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Michael G. Nastos: Jazz, Baseball & Funny Cars

Michael G. Nastos: Jazz, Baseball & Funny Cars image
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a portrait by arwulf arwulf

J.C. Heard was the world's greatest Jazz drummer. Hell yeah. He was the swingingest, most disciplined and well-rounded drummer I ever met. I think Elvin Jones would back me up on this one. Anybody who ever saw J.C. in performance can testify to the elegance, exactitude and immaculate ease which this man brought to Jazz music. All of us loved him dearly, and when he left his body in 1987 it was an honor to bring potted chrysanthemums to his funeral. J.C. Heard was buried with a pair of drumsticks clasped in his hands.

We were driving through the suburbs of Detroit, one tiny vehicle in a very long funeral procession: PJ Ryder, myself and Michael G. Nastos. A tape recording of Don Cherry's Symphony for lmprovisers (Blue Note, 1966) filled the car with Cherry's breathtaking themes: Nu Creative Love and Infant Happiness. As Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri chimed in with tenor sax and piccolo, Ed Blackwell drummed us down the boulevard.

At one particularly large intersection we passed many lanes of traffic, halted to let the funeral entourage ease on by. Suddenly, Michael rolled down the rear window, stuck out his head and hollered: "This is J.C. Heard we're burying! You hear me? J.C. Heard!" The motorists stared back at him, uncomprehending. Michael drew his head back inside and muttered, "They don't know."

Trying to get Americans to stop and appreciate their own national treasure is a challenge. Michael's outburst was a distillation of what we Jazz Radio people do every day, and night after night: Honor the living musicians, and honor the dead. Spreading the music which is still so grossly underappreciated - it is a mission as serious as your life.

Michael G. Nastos devotes most of his waking hours to the promotion and celebration of Jazz. WEMU 89.1 FM, dedicated to Blues, Jazz and World Music, has three "mainstems" of Jazzcasting - Linda Yohn, Michael Jewett and this Nastos character I want you to read about. These are seasoned runners; they work themselves to a gravy for the sake of real music with substance and depth. Jazz will transform your life; it's a way of listening which takes years to grow into.

the initiation

It is the summer of 1967. A teenaged boy is bicycling along the side of a road on the outskirts of Milan, Michigan. His small transistor radio, strapped to the handlebars, announces the death of John Coltrane. The name is not familiar to the 16 year old, but a healthy curiosity propels him to the public library, where he checks out at random some of Coltrane's most challenging albums. Something like "Meditations" or "Live in Japan" and the hallucinogenically fomented group improvisation called "Om."

Scared him to death. He went back to the library, selected "Live in Seattle" - another scorcher - couldn' t handle it. On his third try, the impressionable young American stumbled across the very solid and approachable "Giant Steps" as well as the masterpiece: "A Love Supreme." Ah! Now the boy can hear it a bit clearer. Listen careful, listen deep. Chemistry. Evolution. Hermetic Transformation. We are shaped by that which we listen to. John Sinclair taught us: Approach the music, embrace the music, and let it take you as far as it possibly can.

what's in a name?

Michael G. Nastos is a quiet, serious individual whose sense of humor usually catches me off guard. Often on the phone he adopts strange dialects, recalling the goofiness of Peter Sellers, then suddenly reverts back to his modest one-to-one voice: "Hi Wulfie." In person he's tall and friendly, very polite and at the same time always ready with his own opinion, sometimes astringent, always succinctly stated. His knowledge of Jazz musicians, particularly any who operate in this part of North America, is staggering. Years of handling WEMU's famous Jazz Datebook listings have made him into a walking Who's Who of local Jazz; but he's a Who's Who of baseball and drag racing, too; a consummate American!

We're driving through York Township so I can glimpse the turf where Michael grew up. As always, he is delighted to show me things which are, to him, meaningful. We pass the Yorkwood Center for Children, where at the age of 15 he worked as a medical assistant. Upon graduating from High School, he put in 4 years as an attendant at Ypsi State Psychiatric Hospital, which looms up sad and scary on the lonely, deforested land. Another half mile and we are racing through fields of corn, radishes, soybeans.

Much of the property around Platt and Judd was once his grandfather's farmland. Michael pulls over to the side of the road and gets even more serious than usual and tells me about his name. There's a reason for the letter "G." - He doesn't use it "because of any jive affectation, like Francis X. Bushman. I'm honoring the two men who are the most important people in my life, who made me what I am, and who gave me the impetus for doing what I do." Michael's middle name is George.

George Lutz, Michael's grandfather, worked in agriculture, and later as a building inspector. "From him I learned about morality, how to treat people right with a certain amount of dignity - he was a wonderful man." The "G" also commemorates Michael's father, Gust Nastos (short for Gustav or Augustus?) who died when his son was only eleven.

"I have great memories of my Dad taking me to baseball games, listening to the radio hearing Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" and Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" - he was a real big jazz fan. If anything directed me to Jazz it was my father sitting with me by the radio in the late '50s. The "G" means a lot to me, and it bothers me when it's excluded from my byline; that's my professional name and there's a reason for it. It's my way of saying: "I love my father and grandfather."

radio & freedom

Michael G. Nastos has been involved in radio for over 25 years. He began by selling ads and gift coupon checkbooks to housewives for WAAM; this eventually led to his own airshift at that conventional outpost. Around 1972 he gravitated towards WCBN, the U-M college station which was still "block formatted." Radio in these parts at that time was very exciting and inventive; WNRZ (now WIQB) had freeform all night long; the notorious WABX air aces were busily breaking all the rules whenever possible, and even WRIF was progressive. Nastos and a small circle of CBNers decided to loosen up their format; Freeform would thenceforth rule for most of the day and night, with one exception: Jazz Round Midnight for 3 hours on weeknights. Michael stuck with CBN until about 1977.

In 1978 he moved to Woodstock, New York to help publicize the Creative Music Studio. This was an experimental workshop environment which brought him into close contact with artists like vibraphonist Karl Berger and Earth Priestess Jeanne Lee who's "the most unique vocalist of all," according to Michael; "a gardener with both plants and words." When the grant money dried up, Michael returned to the work of establishing himself as a Jazz and Blues Journalist and Broadcaster in Southeast Michigan. The decisive step was his initial involvement with WEMU in 1980; since then he has tirelessly nourished the local Jazz scene, teaching us to recognize the musicians by name as we learn the music by heart.

So many sounds, and life stories that go with them. Jazz is full of miracles. It's the music of freedom and discipline. People talk about Freedom until they're blue in the face, but when you try and get them to listen to the sounds of freedom incarnadine, they so often refuse to hear it. Pop music, and pop culture, pervade the air and swamp everything. Michael speaks glowingly of the masters of Black Classicism; the miracle of many varied peoples coming together to build something new made up of so many different energies. "Our culture gets so bleached," however, "that we can't see the rainbow."

a day at the races

Michael names three American manifestations which he feels are among our most important contributions to global reality: Automobiles, Baseball and Jazz. Now for each category, this fellow has tremendous passion and energy. His sizeable baseball card collection is lovingly tended. Every card represents an individual, with a name and a history, both professional and personal. But you should have seen the way he showed me around Milan Dragway, where he's been hanging out for much of his life as a dazzled spectator, hanging over the guard rail near the starting line, and eventually as racing announcer up in the observation tower. The track is 36 years old; over the last decade it' s been managed by Bill Kapolka, another individual for whom Michael has unwavering respect.

"This is not a supertrack, or a major event track. But it's the only track in this area that has the fast cars," Michael tells me. It is here that he got hooked on drag racing, back in 1966. "This is my favorite racetrack; it's very intimate. You're right there, instead of hundreds of feet away. You can take great pictures and you really feel like a part of it."

Michael's portfolio of racing photos is enormous. He documents not only the wildly decorated vehicles ("Fruit of the Loom" says one car), but here are recorded also the many faces of drag racing; the drivers (some who have since perished in terrible wrecks), and the workers right down there alongside the track, the people who make the race itself happen. We drove, rather slowly, down the drag strip. Michael carefully explained every facet of the action. His knowledge of racing is just as voluminous and enthusiastically imparted as is his deep dedication to good music. I realize how I love to listen to this man tell me about things which are meaningful to him.


Michael says we have an embarassment of riches in this part of the country. With music festivals so numerous one cannot possibly attend them all, not to mention crazy hopped-up volkswagen racing on a Sunday at Milan Dragway, there is nothing, he says, boring about this place. Every Thursday night, as he signs off on WEMU, Michael leaves his audience with a statement which is perhaps deceptively simple: "Go out and enjoy the beauty of this world." With this he plunges us into a Billy Harper saxophone workout, and the night is filled with magic all over again.


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