops in. He recently penned Jazz ABZ: A Collection of Jazz Portraits, an illustrated children’s book with poems that accompany portraits of jazz greats. He attempts to record some of the poems but abandons the effort because of a groggy voice.

While Marsalis thinks XM offers a great vehicle to hear jazz, he says it’s the responsibility of all those who care about the music to get the public to support it: “We are in a battle for consumers like everything else in the modern world. Our battle is not any different from anyone else’s.”

He echoes the feelings of jazz historian, lecturer and pianist Billy Taylor, who says the burden of restoring the prominence of jazz should also be shared by the culture at large. “We can’t leave it to the media or the press; it’s our responsibility,” Taylor says.

And for Marsalis, the limited exposure to jazz only makes his quest easier. “If you are presenting a lifestyle of music, a concept, a way of playing, and no one is trying to present that, there is a whole area for you,” he says. “It’s like having a register to play in that no one else is playing in.”

Having this new radio home is providing a real resurgence of sales and attendance at shows. The feedback that Sirius’ Davis gets from Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., for example, is that attendance is up whenever he announces the artists. And pianist Lenore Raphael says ever since Myrick’s been spinning tracks from her 2005 release Beautiful Friendship she’s seen a bump in her popularity. “People have called and e-mailed me and said they heard me on XM,” she says. “And my CD was No. 7 on Maxx’s playlist in February, and people notice that.”

But the true payoff from satellite radio for many artists has come from changes in royalty rights that allow singers and musicians to be paid for a broadcast of their performances.

John Simson, executive director of Sound Exchange, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based organization, is dedicated to finding artists and disbursing royalty checks solely for performance. “Now singers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, people who were not known as writers, but were known as interpreters of other people’s music, there is now a royalty being paid to reward them for their great recordings and performances,” Simson says.

The organization collected $6.3 million from 1996 to 2000. The first distribution was made in 2001. Simson says over the past year more than $40 million was collected and the group is on track to collect about $60 million this year. A breakdown of how much satellite radio companies are paying wasn’t available, but Simson says XM and Sirius are the largest payers of performance royalties.

XM and Sirius have, in a real sense, reinvigorated the jazz world in less than a decade. They’ve provided a new space for a new generation to fall in love with the immortal tempo. And the medium isn’t close to maturity. Jazz on satellite radio just might be the encore fans have been waiting for.

Originally published in July/August 2006

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