Jazz. Now there’s a musical genre I wouldn’t have thought to pay much attention to in 1985, had I not been itching to expand my horizons. I was familiar with its many subgenres, of course: my dad is a big fan of the swing era so I’d always hear Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw playing on his big crackly radio down cellar, and my mom owned a copy of The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out album. I’d also hear all kinds of stuff while changing the dial on my own radio.
But it wasn’t until spring 1985 that, out of boredom and curiosity, I started paying attention to what was being played on the lower end of the dial. I’d gotten my own small boombox on Christmas of 1983, a compact thing that fit perfectly on my desk. I used that thing everywhere — taping music off the radio, recording silly sounds and snippets from home and elsewhere, and plugging in the headphones at night.
I recall that was also the last Christmas that my dad’s company sent him a present to give to us kids (we got them every year until we were twelve), and that year I got my first personal stereo — not a Sony Walkman with a tape player, but a Radio Shack knockoff with an AM/FM tuner. Well, at the time I ‘owned’ maybe one or two tapes. Beatles-related, of course, so I was fine with plugging in the headphones and doing a bit of radio listening as I was nodding off. With actual stereo headphones and not a single earbud! I used that radio almost every single night for at least six months running.
I’d get a few replacement personal stereos over the years, but it as that particular model that helped me find and appreciate jazz. In particular I found myself enjoying the ‘cool jazz’ format the most — the Blue Note era sax solos, the laide back meandering of pianos, the occasional slippery drum solo. With the Brubeck background, I started picking up on a few decades’ worth of names like Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Count Basie.
This, for me, was music made purely for listening. Not exactly a performance sound, although it was certainly that. This was music that wasn’t making a statement or written to be a hit single — it was a piece of art that was to be appreciated in one’s own way. And for me, that was lat at night, when I really should have been asleep on a school night.
That habit stuck with me all through high school. The jazz part of it was ephemeral, only lasting for a few months and whenever I could get a signal, as many of the stations were nowhere nearby. These were all located down in the Pioneer Valley, down near the Amherst/Hadley/Northampton area. Other nights I’d look for classic rock shows on my trusted regular stations like WAQY or WAAF, or I’d plug my headphones into the boombox and listen to the various radio mixes or the tapes my sisters owned.
It was April vacation of 1986 when I found myself up late one night, door closed, listening to the radio in the dark once more. I was still half-searching for jazz that night. My listening habits were still the same: stiwtching between jazz shows, classic rock blocks, one or two pop stations, or a few tapes from my slowly-growing collection. Whatever caught my attention, I’d stick around for a while and listen in while I let my mind wander about whatever teenage shenanigans I’d gotten myself into at that point. [And chances are, most of the time it was either wondering why I couldn’t get a girlfriend, or why I was procrastinating and not getting any of my homework done. I was a real winner, folks!]
That particular night, I was looking for a jazz show on the low end of the dial, but I wasn’t having much luck. Trying to get any clear stations on my boombox was enough of a chore at times, considering my house was at the bottom of a valley, so each night was completely up to chance when turning that miniscule dial, millimeter by millimeter, sneaking it ever so slightly with my fingernail to land exactly on the right frequency.
That night, I finally found it.