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Living At The Speed Of Sound A Portrait Of Michael Jewett

Living At The Speed Of Sound A Portrait Of Michael Jewett image
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David Murray's bass clarinet makes a soft bubbling sound.Thenaclear moan, soon to become a dark cry, rich and vibrant. Long ago, Harry Carney established this hom as a jazz voice with Duke Ellington. And Benny Goodman tried it out once or twice. But it was Eric Dolphy who took it to the next level - the beautiful plateau of extended improvisation. Since Dolphy's untimely death in 1 964, others have handled the deep woodwind, but nobody has done as much with it as David Murray, who is also a formidable presence on the tenor saxophone. When I entered Michael Jewett's cozy dúplex digs on the south side of Ann Arbor, he immediately made a random but meaningful choice when he chose David Murray for background music. It's the same sort of seemingly arbitrary decisión we Jazz radio DJs make all the time. But the hands which lay the compact disc in its eradle and push the little laser beam buttons (or set the vinyl record to spinning and place the needie against the opening groove), these hands are responding to the impulses of one's heart, and are directed by an intricately maintained brainroom, teeming with meaningful organic memory. Jewett was exhausted, recuperating from his second day of on-the-air-fundraising. ("Another day, another 30 pledges," he quipped.) But as the music filled the room, its effect upon Michael's nervous system was apparent; his eyes sparkled as hidden resources of warm energy kicked in. Tm on a David Murray missicn. He's the undiscovered, uncrowned king of this music. David Murray is his own school. There's nobody who's created such a diverse body of work: from really 'out' records to beautiful ballads, spirituals, funk, big band, en tire Jazz suites, solo stuff - but most of his work is on a Japanese record label!" There's the rub. And it rubs many of us the wrong way every single day. Europe and Japan are still doing the lion's share of Jazz promotion on this planet, be it reissued rarities or new, rising talent. Murray is a legend in his own time - "the rate of his creativity is like Ellington's," says Jewett. "I really like mainstream Jazz, but there's a lot of music out there that gets short shrift, or doesn't have much of an avenue. So I think of my show as an avenue for people to enjoy real music without the gimmicks. I guess we play some trendy stuff. We try to avoid it. I play music that's inspiring; not art for art's sake but art for people's sake. Music should have a certain soul about it. It shouldn't just be a posture or a formula." Forget packaging. It's about feelings. "I didn't start to listen to Jazz until it touched me emotionally. And there's no way you can forcé anybody to do that. It has to be in the air and then people wili get it." utility purple Michael Jewett airs his idea of real music Monday through Friday from 1 pm to 4 pm on WEMU 89.1 FM. He's also in charge of operations - "making sure 2+2 always equals 4 - cpordinating all of the NPR satellite feeds, which is how everything from Car Talk to Jazz at Lincoln Center gets across on WEMU. This is exhaustive labor "There's a lotta grind in my work schedule. But l'm guaranteed that half my day , I get to have fun. Not all people can do that. Very few of us get to work and have some fun at it. And do what we love. There are people out there chasin' the bucks, making serious money, but I don't know that th eir souls are happy. Maybe that's not important to them. But it's important to me. And if l'm having a bad moment at work I get to play a Count Basie record, and then everything's okay." Michael loves the word "Utility" - it has a lot of connotations, he says. Radio, for Michael, is an appliance. People use it to teil time, to keep up on the weather; it keeps them company and delivers messages. The concept of Utility applies very much to his own way of doing things; Michael is extraordinarily dependable and he's able to be consistent without ever getting tiresome or predictable. "No frills. Very basic. That's me: Mr. Regularity!" He laughs. "But l'm not into grey oranything. Utility says grey, l'm Utility, but purple. Utility purple. Still gotthat purple energy." real blues Longtime WEMU listeners will recall a series of Blues specialty shows which Michael hosted at various time slots over a span of some ten years. "When the Eagle Flies" was the original Friday night barbecue session. Later it changed ñames and moved around on the broadcasting schedule; remember "When the Sun Goes Down" and the "Classic Blues Closet"? No matter what he called it, the menu invariably offered Genuine Downhome Musical Entertainment. Michael took up the project at a time when nobody else at WEMU was airing Charlie Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson. "Ninety percent of the Blues music I have on LP is all 1 920s and 30s stuff, the first and second generations of Blues on record. You know, that heavy, real, beautiful, ugly stuff - lotta heavy music back then." Even deeper is the gritty gospel legacy of Blind Willie Johnson, whoses growling and preaching "makes Howlin' Wolf sound like teeny-bopper rock. Willie is the scariest guy out there, 'cause he's talkin' about the Devil and the Good Lord. And it's not like the Devil is no cartoonish thing. He's talkin' about really serious A.M.E. Southern Baptist redemption-type music; real fire and brimstone! His voice is much more intense than any Blues l've ever heard. He was definitely tapped into something. "Gospel is a much deeper place than Blues music. You would never in church talk about the things you need to talk about in Blues. Which I think is why anybody can relate to Blues music. Becauseyou'llhavetroubleinyour relationships, and you won't have enough money, and your health will be bad - you will have a human problem. But not everybody is going to relate to spirituality in the same way. So Gospel music will trip people out." As for Classic Blues, Michael has to mention the Memphis Jug Band. Just pronouncing their name gives him pleasure; he chuckles and says: "They're the best, man! But you're never quite sure who was on the record. I think I counted up 29 musicians who appeared in different combinations of 4 or 5 as THE Memphis Jug Band. And it was all goodtime music. They sang deep blues; they played all your folky EuroAmerican jigs, reels, kindalikethe Black variant on bluegrassy breakdown music; comedy, minstrelsy, they were so bizarre! They did the first Hip Hop! It would fit in with Public Enemy! Weird layered stuff going on in this jug band. They were a precedent for Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Elvis - much more than Robert Johnson was." the power of music "Julius Hemphill was a man who had a real visión of what music should sound like. Hampton Hawes had one of the most beautiful, bluesy, deep, funky piano sounds of all time. Mem Shannon, ex-cab driverfrom New Orleans, is a slice o'life songwriter with a sense of humor, like Snooks Eaglin meets Randy Newman." Putting all of these musics together in a radio broadcast, says Michael, is a science and a crapshoot. "We can listen to a news report about the most heinous, horrendous things imaginable - and we need to hear these things because that's the real world - but if a piece of music has a lot of improvisation in it, or an adventurous quality in its structure, or lots of emotion, they say 'I have to avoidthat.' It makes me think about the power that music has. Music can do things to you emotionally that you really can't describe." the ann arborite verbatim "l'm from Ann Arbor. l've lived here all my life. I can remember when it was much smaller. I try to be cool with the changes but it feels weird - overdevelopment - it's very different. But l'm a real Ann Arborite. My whole family lives here. My great-grandfather was the first African-American to letter in a varsity sport [at UM in the 1890s]. The African-American community is still very small in Ann Arbor. It was much larger by percentage when I was a kid, and more isolated. "My big thing in life now besides work is martial arts. It's the best and hippest thing l've discoveredsince Jazz. Without question. Tai Chi with elements of Kung Fu: good for body, mind and soul. l'm just trying to live well. I gave up the fast life; used to live at the speed of light. Now it's life at the speed of sound. "l'm not famous. And I don't want to be famous. l'm just another member of my audience. l'm not in this business for the fame - and there's certainly no fortune involved. l'm in it for the adventure, the challenge, for the fun of it. Radio is a blast. Even with the grunge work I have to do, it's still playing Louis Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, David Murray and Bheki Mseleku records. That's why I do it. And I do martial arts 'cause it's hard."


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