Michael Bourne: “Sing Music You Enjoy, Sing Something That’s You!”

Roseanna Vitro interviews renowned writer and broadcaster about his life-long affinity for jazz singers

Radio programmer and writer Michael Bourne image 0

Radio programmer and writer Michael Bourne

Michael Bourne is The Voice for vocalists. As a 30-year veteran of WBGO (www.wbgo.org), which covers the Tri-State area surrounding New York City, yet echoes well beyond, he has become a stalwart advocate for jazz and jazz singers. His reach and influence are substantial.

Radio airplay on major stations can provide a big push for any artist. Jazz singers comprise a significant artist group within the jazz community. There are more singers than available slots for broadcast opportunities. Friends and students commonly ask the question, “How do I get airplay”?

Enter Bourne, a broadcaster with a few answers.

I met Michael in 1985, at the famed Copa Cabana nightclub, at the time of my first self-released album, Listen Here. I was pretty green regarding promotion and airplay. It was a thrill to meet the face behind the Voice – that loud, mischievous, often outrageous voice I’d heard daily, in my car, in my kitchen.

Bourne (his preferred handle), is lovable, sentimental and not a little cynical, a curmudgeon with that classic New York attitude of “Been there, done that, don’t bother me, unless you have something real to say.”

Michael has a PhD in Theater from Indiana University. His own presentation borders on the theatrical. He is a personality. When he’s on the air, you can expect to hear a playlist covering a host of artists he admires – from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Tony Bennett, Betty Carter to Mark Murphy. His show, “Singers Unlimited,” is a hipster’s delight.

I find Michael engaging and enlightening. His words and advice should be essential reading for those who care about the state of jazz vocals.

Roseanna Vitro: It must be difficult choosing which singers to play each week on “Singers Unlimited.” How do you decide? Is it the singer or the song?

Michael Bourne: I program sometimes with a hook of the songs – dreams, the stars, the moon, Shakespeare. I like to celebrate birthdays of singers and songwriters, or connect songs to concerts or events happening. I endeavor to play new albums as much as I can, because new albums don’t get played as much once off the new shelf and into the library. When a show is song-driven, I’ll more likely play singers of the pantheon than newer singers. I have one peculiar twist. I program most often with 4-song medleys. I hate the number three and in more than 25 years I have never played a 3-song medley. Tomorrow I’m playing songs about spring. So it’s always a theme, a magazine. I try to play new recordings as much as I can.

RV: Vocalists and instrumentalists alike seek new ways to stand out from the crowd. What’s your take on themed or tribute recordings? What makes a cd stand out to you?

MB: Yes, a theme is a good idea, but it depends on the theme. I like clever, imaginative, surreal, goofy themes. I enjoy themes that conceptually cross lines that haven’t been done before. For example, the popular stylist Cyrille Aimée, on her latest recording, It’s a Good Day,” tapped into her background in France and the legacy of gypsy music, the Django Reinhardt style. Vocalist Hilary Gardner’s latest cd is songs about the city. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded classic duets. Allan Harris hit on classic R&B songs on his new recording, Black Bar Jukebox, and Dena DeRose was successful in a tribute to the late, great, Ms. Shirley Horn. Each one of these artists recorded material that’s authentic to their sound and life experience.

Now, If you’re going to do standards you must do them a fresh way. Like “All the Things You Are,” don’t start it the same old way. Re-conceptualize the songs. Like 3 out of 4 singers albums we get are middle-aged white women who have no chops. They put out records that are just ok. You must be distinctive and interesting to be added to a station’s playlist. When a new singer gets a shot on the WBGO cd shelf, they get a certain amount of airplay, but once you hit the library, you’re in competition with Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and all the greats. If you have a sound, a theme, something that’s unique, you will get played again.

I like CDs with songs that connect. For example, I’ll play a Marianne Solivan original, like “On a Clear Night,” or I might follow “On a Clear Day,” with Marianne’s original. Then again if she sings a classic standard like, “I Wanna Be Around,” I’ll follow her with Tony Bennett. She was on the WBGO Radar recently. On wbgo.org/radar, your record is featured on our website and played for a week and that can help you sell records.

Length of tracks matters too, like if all your tunes are 9 minutes long you won’t get as much play, so make a 4 minute song, too. We receive a pile of records from young guys but all the tracks are too long and it makes us crazy. Cameron Brown once said he hears too much of guys trying to sound like the Jazz Messengers; he’d rather play, and on WBGO we’d rather play, actual Art Blakey records.

We play originals if the tunes are good; if the lyrics are not too sentimental, political or religious or jive. We play the classics but I like variety, the unexpected. I like to be surprised.

RV: Who are a few of your favorite singers and why?

MB: Tony Bennett is a great singer, and I also enjoy him as a painter. I have two Benedetto portraits of me. Mark Murphy is my favorite jazz singer. I especially like how he twists and turns phrases. I’ve always enjoyed Carol Fredette, she’s a real pro and Roseanna Vitro is also definitively jazzy (and bluesy). Of the newer generation of jazz singers, I like Cat Russell, Cyrille Aimée and Kate McGarry.

I don’t have actual stats, but I probably play Sarah Vaughan most often among the “Singers Unlimited.” And the pantheon of one-name-only singers: Ella, Louis, Tony, Frank, Billie, and Nat. I enjoy Freddy Cole as much as (maybe more than) his brother. Not to forget Lambert, Hendricks, Ross, and their musical children: Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices.

Steely Dan is my favorite pop group. They have great tunes, and the lyrics are surreal.

I think Gershwin is the greatest American composer – “Cuban Overture” is my favorite of his works – but Cole Porter is the greatest American songwriter. Great tunes. Great lyrics. “So In Love” is so deep. Antonio Carlos Jobim is my other favorite songwriter – and was my favorite guest of the many hundreds of singers who’ve come on the show

Since 1992, every jazzfest in Montreal excites me musically. I’ve observed the career of Diana Krall from before the beginning, from a swinging trio gig in a cramped Montreal bistro to a superstar spectacular across town in a cramped hockey arena. I’ve enjoyed oodles of Quebecoise singers I’ve heard there, like Térez Montcalm and Susie Arioli. I’ve been flabbergasted there by Jamie Cullum, the singer/pianist I’ve called “The Charlie Parker of Pop.”

Samba is the only rhythm that I ever feel like dancing to. Leny Andrade is one of the sweetest and most soulful singers in any language. Caetano Veloso is my favorite Brazilian singer/composer since Jobim. He’s the coolest singer I’ve seen on a stage since Sinatra. I ritualistically play Veloso’s album Livro every birthday. Other birthday favorites include the movie Bossa Nova, the greatest hits of Leroy Anderson, and Mandy Patinkin singing Hammerstein and Sondheim.

Sondheim’s musicals are my favorites, especially “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Every show is uniquely imaginative, and even Sondheim’s flops sound better than many hits I have not enjoyed as much. Puccini’s “Tosca” is my favorite opera, and if I’d actually grown up to be an opera singer, I’d want to sing the villain, Scarpia.

RV: How do you feel about scat singing and who are your favorite scat singers?

MB: Depends. Too many who scat can’t. My favorite scat singers are Ella (Fitzgerald), Sarah (Vaughan), Mark Murphy and Betty Carter. I like their syllables, they’re composing solos using a blend of words and scat sounds. It’s a vocal collage, like a real solo but specific to the voice by utilizing the words. There are too many singers who seem to babble when attempting to improvise, and the intonation gets squirrely. Some go extremely high, which is an audience pleaser, or up and down the scale seemingly without a concept. If you can sing one true note you can knock down the wall.

Mel Torme was an excellent singer. He scatted great because of his strength as a drummer and an arranger; I heard him sing the same solos. Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert. No jazz singer I’ve heard could out scat Dave Lambert. In-the-moment improvisation, that’s what I love. Individual syllables and style…

Like one night at Birdland, a few years back, all these singers performed who were out of tune and boring. Mark Murphy at the last came out of the audience, drunk and seemed somewhat blurry, and his singing was magisterial.

Show business. You have to be able to entertain an audience, like a Carol Fredette or Kate McGarry. You must have something special. You need to find out what’s special about You.

RV: How important is the cd cover and packaging when you’re choosing one to play?

MB: It helps if a cd package is in a box with a spine so the disc jockey can read it easily. If a cd is too large and won’t fit on the library shelf, it gets lost and if the cd packaging is too small, I can’t read it. For your cd cover, put a photo of something interesting on your cover and make the printing size and color legible. Sequencing is extremely important. The first track better come out like fireworks, No 40-second vamps – we’ll turn it off after 20 seconds.

RV: As a senior journalist for DownBeat Magazine since 1969, you’ve traveled to festivals around the world. Tell me about some of your most memorable concerts.

MB: Attending the jazzfest in Bombay in 1986 was my first time outside of America. I heard uniquely Indian jazz, Indonesian jazz, Bulgarian jazz, truly international jazz that swings not always in 4/4. I heard like never before how much the world embraces jazz and how much jazz embraces the world. I also experienced a full-tilt epiphany in Bombay. I fell in love with the world.

I’ve heard more great music in my travels than I can mention, but the thrills of the jazzfests overseas have been as much about the cultures I’ve enjoyed as the music. Thinking of my favorite jazzfests, the first that comes to mind is Jazzfest Berlin – the climax of a concert called “Afrika” with Johnny Copeland’s blues band joined by Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band and dancers from Morocco. Jumping up in memory is a performance by the Houdinis, a Dutch sextet, one of the best groups playing in the Jazz Messengers tradition but not sounding like clones of Blakey’s, at NorthSea in the Hague. At Umbria Jazz – I have a vivid memory of Sonny Rollins, magisterially playing a 40 minute encore with everyone (and I mean including me) dancing in the aisles.

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is a kaleidoscope every year, and I’ve been going there for more than 20 years. FIJM virtually redefines jazz every festival. I never appreciated hip-hop as being creative at all – until I heard a trio called Plaster playing electronic grooves and samples in what sounded to me in the spirit of the foot-tapping riffs of the Basie band in 1930’s KC. Diana Krall’s trio and Benny Green’s trio played a tribute to Nat Cole with a joyful abandon that I never hear enough. Dave Brubeck played better in Montreal than anywhere. Tony Bennett sings better there than anywhere, and in 2014 I got to hear and meet Lady Gaga singing with Tony in Montreal. She’s got chops, and she’s truly nice. And there are the spectacular shows on the Place des Arts with more than 100,000 folks in the street. It was most amazing when the festival criss-crossed a world of music with the actually awesome acrobats and clowns of Cirque du Soleil. I also go to Montreal every year because they treat me like a prince- or a favorite uncle. For my 20th anniversary at the festival, they named the press room after me.

I’ll never forget being in Kansas City when Robert Altman was shooting music scenes for the movie “Kansas City” with an all-star band of today’s players performing as an All-Star Band of yesterday’s players – Joshua Redman as Lester Young, Geri Allen as Mary Lou Williams, Kevin Mahogany as Joe Turner, Craig Handy as Coleman Hawkins. The music was so great that I thought it should come together as a video, and I wrote the intro to “Robert Altman’s Kansas City ’34.”

RV: I’d love to know about your history. When did you realize you wanted to be involved with music? What music inspired you?

MB: I was a boy soprano, but only because of singing lessons to rehab my lungs after double pneumonia. I was invited into the St Louis Boy Choristers and sang “The Holy City,” among other wholesome choral favorites at the Muny Opera on an Easter Sunday. I was not at all excited by music, not then. But then, my 7th grade teacher, Mr. Ramsey, tried teaching music theory to 13 year olds – without instruments, only on paper or the chalkboard – and we all failed. So, instead, he played opera records, and I became an opera freak. So did my friend Tom Craig (who, during our junior year in high school, turned me on to jazz – but that’s another story). I especially enjoyed Wagner, and (boy soprano that I was) I could sing the battle song of the Valkyries. I imagined myself an opera singer when I grew up. I’d be the next Mario Lanza (tenor) or Leonard Warren (baritone) or Ezio Pinza (basso) – they all died around then – depending how my voice changed after puberty. As it turned out, my voice only cracked after puberty. And because of puberty, I became interested in other pursuits.

Mr. Ramsey segued from opera to Broadway musicals, and I was even more excited. I wanted to be Alfred Drake (Kismet, Kiss Me, Kate) when I grew up. Musical theater became my greatest love in music (and sorry, jazz folks, nonetheless is). I still know all the songs of Ethel Merman, and, curiously, am not gay.

I think of myself ethnically as Anglo-Dutch, and the Nederlander in me believes Calvinistically that things happen in one’s life that were meant-to-be. My lab partner in high school chem class was a kid named Dale, and Tom Craig was stationed behind us. I might never have gotten into jazz if not for the alphabetical order of students in the lab. Dale and Tom were always talking about jazz. I knew nothing about jazz. I remember hearing them arguing about who was hipper, Miles Davis or Sonny Stitt? I’d never heard (or heard of) either, and I didn’t know what “hipper” meant. Finally, after they’d talked about jazz all through a basketball game, I said I wanted to hear this music and asked them what record I should get. “Time Out,” one of them said.

I bought the album from a bin of maybe 100 LPs at an A&P grocery store, and Dave Brubeck changed my life. “Blue Rondo” and “Take Five” were cool, but I was transfixed by the tune between the hits, “Strange Meadowlark.” Next day, back at the A&P, I bought Brubeck’s Countdown-Time in Outer Space. And soon I was (obsessive/compulsive as I am) listening only to jazz. And soon I was of the opinion that Miles was hipper musically, but Sonny’s name sounded hipper.

Perchance meant-to-be, karma (or whatever) got me into theatre as an undergrad, and, in 1967, I came to grad school at Indiana. I also started writing about the arts, and beginning in 1969, I wrote about jazz for DownBeat. Because I wrote for DB, I was invited from time to time to play “hip sides” I liked on the jazz show of WFIU, the school’s classical radio station. I passed the herculean exams for my theatre doctorate in the spring of 1972 and was feeling brain-dead. Don Glass, the program director of WFIU, called me and asked me if I’d be game to do the jazz show while the usual jock was on vacation. Four weeks, he said. Getting paid to play records sounded like fun, and the first tune I played was “Strange Meadowlark.” When the jazz jock didn’t come back, they offered me the gig. Four weeks became more than 43 years on the radio, mostly playing jazz.

I actually finished my dissertation (about how historical drama is) but by then I’d realized that being a DJ was much more what I wanted to be than a professor teaching theatre. I stayed in Bloomington more than a dozen years. And, at last, just before I came for real to New York, I became an opera singer. Not an actually good opera singer, but at least I was a funny opera singer, playing Bacchus in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” I even got the girl, Euridyce, and danced the can-can with a chorus of devilettes.

Just a day after the opera’s opening night, I got a call in the morning from IU school friend Kevin Kline. I’d been talking about a move to New York, he was about to shoot the movie “Silverado,” he’d be gone for months, and I could have his apartment while I found one for myself. That same day, in the afternoon, Wylie Rollins, program director of WBGO, called and said he could use me as a jock. With a job and an apartment in New York City, it was meant-to-be.

My first shift was filling in the afternoon for Rhonda Hamilton on New Year’s Eve at the end of 1984. Nobody can remember which Sunday, but on a Sunday morning in the Fall of 1985 (back then at 6AM!), I jocked the first “Singers Unlimited.” And I’ve been doing the show ever since. I celebrated the show’s 25th anniversary in November 2010 with a party of singers: Roseanna Vitro, Tom Lellis, Carolyn Leonhart, Carol Fredette, and Bob Dorough. And the party plays on, archived on wbgo.org/blog.

RV: Do you play an instrument or sing jazz?

In the late Sixties I was an actor in rep on tour. I was a pretty good Shakespearean comedian. I stunk as a Sophoclean tragedian. In the Seventies I played drums and clowned in a very theatrical Zappa-esque rock band called The Screaming Gypsy Bandits. Atlantic wanted to sign us but we fell apart while recording the demo album.

I went on singing and writing songs with Bandits leader Mark Bingham in an even more theatrical rock band called the Brain Sisters. I wanted to be an actor in New York, but I was rejected at my first audition – to play a butler in a soap – and I said to hell with it.

I enjoy emceeing concerts when I can tell stories or be whimsical. I’ve emceed jazzfests in Bombay, Amsterdam, Chicago, plenty in New York, and elsewhere.

I started as an emcee for the jazzfest at Mohonk Mountain House, and from time to time I’ve performed what I call “jazz acting” with drummer Michael Carvin and singer/pianist Hilary Kole, bassist Martin Wind and saxophonist Scott Robinson.

RV: The music business has changed drastically in the past five years. What’s good about where we’re going in the music business now? And what do you miss?

MB: Damned if I know what’s happening in the music business. It’s a drag not to have a really great record store to browse in. It often seems to me that more technology means more things that can break or otherwise go wrong. And the more cell-phoning or texting there is, the less communication there is.

RV: Any closing words of wisdom for singers producing recordings today?

MB: Don’t slither up and down the scales like Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin. Aretha is the only one who can sing like that and not sound foolish. No vocal filigree! If you can sing one true note beautifully and heartfully, you can break (or uplift) a heart. And… SING IN TUNE!

Issues I’m not into are: “What is Jazz?” “Is it Trad Pop?” Is it jazz singing or pop? Tony Bennett thinks of himself as a jazz singer because he was inspired by Art Tatum and Stan Getz. He feels he doesn’t sing the song the same every time. And then there’s the conversation about Lady Gaga. She’s loved jazz since she was a young singer but she’s considered a pop singer. Annie Lennox, Rod Stewart -what is jazz and what isn’t jazz-who cares! I want it to be good.

When I play the blues I get calls saying we’re selling out, that it’s not jazz. Blues was the root of jazz and WBGO makes money on these shows. One hand washes the other and it’s all good music: Rhythm and blues or straight ahead blues, all African music, from New Orleans to St. Louis, Memphis to Chicago.

RV: I’ve got one more question, “how do you feel about the Grammys?”

MB: When I was first a member in the early 90’s, I would get together with Dan Morgenstern and Bob Porter on the screening committee and take time listening to all types of jazz records. There was an initial sorting that took place that required some discernment. We would determine: Is it a straight ahead or contemporary album? A diversified group of producers and musicians would discuss artists like Bill Frissell or Kenny G. The discussion was: “What does this artist mean for this record to be? Is this a traditional vocal record or pop record?”

I finally dropped out of NARAS, about eight years ago because I wasn’t interested and didn’t care who won. I didn’t think it was about the relevance of the music any longer. It seemed like there were people getting nominated who didn’t deserve to be nominated. For example, I have a blues show now and all five of the nominated blues records this year were not sent to WBGO. The categories have changed and it’s confusing. Blues people don’t seem to understand they should send the cds to our station. So I hadn’t heard many of the blues submissions. It’s not ego; we are a station that plays the music and our listeners would buy the music if they heard it. So I wasn’t interested to vote because I don’t get the product. The day after the Grammys, we play the winners, the cds go back into the library, and within a day or two I’ll have forgotten who won?

Many thanks to Michael Bourne for his years of service, keeping the music alive, playing our music.

Tune in to listen to Michael on 88.3fm www.WBGO.org weekdays on Afternoon Jazz (Monday-Friday 2 p.m.-6:30 p.m., including the 3 p.m. Blues Hour) & Singers Unlimited (Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) APP http://tunein.com/radio/Jazz88-FM-883-s27437/

More info about Michael Bourne here