by Toni Ballard

July 28, 1989

Anyone who lives within earshot of Worcester's two public radio stations — WICN and WCUW — and who is at all interested in jazz, knows that familiar voice. The first time you hear it, you're surprised. It's not that slick, "I'm hip" voice that most jazz radio announcers adopt. It's more like —well, it's like talking to your best friend on the phone. You know she can't lie to you, and you always know, just by the sound of her voice, whether or not she likes something. Mary Mardirosian has been the host of the most popular jazz radio show in Worcester for ten years. Five of thosewere spent doing a Saturday afternoon mainstream jazz show on WCUW. She has spent the last five years of Saturdays at WICN, a National Public Radio affiliate. At both stations, her show has brought in the most money during fund-raising. Mary went to WCUW ten years ago looking for something to do after the death of her husband. The two had been avid jazz fans, and, in fact, had been friends of Count Basie and had traveled to various cities around the country to hear his band. Her love of music, combined with her need to brush up on some office skills, led her to WCUW. After doing a guest spot with host Tom Reney, who was doing a Basie special,the station offered her the chance to do her own show.

Toni: What motivates you to do those jazz shows?

Mary: In the beginning, it was very therapeutic for me, because, when I lost my husband, I was lost completely. I was a person who was very shy and never thought that I could do this. And that's why it's been rewarding. It's proved to me that I can do something, however it comes through.

Toni: It does come through. So, why jazz?

Mary: Why jazz? That's been my love all my life. I grew up with jazz. I was born on a farm, and when you're brought up on a farm, you do a lot of work. My only source of entertainment was the radio, and every spare moment that I had, my ear was tuned into the radio. And the music of that day was big band music and vocalists. So, I became tuned into that music. And I loved it! I loved it so much. My first favorite big band was the Benny Goodman Band. My first favorite vocalist was Ella Fitzgerald. I saw something and heard something in her at the time that I loved. It's always been that music that has been fulfilling for me. (My husband) got interested in the music to please me, and practically every week, there was a big band at the auditorium here in Worcester. Once in a while we'd dance, but I was there to listen to the music. It was fantastic. I saw all the bands there. The first time I saw the Count Basie band, it was at the auditorium. And, of course, they used to have the bands come to the theaters, so we'd go to those things, too. And we used to go to Boston to hear the different artists at Storyville. . . Chris Connor, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn. The very first time I heard Dakota Staton, it was at Storyville. Then we used to go to the Jazz Workshop, and Paul's Mall, Lennie's, places like that.

In the late fifties, my husband came in and said he had gotten tickets, and we were going to the auditorium again to hear this Birdland review show. And it was the Count Basie Orchestra, Billy Eckstein, Sarah Vaughn, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Chet Baker -- who did not show -- , Terry Gibbs, Gerry Southern, Joe Williams. All these people were on the one show. I enjoyed it tremendously. And it was after this that we started to go into Boston to Storyville, and all those other places that I mentioned. One day my husband came and said to me the Basie band was going to be appearing at the Crystal Room in Milford and that we were going. We sat right up front, and the band members had friends sitting at the same table that we were sitting at. So, when the band members would come off for a break, they were all at the table. And they were all very friendly. And so, about a month or two later, they came back to the Crystal Room, and we went again. And this time we really met some of the guys. The first person that we became friendly with was Sonny Cohn, who I'm still friendly with. I think he became friendly with us because he was new in the band. By then, that second time, Joe Williams had left the band, so we didn't get to know Joe at that particular time. So, then, if we heard the band was around the area, we'd go to hear them. My husband loved that band. I liked it too, very much. Anyway, this is how we started to follow that band around. It took us a while to get to meet Count Basie himself. He'd see us, but you just didn't approach him. He was not that approachable. It wasn't that he was stuck up or anything. It was just that -- well, you just knew . . . you just didn't. And it took a while. And then, we finally did get to know him.

Toni: Was it more your being shy about approaching him, or his not being receptive?

Mary: I think it was both. He wasn't an overly friendly type. He was not like Duke Ellington. Duke, if you met Duke, he'd be putting you on, and friendly, and all that. He was a different personality. Basie was not like that. But once you became friendly with Basie, you were his friend for life.

Toni: So, eventually, you started to plan vacations around where the band was playing. Where did you follow them to?

Mary:Well, to Florida, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, an awful lot. To Florida we would fly, or to Chicago, or Kansas City. But to New York, we would drive. And we'd be in touch with them. We knew where they stayed. So, if they were doing gigs, say in Philadelphia, or around the New York area, we'd go on the bus with them. We always sat in the seat opposite Count Basie. The fellow who had that seat would always relinquish it to us. They treated us very nicely and allowed us to go with them as part of their entourage into any gig they played. If we went by car to someplace in New York or, if we met up with them, we were told to say that we were from the office. And if we dared to pay, they'd say, "What did you do that for? You know you're part of us." I just felt very priviledged to be able to do this. I got to go more places because of that man that I never, ever would have seen. I mean, they played some ritzy places, and they placed some dumps, you know, and we just got to go everywhere. They were very protective of us, and after Mardy died, they were still protective of me, and have been very nice to me. When Mardy died, (Basie) was told about it, and he sent flowers, and he used to send him telegrams at the hospital. The first time Mardy was in the hospital, he sent him a telegram -- "What the hell are you doing there? Get the" -- I still have it -- "get the hell out of there!" And then afterwards, when he knew Mardy was not going to make it, he used to call up at the hospital, just to check in with him, which was very nice. After they knew that Mardy was dying, we still used to go around to hear the band. And the last time that he went, we went to the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. He went backstage, and he got autographs of the guys, and he never did that, and they all wrote something nice, because they knew -- they all knew. He hadn't let on to me that he knew he was dying, but he knew he was dying at that time.

Toni: Do you ever wonder how Mardy would react to your doing a radio show?

Mary:I know he'd be very proud of me. I know I never would have done it, had he lived, because I would have been living my other life. And I wouldn't have been thrown out into the world. So, you wonder about things happening the way they do. And I got into an environment that I've always loved -- the music environment, and that's always been fascinating for me. I've lost a lot, but what I have gained has been rewarding. You know, I have met some very young musicians -- like Chris Hollyday -- growing, watching them grow. I've seen Marshall Wood grow. I've seen Makoto Ozone grow. I've seen Becky [Parris] come along. I've seen you come along. And I like to think that I have helped in my little way, in trying to bring their music out. As I was saying to someone that I interviewed on my program Saturday -- he wanted to know why some people make it and some don't. And I said, "Well, first of all, you have to be true to yourself." And it's a question of being at the right place at the right time -- who you know, luck, fate -- I believe in all those things. "But", I said, "basically, it's being true to yourself." I mean, that's how I do my program. There'll always be some people that will not like everything I do. You can't please everyone. You can't play every cut that will please the majority of the people. You hope you're pleasing and reaching a lot people. For instance, we know there are people who like small groups, and we know there are people who like big bands; and we know there are people who love vocalists. I know people who hate vocalists.

Toni:Like musicians, for instance.

Mary:Yeah. (Laughs.) People have told me, "I love your show, but I hate when you do that lady vocalists set." Well, it's too bad. There are a lot of people who just wait for that portion of the program. So, what can I do? I'm doing what I think is best, and, hopefully, people are enjoying what I'm doing. And I know there are some people that I'm not able to please, but, well, I've said many times, just turn the dial.

Toni:So, what's been the most exciting, or fulfilling part of doing the show? Has it been discovering and watching these new talents — like Christopher Hollyday — seeing him starting out, and then watching him blossom into, maybe, this major force?

Mary:I don't know what is the most exciting. But in doing the show, I have gotten to meet so many nice people -- all the local musicians and the Boston people -- Dave McKenna, Grey Sargent -- and all the great talents I have admired throughout the years -- Arthur Prysock, Jackie and Roy, Carmen McRae. She's always been one of my very favorite vocalists, and she's been to my house for dinner! And I've gotten to know everyone. And that's kind of exciting. I think the interviews I've done have been quite exciting. I'm always under a lot of tension to do them, and sometimes very apprehensive about doing certain people. But when it works well, that makes you feel so good. I have gotten to meet a lot of the different people who come to the El Morocco. I met Toshiko Akiyoshi recently. She was lovely -- funny and fun, and I loved her playing. I met Cedar Walton about a month ago. He's a darling, and can he play! After my husband died, the El became a great outlet for me -- someplace right at my doorstep where I could go to hear the music I love. Then, when I had started doing the radio show, Charlie Lake called me and asked me if I wanted to interview Scott Hamilton, who was appearing at the El. That was my first interview -- by phone. Phil Wilson was the first person that came in live to 'CUW, and he brought in Makoto Ozone. I've had the opportunity of introducing all these musicians that come to the El Morocco. I'm still scared to death of doing that, and I am determined to overcome it. I perhaps never will, but I keep trying, because I do want to overcome that shyness. I have to tell you, the first time that I introduced the Basie band at the end of last August, I was shaking in my boots hours before -- before I even got to the El! I was so bad. I was so scared, because they're my people. And I never, ever dreamt that I would be standing in front of that Count Basie band to introduce them. I mean, that was something unthinkable for me to do. You know, I'm in awe of them, as much as I've traveled around with them. To be able to get up and introduce that band, to me -- you said, what is the most exciting thing? Maybe that is.

Toni: Some of the same guys in that band were in the band when you traveled on the bus?

Mary:Yes. They're old friends.

Toni: I want to ask you a little more about the interviews. What kind of preparation do you do? Do you have the questions planned out in advance?

Mary:Not if they're coming in live. If they're coming in live, I sort of wing it, unless they're there to speak about a specific thing. And I'll know that and lead into that. But generally I wing those. By having someone in live, you can watch their face, and you kind of know where you're going with it, because you have the eye contact. So, that's a little bit easier for me to handle. But when it's a telephone interview, that's pretty difficult -- especially when you don't know the person. So, then, I do prepare some basic questions. Some people are very easy to do. They'll take it and roll with it, and it just goes. And I let them go where they want to go with it. But there are some people that you just don't get that much out of, and it's pretty difficult. You're doing everything live, and you just hope it comes off well. I did Bob Flanagan of the Four Freshman two weeks ago. I thought that one came off very well. He had a lot to say. I didn't have to struggle with him at all. I had some questions planned to ask him, and he floored them very nicely. I feel that when a person has been around quite a bit, they have a lot to say. Some have been around, and they're kind of -- well, the word I'm going to use is "jaded". They've been asked the same darn questions so many times that -- "Oh, God, do I have to answer that again?" It just depends on the individual. Some are too shy, too, and I realize that. So, you never know when you start one how it's going to go. But I still enjoy doing them. I love doing Dick Johnson because he's very easy to talk to. The first time I did him, it went beautifully, and I was very happy with it. And I'd love to have Dick on live. I've been trying to get him. We had it all worked out once, and we had a bad ice storm. So, he cancelled, and I didn't blame him because I didn't know how I was going to get in to the station myself that day. I somehow made it, but I certainly didn't want him to travel in from Brockton. I'd love to have him in live because I know it would be a ball. I love having Herb Pomeroy come in live. He's just a joy.

Toni:I saw him recently. He was the guest artist at Zachary's at the Colonade with Mike Jones and Peter Kontrimas.

Mary:Sir Charles Thompson used to be the host pianist there for awhile. And when Basie used to play in Boston, that's where he used to stay -- at the Colonade. So, once, after my husband had died -- the year after -- the band was playing at, well, it's the Wang Center now -- they were working there with Sarah Vaughn. I had gone down for that. And Joe Williams was there. He wasn't on the bill, but he happened to be there. So, a whole bunch of us were going back to the Colonade to hear Sir Charles Thompson. So, Joe rode in the car with us. And Joe Williams was the first guy I danced with after my husband had passed away. Talk about Joe -- I got to meet Joe after he left the Basie band. He was playing at Lennie's. I always loved Joe Williams when he was with the [Basie] band. Anyway, he had left the band, and I was extremely disappointed. So, when he played around the area, we'd always go to hear him. And we did, eventually get to meet him. And, of course, he has appeared at various times with the band as a guest, so I know him very well. I still love his work, and I'm very happy that he's finally making it after all these years.

Toni:Have you ever interviewed Carmen McRae?

Mary:Yes, I have interviewed her. I saw her and I asked her if I could interview her -- it was at Great Woods, exactly two years ago. She said, "Do you have your tape recorder with you? Come back to the room." I said I didn't have one with me. Furthermore, I couldn't go because I had come in with the Basie band again, and I had to come back home. But I said, "I'd love to do one by telephone with you sometime." And she said, "O.K. I'll give you my telephone number. Don't give it out! Call me and we'll set up something." And I said, "Fine." So, we did do a telephone interview. Ironically, I never got to do one with Count Basie, but I'm sure he would have been very willing. But I think he would have been a poor interview. He did a promo for my show -- you know, "Listen to Mary Mardirosian" -- but that's when I was at 'CUW.

Toni:How did you do that?

Mary: I had my tape recorder, and he really wanted to do that for me. But I never pursued him to do an interview, which I know he would have done, because I used to sit in on other interviews that he did with other people. We'd be different places, and they were always interviewing him. And we'd sit in and listen. He's kind of evasive, so it wouldn't have worked out too well, I'm afraid.

Toni: Did he think the music should speak for itself?

Mary:Yeah. And he never commits himself. If we went to gigs, we were always in his dressing room. There'd be three or four different conversations going on around the room. That man -- you could be talking to him, but he used to hear everything that was going on in the room. He was that foxy. He'd pretend like he didn't know anything or hear anything, but he heard everything and knew everything. He was a man of few words, but when he said something, it meant something. It was a great joy to know him. And it was a great joy for me to have met Duke Ellington and to have gotten to know him because he was a completely different type of person. But so much -- so much charisma. I've said this before about him -- he'd be putting you on, and you knew he was putting you on, but it was fun to be put on by him. He used to be so flattering to all the women. He'd go into his dressing room. There'd be about eight or nine women around, and Duke would sit there holding court, so to speak. He was fun to know.

Toni: How did you feel when you found out that Basie had died?

Mary:I felt very badly about it because, although I knew that was going to happen -- I knew he was sick, there at the end, I knew he was pretty bad -- naturally, I felt very badly because, for one thing, you lost a friend; for another thing, you lost a legend in the music world. And to go to hear the band, it was never the same for me without him there. It still isn't. I want to see him sitting up there. I remember I did a five hour show after he passed away. Gene [Petit, WICN program manager] allowed me to go the extra hours because I had so much to say with his music. And I remember the statement I made. I said, "I knew this day was eventually coming, and I dreaded to have it come, but here it is. And I'm doing what I knew I was going to do." And I made a vow on that program that day, and I said I will never do a show without playing one Basie cut. And some people say, "She plays a lot of Basie." I don't play a lot of Basie, but I do play one Basie a week, because I said I was going to do it, and I'm going to do it. I feel that Igot so much out of his music that I want to give that out to the people. He made me happy, and I feel like I'm going to do my little part -- as many people are doing -- in keeping his music alive. It deserves to be alive. And I think Frank Foster's doing a very nice job fronting the band. I think they floundered around for awhile there, after Basie passed away, but I think they've got their act together. I've met so many nice people. It's nice to meet the listeners. It makes you feel good to have people come up and say to you, "You made my day. You make my Saturdays. I do my housework to your show." Those are the exciting things, I think. I've worked with some nice people in doing my show. I've had some terrific engineers, right down the line. They've all been very loyal to me -- each and every one that I have worked with. I had quite a few at 'CUW. They were lovely people to work with. Never did anyone leave me hanging. They always were there. And, going on to WICN, I had the same feeling there with whomever I worked with. We've always gotten along well. I think I'm hard on myself because I want to please, and I want to do a good show. I know I screw up a lot when I'm talking, but that's me! And it wouldn't be Mary if I didn't screw up! I think people get a kick out of it.

On one of her visits to Kansas City, Mary visited the Charlie Parker Institute. She was given a souvenir — a gold coin bearing Parker's image with the inscription, "Bird lives." Several years ago, after hearing Christopher Hollyday play his second engagement at the El Morocco, she handed him the coin. "This belongs to you," she said.

Toni Ballard is a jazz and big band vocalist and was the producer and host of the award-winning jazz show "Studio 3" that aired on Worcester's WGMC-TV3 from 1993 to 2003. She is included in Scott Yanow's book "The Jazz Singers: The Ultimate Guide" (Backbeat Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard), available from Amazon.com.