A DJ looks back on 50 years on jazz radio in the nation’s capital
By Rusty Hassan, Host (WPFW) | February 12, 2019
Rusty Hassan’s career in Washington, D.C., jazz radio spans four stations and more than five decades. His recounting of his times on air and the connections he made in the city’s jazz community are the subject of an essay in the book DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC. This excerpt has been edited.
It was serendipity that started my broadcasting career. One afternoon during my junior year I was drinking beer with friends when I noticed another student holding some jazz albums. To check out how hip he was, I asked to see what he had. He passed the hipness test and we talked about the music. He had just played the recordings on his radio show on the campus station, WGTB-FM, but he had to give up the program to take a class that was scheduled at the same time. Evidently I passed his hipness test because he asked me if I would take over his show.
I don’t remember the exact date of my first broadcast. It was probably in January 1966, the beginning of second semester of my junior year. I remember being nervous, but I soon overcame my natural shyness as I began to share my love of jazz and introduce others to the music as I had been by Symphony Sid and Mort Fega. I have been broadcasting jazz over the Washington airwaves almost continuously ever since.
To be in Washington in 1968 was an incredible experience. Students at Georgetown demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and pushed for the abolition of ROTC. Students at Howard University struck for the inclusion of Black Studies in the Eurocentric curriculum and jazz in the music program, where Donald Byrd would become its first director. The assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and subsequent riots dramatically changed the city for decades. The music I programmed reflected the times: “Ascension,” by John Coltrane, and “Meditations on Integration,” by Charles Mingus. As a VISTA volunteer, I became connected to a community organization in Adams Morgan called The New Thing Art and Architecture Center, where I met Sondra Barrett, who was teaching African dance to children. The New Thing, named after a term applied to avant-garde jazz, also sponsored photography, art, music, and karate classes. It held weekly jazz performances at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church on Connecticut Avenue, featuring such artists as Shirley Horn, Andrew White, Paul Hawkins, and Byron Morris. Morris was the first musician I interviewed on the air. I also interviewed New York saxophonist Noah Howard, who had come to Washington for a performance at the New Thing that didn’t work out. But an on-air discussion with the director Topper Carew had a major impact on my broadcasting career.
After I had Topper on my show to talk about the jazz performances and other programs at the New Thing, he decided that the organization should have its own radio show. He sent out proposals to various stations, and WAMU-FM came up with airtime on Sunday afternoons. I helped to get the first shows on the air in July 1969. The New Thing Root Music Show kicked off what would be a golden age for jazz radio in Washington, DC, as jazz radio programming proliferated during the 1970s.
Sondra and I got married in August and went to Europe, where we heard performances by Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Duke Ellington, and Bill Evans. When I resumed broadcasting on WAMU, the listening audience was beginning to shift from the AM to the FM band. For decades AM radio dominated the airwaves with Top 40 music programming, but there were also some commercial jazz shows, such as Felix Grant’s on WMAL-AM. FM radio had a much clearer sound than AM but reached a smaller audience, partly because at that time fewer people had FM receivers. A couple of factors changed this. The FCC ruled that commercial stations could not simulcast all of its programming on both AM and FM. In the early 1970s college stations on FM attracted young listeners by featuring rock albums by The Doors, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and many others that weren’t getting played on commercial AM stations. The “underground” format would become a feature of commercial FM stations such as WHFS. Jazz programming benefited from this shift. Paul Anthony, for example, could play Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” on WRC-FM, whereas Felix Grant could not play such an extended cutting-edge piece on WMAL-AM. Washington also benefited from the addition of three new FM stations in the 1970s that featured jazz: WHUR, WETA, and WPFW.
Although the organization folded, I kept the title of The New Thing Root Music Show through the seventies. I was joined on WAMU by Gerald Lee and Russell Williams, two American University students who established a Saturday afternoon workshop called Sound, Color and Movement, later titled Spirits Known and Unknown. The workshop was intended to train African American students in broadcasting techniques, and among those who participated in the program were Vincent Muse, David Muse, P. W. Robinson, and the late Aaron Hiter. One highlight was a visit by Charles Mingus. Lee completed his legal studies and later became a federal judge. Williams became a professional sound technician for film and won Academy Awards for Glory and Dances with Wolves. He is currently a professor at American University.
WGTB evolved into a free-form underground rock station while maintaining much of its jazz programming. W. Royal Stokes, a freelance writer for the Washington Post, had two shows. I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say covered traditional jazz, while Since Minton’s featured bebop and beyond. Stokes would later edit Jazz Times and publish four books on the music. Another programmer on the station was a Georgetown student named Ken Steiner, who got hooked on jazz while attending a Duke Ellington concert on campus and later became an Ellington scholar.
At Georgetown, meanwhile, WGTB was featuring a women’s collective called Sophie’s Parlor and health advice from the Washington Free Clinic. A free-form mix of Frank Zappa, Jefferson Airplane, and Bob Marley included a dose of radical politics. The gay-oriented show Friends, and the birth control advice provided on air, however, were too much for the university’s Jesuit administration. The station was shut down for a few months in 1976 and finally ceased broadcasting on January 29, 1979. Father Timothy Healey, president of the university, sold the license to the University of the District of Columbia for one dollar.
In 1976 I participated in getting a new station on the air as part of the Pacifica Network that would play jazz, blues, and world music. But in February 1977 when Von Martin played “Take the ‘A’ Train” to open the WPFW-FM signal to the Washington airwaves, I opted to keep The New Thing Root Music Show on WAMU. I thought that jazz should be played on as many stations as possible. A number of my friends did get volunteer shows on the station. Ken Steiner came over from WGTB. Jimmy Gray did Black Fire, where he would “tell stories though the music” and rarely announce what he played. Saxophonist Byron Morris had a program named after Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Bright Moments.” Tom Cole started a Sunday morning show focusing on guitar music called G-Strings that is still on the air today.
The decade of the nineties was one of friendly rivalry between WDCU and WPFW.
About this time Ron Sutton introduced me to his neighbor, Jerry Washington, who had retired from the Air Force and was currently working for the United Planning Organization. Washington in turn showed me his collection of jazz and blues LPs. Although Sutton was employed by WHUR, he volunteered to do a show on WPFW with his friend Wash sitting in with him. One Saturday afternoon he could not make it to the station and Jerry Washington had to do the show on his own. This was so successful that Washington eventually became the host.
Jerry shifted the focus of the Saturday afternoon show to the blues and created a persona that was a brilliant mix of fantasy with a dose of reality that he called “the Bama.” In African American parlance, a “bama” is someone from the country, unsophisticated in city ways and very likely to wear overalls. The Bama Hour would become the most popular show on WPFW. Jerry Washington would mix in philosophical and political commentary, discussions about what went down at the barbershop, and laments about fights he had with his girlfriend, Denise. Like most of his listeners, I bought into his stories. Since I knew him before he went on the air, I wondered when he broke up with his wife. Denise was a real person; Wash introduced me to her at a WPFW fundraiser at the Panorama Room in Southeast. But the on-air relationship and the stories were made up. Jerry Washington and his wife remained together until her passing, and he missed her terribly as a widower.
The Bama Hour was so popular that WPFW gave him another show featuring jazz on Sunday afternoons called The Other Side of the Bama. Now doing shows opposite each other, we developed a friendly rivalry. Wash would say, “If you don’t like what I’m playing, turn the dial and listen to Hassan.” Because he frequently played scratchy records on his show, whenever I played a recording with surface noise I would announce that it was from the Jerry Washington Collection of Classic Jazz.
Another friend who really blossomed as a personality on the WPFW airwaves was Nap Turner. I first met him when he was playing bass with Julie Moore Turner in a club at Fourteenth and Rhode Island Avenue, NW, when it was a rough neighborhood. His program on WPFW, however, focused more on blues vocals than jazz instrumentals, and soon he was singing at live performances. He called his show Don’t Forget the Blues. Sometimes he read on air from the “Simple stories” by Langston Hughes, and his acting ability came through in the voices he used in portraying Jesse B. Semple.
The expansion of jazz programming in Washington continued in the 1980s. WAMU added a daily overnight show hosted by Carlos Gaivar. I had been offered the slot but opted to continue my weekly show, now called Jazz Sunday. I had been employed as a union representative for a few years and decided to continue that career rather than jump into broadcasting full time. The station also added to the jazz programming on Saturday. Spirits Known and Unknown continued with its workshop concept for young African American announcers, and in 1980 Hot Jazz Saturday Night, with Rob Bamberger, premiered and is still on the air today. [Editor’s note: WAMU canceled Hot Jazz Saturday Night in June 2018.] In the early years Bamberger had five hours to explore early jazz, with an hour of Duke Ellington to start. The show is now three hours. Bamberger’s scholarly and entertaining approach examines the recordings of a particular artist such as Bix Beiderbecke or Teddy Wilson, focusing on the recorded output of a few years. It is undoubtedly the best show for jazz up through 1945 in the country.
By 1980 Paul Anthony was a veteran broadcaster. He got his start in broadcasting as a student at Georgetown University on WGTB before my arrival. In the 1970s he established himself professionally doing voice-overs for commercials, the weather on television, and jazz shows on WRC-FM and National Public Radio. He convinced the management of WGMS, the classical music station in Washington, that it should air jazz, America’s classical music. For a decade he broadcast a show on Saturday nights on a commercial station where his ratings were good and the advertising book solid. In 1990 new owners decided Bill Evans did not mix with Beethoven and dropped jazz. Anthony went on to Sirius satellite radio until the merger with XM.
National Public Radio also played a major role in getting jazz on the Washington airwaves. NPR offered programs such as Jazz Alive, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, and JazzSet, which were aired on WAMU. I served on a program selection panel with Dr. Billy Taylor, where we discovered we had some personal connections. My wife’s mother, Mary Barrett, and Dr. Taylor were in the same Dunbar High School class of 1940. He and my father-in-law, Tom Barrett, shared a close friendship with John Malachi. After Dr. Taylor became artistic director for the jazz program at the Kennedy Center, he did a show for NPR in which his trio would perform with an artist such as Jackie McLean and discuss the guest’s career between musical performances. I would delight in taking Tom Barrett to hear someone like Harry “Sweets” Edison perform with Dr. Taylor, then eavesdrop on the conversation after the show.
In 1980 a new station came on the air to replace WGTB at 90.1 on the FM dial. The University of the District of Columbia designated the station as WDCU-FM, but it was soon known as Jazz90. The first announcers were Faunee Williams, who hosted the morning drive-time show, and Gwen Redding, who was heard in the afternoon. By mid-decade the lineup included Bill McLaurin, Whitmore John, Steve Metalitz, Tim Masters, and later Candy Shannon. Steve Hoffman hosted a blues show and Ernest White did public affairs.
In the Washington Post on August 22, 1986, Jeffrey Yorke did a short profile of Felix Grant and also listed other jazz radio shows. The programs on WDCU were included along with Paul Anthony’s on WGMS. Among the WPFW programmers were Art Cromwell, Jerry Washington, Tom Cole, John Zimbrick, Miyuki Williams, and Larry Appelbaum. WAMU programs were Rob Bamberger’s Hot Jazz Saturday Night, my Jazz Sunday, and Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. By then WAMU had begun to cut back jazz programming. The overnight show and Spirits Known and Unknown had been dropped, and most of the musical offerings were bluegrass and folk.
Yorke’s profile of Grant focused on his Saturday afternoon show on WRC-AM, mentioning his earlier thirty-year tenure as WMAL’s nightly jazz authority. Not mentioned was the fact that when WMAL management first announced it was dropping his show in 1979, the outcry in letters and phone calls was so overwhelming that the station kept him on the air with a public apology, including advertisements on Metro buses. In 1983, just short of his thirtieth anniversary, the station dropped him permanently. At sixty-seven, he was evidently content to do a weekly show at WRC because, as Yorke pointed out, his other jazz activities took him around the world with visits to Europe and China.
In 1987 WRC dropped his show and shortly thereafter WAMU dropped mine. The ensuing letter campaign supporting my show did not change the decision of WAMU management. I had had a good run at the station, interviewing my heroes and even being honored by the proclamation of Rusty Hassan Day in 1984 by Mayor Marion Barry on the fifteenth anniversary of my show. But I was depressed until Edith Smith, general manager of WDCU, called, offering me airtime on Sunday afternoons. She added that I would start the same weekend as Felix Grant, who would be hosting a show on Saturdays. It was a real thrill to join the station at the same time as Grant. Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) had the debuts of our shows mentioned in the Congressional Record.
How people listen to music has changed dramatically. Downloads are convenient, but background and appreciation for the music is lacking. An informed announcer on the radio provides the names of the soloists and tells stories about the music.
The decade of the nineties was one of friendly rivalry between WDCU and WPFW. The stations frequently would be cosponsors of performances. I met long-time WPFW programmer Jamal Muhammed at a concert at Fort DuPont, where we both introduced Ahmad Jamal. We became close friends, and I enjoyed his stories about hanging out at the stage door of the Howard Theatre with his childhood friend Nap Turner in order to see Charlie Parker, or about the time he spent on Rikers Island incarcerated with Ike Quebec.
WDCU lacked the strong broadcast signal of WPFW, but it established its jazz identity in the Washington community. The station broadcast performances from the university auditorium, including the annual battle among the bands of Howard University, University of Maryland, and the University of the District of Columbia. It sponsored jazz cruises where Jazz90 listeners could hear Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Jay McShann, Benny Carter, and Phil Woods, and it cosponsored performances by Wynton Marsalis at Lorton and the DC Youth Center to enable the incarcerated to hear great music.
The years I spent at WDCU were among the best in my broadcasting career. The friendships and camaraderie that I had with fellow announcers Faunee Williams, Whitmore John, Candy Shannon, Gwen Redding, Bill McLaurin, Tim Masters, and Felix Grant were especially rewarding. I hosted concerts with Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins. On a station-sponsored cruise, I hung out with Jay McShann, Clark Terry, and my friend Yale Lewis. I interviewed Albert Murray. My favorite show, however, was with a retired letter carrier, cab driver, and pianist who played only for family and friends, my wife, Sondra’s, father. On August 6, 1995, I interviewed Thomas Barrett on his eightieth birthday. He spoke of his early years in West Virginia, playing piano in houses of prostitution as a teenager; hopping a freight train to Washington, DC, where he played professionally on U Street; meeting his wife, Mary, at a Hot Shoppe; his friendship with John Malachi and what a thrill it was to have Billy Eckstine’s band perform at the army camp in Louisiana where he was stationed in 1944; service in the Pacific. We played his favorite recordings by Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and Clifford Brown, and he explained why he loved Bill Evans. Not too long after the show, Askia Muhammad from WPFW told me how much he learned from the interview.
Unfortunately WDCU became a victim of the District of Columbia’s budget woes. The university sold the license to C-SPAN to close a budget gap for $13 million. There was some community opposition to the sale, but not enough to stop the sale, and the station went off the air in 1997.
I was soon asked to become a substitute host on WPFW, filling in for such programmers as Rick Bolling and Guy Middleton. This led to a permanent slot. I was now on the air with my friends Jamal Muhammed, Tom Cole, Miyuki Williams, Larry Appelbaum, Hassan Ali, Nap Turner, and Askia Muhammad. Over the next few years other WDCU programmers joined me on WPFW, including Faunee Williams, Candy Shannon, Steve Hoffman, and Tim Masters. WHUR veteran Robyn Holden also joined the family of volunteer announcers broadcasting jazz and blues.
Since 1997 WPFW has been the only station broadcasting jazz in Washington, with the exception of Bamberger’s show on WAMU. WAMU now focuses almost entirely on talk and public affairs. WETA has been featuring European classical music since WGMS changed format. Neither of these NPR affiliates broadcast jazz offerings from the network such as Piano Jazz or JazzSet. WPFW has been on a rollercoaster of internal management problems for the past fifteen years that the volunteer announcers have always managed to work around and continue to play music. But in December 2012 the station manager abruptly dropped all of the daytime jazz shows to expand the talk and public affairs programming. My show was shifted from Monday evening to late Thursday night. The programming for jazz remains strong with such announcers as Brother Ah, a musician who has performed with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Peggy Lee, and Willard Jenkins, a jazz journalist who collaborated with Randy Weston on Weston’s autobiography. The daily blues show at noon survived the changes, and an hour of jazz has been inserted in the afternoon. The community response has been strong, and it remains to be seen if other daytime jazz shows will be restored. WPFW faced other challenges in 2013, but new managers and their positive attitude instill the programmers with confidence that the jazz shows will continue.
In the March 2013 issue of JazzTimes, Giovanni Russonello wrote about jazz radio finding itself at an existential crossroads, with technology upending the media landscape and public funds drying up. The situation at WPFW is but one example of the crisis confronting jazz radio across the country. Russonello notes the explosion of music on the internet and the change in listening habits through downloads and online music services. His suggestion that WPFW embrace its niche audience and invest in event programming is solid advice and exactly what on-air hosts Miyuki Williams and Robyn Holden have been urging station management to do.
How people listen to music has changed dramatically. Downloads to iPods are convenient, but background and appreciation for the music is lacking. An informed announcer on the radio provides the names of the soloists and tells stories about the music, conveying what Whitney Balliett called and Larry Appelbaum named his show: The Sound of Surprise. Washington, DC, is fortunate to have WPFW still broadcasting the music with knowledgeable programmers. I feel fortunate that I am still on the air attempting to educate and entertain listeners with the music I first heard on the radio as a kid. Radio is still the best way to discover jazz.
Copyright 2018 by Georgetown University Press. Rusty Hassan, “Jazz Radio in Washington, DC.” From DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC, Maurice Jackson and Blair A. Ruble, Editors, pp. 91–106. Reprinted with permission. www.press.georgetown.edu.
This essayappears as part ofRewind: The Roots of Public Media, Current’sseries of commentaries about the history ofpublic media. The series is created in partnership with the Radio Preservation Task Force,an initiative of the Library of Congress.Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and national research director of the RPTF, is Faculty Curator of the Rewind series. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org