Fred Kasten: New Orleans & Jazz in His Veins

Profiling a NOLA radio fixture

Fred Kasten interviews Walter Isaacson
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From left, Bob Marshall, Fred Kasten interview LSU researcher Gene Turner
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Spend a few days in New Orleans and see how often the name Fred Kasten is heard and mentioned. Whether curating the French Quarter Festival’s Let Them Talk interviews in April, or curating the Satchmo Summerfest seminars in August, or winning the Edward R. Murrow Award for News Series, or producing his wonderful radio shows, Talkin’ Jazz and Jazz New Orleans, Kasten is an indispensable man in the life of his beloved hometown.

According to his WWNO biography, Kasten “is an independent contributing radio producer/host at WWNO. After working at (the station) for over 20 years as an on-air talent, producer and program director, Fred retired from full-time work in May 2007. Fred is a native of Mobile, Ala., a graduate of the University of Alabama, and a long-time resident of New Orleans. In addition to his work at WWNO, Fred develops independent audio projects from a home studio, producing radio features, commercials and podcasts.”

Quite a busy and fulfilling “retirement”!

What makes Kasten so special? “Fred truly cares about the music,” says Marci Schramm, the executive director of French Quarter Festivals, Inc. “He is passionate, knowledgeable, and has a firm grasp of music history-but also, he is a great colleague and a gentleman. With his work, there is no ego. Even though Fred is a well-known producer, the stories he tells are always about the musicians and their music. He has a great way of getting a fascinating interview out of his subjects every time.”

In 2013 New Orleans Public Radio won the coveted Edward R. Murrow Award for its Kasten-produced series Louisiana Coast: Last Call. Reported by Bob Marshall, this 15 part series, according to the station’s website, examines “Louisiana’s massive coastal erosion, during which every hour an area of wetlands the size of a football field disappears beneath the waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Interviewing scientists, engineers, public officials, fishermen and oystermen, Marshall and Kasten explore the causes of the erosion, the projections of future losses, the regional and national impact on the economy and environment, and possible approaches to restrain the continued land losses.”

So who is Fred Kasten?

He grew up “on the western edge of Mobile, Ala., in a small cottage that my father had built by himself on nights and weekends with the assistance of a couple of ‘how-to’ books he’d checked out of the public library and his own fierce determination to get it done-an accomplishment that still boggles my mind.

“The cottage was situated next to my maternal grandmother’s house on a seven acre plot she’d bought in the late 1940s when the area was a sparsely populated blend of country and suburban living. In my earliest years it leaned more country-but became increasingly suburban as the years went by. Of the seven acres, only one was landscaped, with the rest a blend of pine and hardwood forest-including a modest pecan grove and a few fruit trees. There was also a sizeable scuppernong vine, and my grandfather always grew a big vegetable garden. He and my grandmother also raised chickens, and for a few of my early years had a cow for milk.”

Was any member of the Kasten household musical? “My mother had taken a few piano lessons as a youngster and loved to listen to music, and my father loved to sing. He was a charter member of the Mobile chapter of the SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America) and had a quartet, the Note Wits, which occasionally rehearsed at our house. Their rehearsals and performances, in fact, are among my earliest musical memories. My sister Carole, who’s five years older, started piano lessons when she was about 10-and when I followed a few years later we got our first used upright. I was a cliché of a young male piano student-a lot more interested in playing football, baseball and basketball than practicing the piano-but our teacher, Thelma Owens, who had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory, was very good-and I did get a decent background in the fundamentals of music.”

Seeing and hearing Benny Goodman lit the jazz fuse for young Fred Kasten. “My mother was very good about taking us to cultural events-symphony concerts and opera and the like-and one Mobile Symphony concert when I was about eleven made a very powerful impression on me: the guest artist was Benny Goodman. For the first half of the concert he played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto-then he played a set with his quartet for the second half. This was my first chance to hear live jazz-and I loved it. I’d heard a little big band jazz from a local radio station, and had just a couple of times caught some of the legendary jazz DJ Dick Martin’s Moonglow With Martin on WWL from New Orleans-but hearing Benny really got me motivated to find out more about jazz.

“A couple of other things happened around that same time that further spurred my interest in jazz: we got our first stereo; Mobile got its first decent record store; and I switched from piano to trombone. My mother had gone to high school with the great trombonist Urbie Green, so she bought me some Urbie Green records-which turned out to be great-and I followed the trail of other players on those records, and started to read books about jazz and look for copies of jazz magazines-all of which led me to Thelonious Monk, who became one of my biggest and longest-standing musical heroes.

“Through Monk I started to get hip to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and other beboppers. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was also getting airplay at that time with ‘Take Five’-then ‘Unsquare Dance’-and I really enjoyed Dave’s music. In high school I started to get together with friends from the school band and make some laughable attempts to play jazz-me on both piano and trombone. I also took music theory classes in high school-and composed some contemporary classical and jazz-flavored pieces-all of which, thankfully, are now lost.”

Was there much live jazz to dig in Mobile? “We didn’t get to hear much live jazz, though there was one New Orleans-style brass band-the Excelsior Band-that marched in the best Carnival parades, but we did get to enjoy a lot of great R&B and Soul. Top New Orleans artists such as Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Benny Spellman and Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry played in the Mobile area fairly often. I also got to see and hear James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, Percy Sledge, Don Covay and others numerous times-and that music had a profound effect on me-as did the classical music we played in the high school concert band. I also became an early and avid Bob Dylan fan.”

Kasten says that Jazz Fest was the magnet that pulled him into New Orleans music. “I knew very little about New Orleans traditional music-and zip about the city’s modern jazz scene-until I started going to Jazz Fest in the early 1970s. After my first Jazz Fest in 1973 a whole new cadre of musical icons came onto my radar: Ellis Marsalis, James Black, Alvin Batiste, Al Belletto, Earl Turbinton, Willie Tee, Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler, Danny and Blue Lu Barker, Percy and Willie Humphrey, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Snooks Eaglin, Gatemouth Brown, Roosevelt Sykes and the Meters-with many more to follow in ensuing years, especially after my wife and I moved to New Orleans in 1984.”

How early was radio an interest in Kasten’s life? “We didn’t get a television set until I was seven, so I heard a lot of radio in my earliest years. It was the tail end of the ‘golden age’ of network radio, and I remember hearing Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Gunsmoke, The Shadow, the soap opera My Gal Sunday, and other weekly shows on a regular basis.”

Interestingly, comics played a big role in Kasten’s life: “More than anyone on the radio, though, it was standup comics-on television and record-who helped shape my ideas about performing. Steve Allen-and The Steve Allen Show with Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington, Jr. and Bill Dana-was a favorite, and I was a big fan of Brother Dave Gardner, Woody Allen, Jackie Vernon, David Steinberg and Nichols and May. I always looked forward to the great pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant’s appearances on The Jack Paar Show-and later listened over and over to the records of Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and the comedy troupes Beyond the Fringe and Firesign Theater. Firesign Theater had started on the radio-and it was while trying to figure out how they put their sketches together that I decided to take a couple of courses in radio and television production in undergraduate school at the University of Alabama.”

Believe it or not, it was furniture that first thrust Kasten into radio. “My major at U. Alabama was International Relations, with a minor in English, and after finishing undergraduate school I did what most International Relations majors from ‘Bama are qualified to do-I got a job selling furniture. That, oddly enough, is how I got my first radio experience. Thanks to those radio and TV production classes in school, I knew enough to write and produce the furniture store’s radio and television ads. And since I’ve been blessed with a decent voice, I also became their radio and TV spokesman.”

Soon the producer at the Mobile NPR affiliate WHIL, Penny Dennis, hired Kasten part-time. “Penny was a top-notch air talent and producer and she convinced the program director to give me an audition-and I got the job. I was totally green as a disc jockey-didn’t even know how to cue up a record properly-and pretty sad on the air-but I saw right away that this was the work I was meant to do-and that trying to get good at it was going to be a challenge that could hold my interest for the long run.”

After Kasten’s wife Jennie earned her Master’s degree in Library Science, she “pushed the idea of moving to New Orleans, for which I am eternally grateful, and we both managed to land jobs within a few days of each other, and moved to the Crescent City in July of 1984.”

After working at several stations-“I learned a tremendous amount of radio programming, production, promotion and sales from WCKW station manager Bobby Martinez and sales manager Ric Frances”-Kasten landed at WWNO in December 1986. “Doing a jazz show five nights a week in the city where it all started was a dream come true. I was glad, though, that I’d been in New Orleans for a couple of years before getting that job, because I knew it-and the jazz scene-a lot better than I had when we first arrived.

“By then, too, I’d also developed a programming philosophy that I’ve continued to employ ever since. It was inspired by something Leonard Bernstein said about the music of Beethoven; he called it ‘accessible without being ordinary.’ I wanted all the music I played to meet that test.” Another Kasten philosophy came from a U. Alabama history professor who said that history ” ‘is just one goddamn thing after another.’ My adaptation of that was to just play one great song after another.” So the Fred Kasten radio mantra became Just play one great-accessible without being ordinary-song after another. “There are, of course, ample other considerations-mood, tempo, key, topicality, message and the like-but I aim for the music I play to pass those first two tests before adding other qualifiers. And WWNO listeners have responded very favorably to that approach through the years.”

In addition to playing records-and later, compact discs-Kasten began a “series of live broadcasts of jazz concerts from various New Orleans venues: the Dirty Dozen and Astral Project from Snug Harbor; Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler featuring Germaine Bazzle from Tyler’s Beer Garden; the Rebirth Brass Band from the Glass House. We worked with Bruce Raeburn and the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane-thanks to funding from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities-to produce an award-winning 13 part series on early jazz titled Louisiana Swing, which spotlighted through vintage recordings and oral histories the contributions of such early greats as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, Louis Armstrong, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, A.J. Piron, the New Orleans Owls, the Dodds brothers, Sam Morgan and more.”

To this writer, New Orleans feels like a European city plopped down in the tropics. What is it about this city that makes music part of the daily atmosphere? Says Kasten, “I always say that in New Orleans you can knock on any door and a story will answer. I was given the privilege, starting in the late 80s, of interviewing many great Crescent City musicians-at first for intermission features during our live broadcasts, then later for several locally produced arts magazine programs, then finally for features to slot into the local presentation of NPR news.

“Over the years my mandate broadened from mostly jazz musicians to artists of all disciplines-and ultimately to newsmakers and experts on various topics.” Kasten estimates that he’s conducted more than 2000 interviews. “In 2003 I created, secured funding for and started producing a live-to-tape variety show called Crescent City, which we taped in front of a live audience at Le Chat Noir cabaret on St. Charles Avenue. Crescent City featured the great New Orleans modern jazz band Astral Project as our house band; sketch comedy from our Live Nude Radio Players troupe; a special musical guest or two each episode, (such as) Ellis Marsalis, Leigh ‘Little Queenie’ Harris, Coco Robicheaux, Kermit Ruffins, Dr. Michael White, Germaine Bazzle, and Tom McDermott.” The show would also feature “a writer, artist, chef, raconteur or other interesting or significant New Orleans characters, and was hosted by Ronnie Virgets. We did 45 episodes over a four year period, with a six month or so hiatus following Katrina. The show ended when I retired from the station in May 2007.”

Was it difficult growing up to be an open-minded, non-hateful white man in the South of the mid-20th century? Says Kasten, “I was lucky in that racial epithets and racial diatribes were never part of the conversation in our home, as I know they were in the homes of many of my peers…So, I benefited from the relative tolerance in our home-and parents who chose not to associate much with the more strident racists among their kinfolks and acquaintances. I was also fortunate in that many of my friends were fledgling musicians who shared my admiration for a wide range of African American artists, and who understood that we had a lot to learn about life, art and dealing with adversity from them.”

In 1965, Nat Hentoff asked Duke Ellington if he was going to retire. “Retire? Retire to what?” Duke replied.

Even after “retiring” in 2007, Fred Kasten has achieved more than most do in a career. When the New Orleans Times-Picayune decided to cut back on its book coverage, Kasten pitched his station “on a weekly author interview to slot into Morning Edition.” Thus, The Sound of Books was born. “I’d always enjoyed interviewing writers, but reading a book-a-week was pretty intense. I did that show for over two years, then in the spring of 2013, I started my current project for WWNO, Jazz New Orleans (which airs Friday nights 8 pm to 10 pm Central; it also streams live at WWNO. I describe the show as ‘two hours of the best jazz from the last 70 years, with a strong accent on New Orleans-and an extended conversation with our Player of the Week.'” Over the years, the featured players have included Tim Laughlin, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves, Karin Allyson, Leroy Jones, Ellis Marsalis, Germaine Bazzle, Shannon Powell, Don Vappie, Poncho Sanchez, and John Scofield, among many others.

Then came The Louisiana Coast: Last Call, the 15-part series about the “dire circumstances of Louisiana’s coast-and what’s being done about it-that won the Edward R. Murrow Award for News Series. I produced the series, which was written and reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Marshall. Last Call aired on WWNO in 2013, but we started working on it in the late fall of 2012. I had long admired Bob’s reporting…and we’d gotten to know each other socially… I called him and suggested we approach WWNO about doing a series on coastal issues…The success of Last Call encouraged WWNO to pursue additional funding for reporting on coastal issues, and they’ve now put together their own coastal desk, with a fulltime reporter and producer.”

And the projects do not end there! “I do MC duties Friday and Saturday nights at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, a wonderful jazz club that features top-notch talent. (I also) schedule and conduct the Talkin’ Jazz with Fred Kasten once-a-month interview series at the Old U.S. Mint for the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park (it streams live at Music at the Mint, where they are also archived for 30 days or so); and I curate the interview series for the French Quarter Festival and seminar series for the Satchmo Summerfest.”

After 30 years in New Orleans, Fred Kasten reflects on what makes this city so vibrantly unique: “New Orleans is a city that, as Duke Ellington might have put it, is beyond category. It’s a metaphor-rich, irony-loaded place where even the most secure land is shaky, the drinking water comes from the Big Muddy, and the citizenry as a whole maintains what I think of as a very mature attitude about life and death: celebrate life to its fullest (and) accept death as inevitable, maybe even throw it a parade and party. New Orleans is the hometown of the cocktail and of jazz, has the rhythms and climate of the Caribbean, values rather than fears eccentricity, encourages-on occasion demands-costuming, and retains, despite Katrina, Congress, BP, climate change threatening to sink it by the end of the 21st Century and a host of other afflictions, an overall joie de vivre… Mostly though, for me, and about 400,000 other people, too many of whom have not yet been able to return following Katrina, New Orleans feels like home-and I love it.”

As we wind up our visit with Fred Kasten, one question remains: What is it about this music called Jazz?

“For me, jazz is one of the most eloquent and evocative forms of expression people have yet devised, with the power to both illuminate the human condition, and ruminate on it. From my earliest encounters with it, jazz has struck a deep resonance in me, which I credit to several things, including the virtuosity of the players and composers and great storytelling skills of its best practitioners-but mostly to the infinite malleability of the blues and emotional richness of blues feeling. Jazz sounds good and feels good. It feeds the mind, gladdens the heart, and enriches the soul. I feel like a very lucky person to have found it, and been granted the privilege of spending so much time with it.”