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I had always relegated jazz to Bill Cosby and elevators before I met the guy at the McDonald’s on Georgia Avenue a few summers ago. One thing led to another, and I soon found myself inside his maroon coupe, bumping along the avenue’s potholed streets, windows rolled down and some saxman wailing over the Jazz 90 airwaves. Through ringlets of Newport smoke, we discussed Colin Powell and Louis Farrakhan, Howard University and the bourgeois blues on the way to a local jazz hangout.
I was in college, interstates away from the real world, but I played grown. I felt like a character in a black-and-white film, visualizing the bass player thumping his fingers across the strings while his other hand wind-sprinted the scales. The ting of the cymbals tickled my ears. Couldn’t name the folks playing, but I forgot all about Clair and old Heathcliff Huxtable.
We shrugged when I got carded and couldn’t get into the club. Our attraction to each other whirred along those jazz riffs and settled into a cool groove. The next morning, first thing I did was set my radio dial to 90.1. I saved it on Memory Button No. 4.
Two years later, Memory Button 4 is still locked on Jazz 90. Until last Friday at midnight, 90.1 (aka WDCU) was owned by the University of the District of Columbia as a National Public Radio affiliate. The area’s only 24-hour jazz station, Jazz 90 nurtured and sustained the fourth largest black audience of any jazz station in the country.
But the university’s money miseries forced the station onto an already crowded auction block. And Salem Communications, a massive religious radio conglomerate, was first to step up to the plate with a $13-million bid. Three hundred of the station’s 140,000 listeners recoiled at the thought of their beloved frequency spewing holy-roller rhetoric,
so they formed Save Jazz 90. They unleashed a letter-writing campaign and enlisted the aid of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm, which tried to block the deal through a legal challenge with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The firm argued that the frequency was designated to be a public stationa requirement Salem did not meet. All the hoopla was enough for Salem to decide it wasn’t worth the fight and abandon its plans.
Then along came C-SPAN, which submitted its own bid for $13 million. Last week, the FCC approved the deal. And now C-SPAN is broadcasting the same bone-dry programming it does on its cable television stations: more Capitol Hill hearings, more riveting policy panels. We were way short on that stuff, right?
I care about the loss of support for the jazz clubs in town, and the local artists they feature, but I worry more about how many D.C. kids will miss growing into adulthood as I did, with this smooth, swinging frequency as their soundtrack.
The week I first tuned into Jazz 90 was the same week I moved into my own apartment for the very first time. After sharing a room with my sister all my life, I craved all that was new and sophisticated and, especially, solitary. Eschewing a TV set, I let my stereo keep me company. Jazz 90 became part of my evolving style, like my mudcloth doormat and African prints.
Bereft of words for the most part, the jazz at 90.1 let me lose myself in whatever I was doing. That station played accompaniment to some of the greatest books I’ve ever readToni Morrison’s Jazz, Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Jazz seeped into my life as I buried myself in term papers on nationalism and revolution and burned up the phone lines with long-distance storytelling. And if that guy was around, well, Button 4 was always on.
I still listened to the other stations, especially on Friday or Saturday nights, before I hit a club downtown with my girlz. Dripping wet from the shower around 10 o’clock, I’d go straight for Memory Buttons Nos. 1, 2, and sometimes 3 (95.5 WPGC, 93.9 WKYS, and Howard’s own, 96.3 WHUR). But I began to think of them as ear candy, foreplay for more important things to come.
Jazz, on the other hand, was a consummation unto itself. Jazz was attitude, a way of looking at things so they made more sense. If the music was right, I’d decide I was too relaxed to get upset about my editor ripping my work to shreds. And the sense of cool made me feel too serene to worry about the firetrucks and police cruisers screeching outside. That was someone else’s soundtrack. Trite as it sounds, jazz allowed me to be myself. I could assign my own stories and meanings to jazz. No one else had prepackaged the verse for me to memorize and lip-sync.
The station’s DJs, many of them volunteers, whispered the titles and artists in their faux-throaty voices. Not exactly smooth, but I began to know a few names. Whitmore John’s singsong voice, Caribbean like my parents, got me through many a late-night cramming session as he worked the graveyard shift. I also grew attached to Candy Shannon, who taught me most of what I know about jazz during her afternoon shift.
One day after work, I walked into my apartment, flipped on my stereo to Button 4, and played the messages on my answering machine. I had a few Happy Birthday wishes, but the one from my dad stopped me in my tracks. While I was listening to his Pavorotti-style rendition of “Happy Birthday” behind the blare of John Coltrane, a tear snaked down my cheek. For that moment, I let go of the anger from our marathon shouting matches in high school. He remembered. And I actually missed him.
In January, several months after I met the guy, a blizzard blew into town. For once, I was grateful for D.C.’s inefficiency. The cool white dust made a lovers’ paradise. Schools, roads, and businesses were shuttered. The waist-high snowdrifts allowed us all, for a few days, to just stop. I was thinking chardonnay, candles, and nice music.
But when the storm hit, the guy had no time for me. He said the powdery drops did not blanket his other responsibilities, and he dismissed me with about as much warmth as the temperature outside. It had become a pattern. As he prepared to graduate and contemplated what he wanted to do with his life, he was slowly edging me out.
So inside my apartment, a refuge from the blank streets and buried cars, it was just me. Moping about, windows cracked, heat blasting, I burrowed inside the loud flannel robe that my mother had given me. I fired up a stick of incense, put on a kettle, and fingered a box of herbal tea. As I reached up for my stereo’s remote control to push Button 4, I reveled in my sadness. A melancholy song piped through, and I relished how alive I felt in the depth of my gloom.
I made it through those days by myself, reading every untouched book in my apartment and listening to Button 4.
Today, I still can’t identify most jazz standards. But in anticipation of the demise of Jazz 90, I’ve begun my own collection. I know I like Miles Davis and John Coltrane if I’m in a tranquil mood, and Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson if I want to do some soulful brooding. It’s a shame, though, because all the discs in the land can’t possibly match the range of moods and voices on Jazz 90. Sometimes I don’t want to decide what to hear, I just want to listen.
But maybe this is what being a grown-up is all about: making decisions, accepting changeand listening to congressional testimony. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.