Bill McCann has been spreading the gospel of jazz on radio in the Capital District seemingly forever. Actually, this year he's celebrating 35 years as the creator and host of “The Saturday Morning Edition of Jazz” on WCDB, 90.9 FM, from the campus of the University at Albany.
Each Saturday morning, from 8 a.m. to noon, there he is. Like a rock. For some, Saturday morning means rising uneasily, teetering toward the kitchen, and reaching the coffee maker. For countless jazz fans it's also means tuning in to McCann and great jazz.
McCann runs his show with the flavor of a jazzman, improvising on selections, keeping it fresh.
“The show is not pre-planned. I have stuff that I want to play. But there's no set order, per se. I don't want to plan out my show. Put it together and then show up and have it on autopilot. I want it to be spontaneous,” said McCann, who is a University at Albany alumni. “I might open up with this piece. But after that, we're off to the races. Wherever the music takes me. I can literally stop on a dime and change my mind. Even if I have something cued up and I'm on the mic and something comes in my brain, I'll have a change of direction.
“I try to do it like I'm in my living room. … It's very relaxing. I don't want it to be a job.”
Anyone on radio for 35 years deserves some attention. And on Saturday there was to be a music event featuring 10 jazz bands at Alumni House on the college campus. But it's not possible because of the coronavirus pandemic. McCann hopes it can be held later in the year.
“We're certainly going to do it. I raised the funds. I'm sure the musicians will be very anxious to get to work. I was very excited about it. It wasn't going to be a concert, it was going to be a hang, with bands playing from 1 p.m. until toward midnight, one after the other."
Nonetheless, the radio show goes on.
McCann's ritual is to take his time. He gets to the studio by about 6:30 a.m. (“I don't want to feel rushed”). There are papers and notes. He has an idea of the basic framework for the day. Then off he goes, into an activity he says has made his life “more complete” over the years.
He was influenced heavily his father, a huge jazz fan, who liked to go hear live jazz in Rockland County, where they lived. Young McCann would tag along and developed a fascination. Dad's record collection was a shared aural experience.
McCann found UAlbany had a radio station on a visit in 1980, not knowing he would soon enroll there. He trained for an on-air spot and it came to fruition in 1985. Of course, he wanted it to be a jazz show.
In the beginning the music was vinyl. DJs worked like watchmakers, cuing up records just in the right groove so the music started correctly without listeners hearing the sound of the needle sliding, or missing the first strains of a song. He remembers that fondly.
“I tend to keep the music more in the pocket. More mainstream. So was my Dad,” he said. “I tend to dig mainstream jazz from the '50s and '60s. Count Basie and Joe Williams and stuff.” It took him awhile to get used to bebop and beyond: John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. But after a short time that became part of his vernacular as well.
“The problem is that there are so many awesome musicians. I find myself saying, 'I can't remember the last time I played that guy.' That kind of thing. Even though I have four hours, it doesn't seem like enough time. I would need to have many, many, many more hours.”
McCann seems to be known everywhere. He says he gets hollers of “love your show” when he is in a store or walking down the street. “I have no idea who these people are.”
People bring gifts of pastries, cookies and the like to the studio. When a longtime fan passed away—someone McCann had never met except via weekly call-ins—he noticed the obituary in the newspaper and attended out of respect. The family was excited to see their father's favorite DJ show. (The family was not allowed to telephone the man on Saturday mornings during McCann's broadcast). To his amazement he was gifted the man's extensive collection of jazz recordings. He was humbled by the affection.
McCann appreciates his fan base and with technology, it has no bounds. The station only has 100 watts of power via terrestrial radio, which is extremely limited. But in more recent years, “I've literally had people message me or email me, or go to our website and get on the request line, from Egypt or the Philippines or Spain. And all over the United States. Which is really cool,” he said. “It's become truly a worldwide thing.”
Working at a college station, he also encounters his share of young DJs who are impressed by his knowledge.
“I've had student DJs come in unannounced, to do something at the station. They'll come in the master control room. I'll be doing my thing and they'll say, 'Man, how do you do that?' Thirty-five years, you know? It's second nature,” he said.
He also received major recognition, as when the Jazz Journalists Association honored him with a Jazz Heroes award in 2012.
McCann makes it a point to highlight the plethora of jazz talent in the Capital District and keeps listeners informed about what's going on in the region during the upcoming week or month. .
“I think that's critical. I have a segment called the Jazz Corner” said McCann. “I make it a regular point to promote a calendar. Not only read it by rote, but have people in the studio to visit and do a segment. If they're putting on a jazz series or if there are some events coming up. Or if musicians have a new CD out. I definitely want to have them come to the station and promote what they're doing. It changes the flavor of the program, but I think its important to give back to the jazz community.”
He said of that community, “It may be an inch wide, but it's miles deep. Pound for pound, I would take the Capital District over any place. Between the clubs that we have. And places like The Egg and Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Proctors, Skidmore. The colleges have different jazz programs. There are so many outlets for not only great local musicians, but world-class musicians. So, I like to promote the cause.”
As far as favorite moments, McCann recounted that the Lee Shaw Trio once did an in-studio live set. Pianist Shaw was based locally but was renowned on the national jazz stage. Another was when the great swing-style, sweet-toned tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton—McCann's favorite–appeared on the Saturday morning show the day after his gig in Schenectady as part of the long-running A Place For Jazz series.
So on rolls “The Saturday Jazz Edition.”
“I hope I can do it for many years to come. I'm 55…I wouldn't mind getting 50 years on the radio. That would put me at 70."
Bottom line: “I don't think my love of the music will ever change.”
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Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.