My last conversation with Jeff Duperon was not a typical one. He was in the final stages of his battle with cancer, so his normally mellifluous voice was scratchy and tired. When I asked him whether there was anything I could do for him, he replied, “Just keep making that good music.” It was both an exhortation and a farewell.
If you were fortunate enough to hear Jeff on his shift at WRTI in Philadelphia, you heard the voice of a man who was clearly in love with jazz. His calm, measured delivery was enough to tell you how much the music meant to him. His was a cadence that would not be rushed. He took his time describing what the listeners had heard: the sounds, the stories of the songs, and the people behind the music. He wanted you to get it. Underlying Jeff’s communication was the assumption that if you got it, you would love jazz too.
Jeff had “gotten it” in his hometown of New Orleans, where he became a beloved on-air personality on WWOZ. He then relocated to Philadelphia, moving from the birthplace of jazz to a city noted as fertile soil for musicians to grow. When he moved, he brought his love affair of jazz along for the ride.
But Jeff didn’t just love the music; he also cared about the music makers, whether they were established or emerging. He had a space reserved in his heart for the people behind the music. Always willing to make a recommendation about an exceptional recording he’d just discovered, Jeff was like a walking playlist. A typical conversation with him would go like this:
Jeff: “Have you heard of [musician/singer]?”
Me: “No, I haven’t.”
Jeff: “They just released a new CD. You’ve really got to check it out.”
Jeff: “It’s outstanding!”
More than any other word, “outstanding” was Jeff’s trademark. He used it liberally in honor of musicians and good music. Jeff not only shared outstanding music on the radio, he presented outstanding artists as a curator at South Jazz Club and Jazz at Fellowship Hall at the Ridge Avenue Methodist Church. In doing so, he supported the art form he loved in the most direct way possible, providing musicians and singers with opportunities to perform and earn a living.
Jeff left an enduring legacy as a champion for artists through his work with the nonprofit artist-service organization Jazz Bridge, initially as a board member, then as a curator, and finally as executive director until his health would not allow him to continue. When he was first diagnosed with the disease that would claim his life he was more than hopeful—he was upbeat. Then, when a positive prognosis was replaced by sobering news, he faced it with grace. Through it all, Jeff fought the good fight on behalf of his family and the jazz community. He didn’t want anyone to worry. In fact, he would flip the script on you, returning your concern with a healthy dose of encouragement.
Throughout our friendship, Jeff Duperon encouraged me in my work, both with Jazz Philadelphia and as a music maker. Reflecting on our final conversation now gives me strength and hope. I resolve to “keep making that good music” and help others to do the same. After all, that’s what you do when you love the music.