BASE interview with Ben Young

Q: WKCR is remarkable in that it's run by students yet is unlike any other college radio station. What's the key to maintaining KCR's integrity and seriousness of purpose through the constant student/staff turnover?

A: Hard to say if there’s one key. The station definitely benefits from the still-molten alloy of several things going on at once: youthful minds forming themselves — coming to invest more or less of themselves into their radio activities across the 1, 2, 3, or 4 year span that they’re with us. Their energies and interests will tend one way when they come in and another way as they leave - perhaps shifting focus from one of the areas of our broadcasting to another, or perhaps getting bored with what we do and changing to focus on something else even before they graduate. The student portion brings a constant newness and vitality whose (fair) price is a certain capriciousness about what they will or will note volunteer their time for. Meanwhile, there are projects going on around them – a carnival of research, restoration, history-gathering, concert-chasing etc., to inspire younger minds and hopefully model the highest achievement for them. I guess the real key is surfing: trying to ride all the waves of student enthusiasm without deluding oneself into thinking that if you wait the momentum will still be there.

Q: Many of Columbia's current students were born in the 1990s. With much of WKCR's library on vinyl and reel-to-reel tape, is there a big learning curve for students who may never have handled an LP or tape?

A: Another good question. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve seen reel-to-reel education go from de-rigeur to entirely passe. The good news is that absolutely everybody whose sees tape being used is fascinated by it and wants to learn. For many, the will to learn will fizzle out after a few hours of study and exploration; they’ll be better for having gone through the process of learning—if only so to better understand what it meant to edit an LP or a newscast back in the 20th century. About one student per year actually acquires enough kinetic skill and practice to be trusted with unique materials in the vault. Conversely, about once every year somebody graduated long ago will ring me up to ask for a refresher: it’s more applicable to whatever they’ve moved on to than it may be to the act of on-air production at present. In short, it’s long since ceased to be a requirement for anybody at the station. Undergrads will see it done, but if they want to do it, they’ll need to put in the time sharpening skills.

Q: WKCR is the custodian of many unique recordings, both of performances and interviews. What are some of the more noteworthy of those?

A: This is always a hard question to answer. Speaking generally, anything that was our own production that probably only exists here is very precious, more so when the parties involved have moved along. The titillating answer relates to very visible personalities like Joni Mitchell, the MC5, Hampton Grease Band, Joan Osborne, etc. More germane to our broadcasting, the indispensable recordings would include many many hours of history with Max Roach across the years—overlapping partly with the dozens of hours of unique Charlie Parker materials that Phil Schaap has brought into the Birdflight program. Many surprising sessions from the very fertile field of the early Seventies, including John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Sam Rivers, Sonny Sharrock, David Izenzon. Lots of events in talk and music that happened only once, and lots of interview moments that let you know immediately that never again in recorded history will these tales be told, and these explanations be made: organist Bill Doggett discussing the WWII years; guitarist Turk Van Lake assessing his interface with John Cage; Bassist Curley Russell talking about playing with the reclusive piano genius, Lennie Tristano. Lester Young’s brother Lee talking about Pres. Admittedly, if you don’t recognize any of these names, then it might not mean much... I might add that the only known voice recording of overlooked Jazz giant Herbie Nichols was just donated to our library about a year ago, as one example.

Q: I live in New York but listen to KCR online for the simple reason that I don't have a receiver at work. Do you track KCR's online listenership? Are there any surprises?

A: We don’t track it all that closely, for the simple reason that we’re not a business. If we were in business, trying to 'increase market share' or 'move more units' then we would do almost nothing that we currently do. We do this music because it needs attention for artistic reasons, even when only 3 people are logged in. But since you ask, the consistent surprise through 10 years of web-casting is that the overwhelming majority of tangible feedback and tangible support still comes from FM listeners in New York, as opposed to worldwide listeners.

Q: At roughly ten thousand records, has your personal collection plateaued? Do you keep a running written list of things you need?

A: Another record junkie once said to me offhand that nobody who’s serious about record collecting ever keeps the cellophane from formerly sealed records on his or her discs. Kinda like that, I feel like I’ve seldom run into "serious" collectors who keep written lists. In a way that’s an acknowledgment that the habit has overtaken your ability to comprehend what you have. Having said that, just yesterday I discovered that I have an accidental duplicate of a record. I must have gotten them separately, years ago, and never known it... For me personally, there’s nothing like the frustration of going to look for a record and not finding it where it’s supposed to be, then mentally rolling back through years of potential borrowers to wonder if it might have been left in someone else’s hands. Far better to own two or three copies — on purpose or by accident — and file one each in all the logical sites where one would look for it.

Q: Who is the greatest overlooked player of jazz music, and what recordings best exemplify this?

A: Pretty easy to riff on the philosophy of a question like this while fishing for the right answer. I’ve grown up for twenty years with a thirty-year old WKCR tradition called the "Lost Masters" festivals, recognizing the recorded output of some luminaries who happened to have died young or been under-recorded for other reasons. To help people understand it, it’s maybe like if you had a Neglected Presidents’ Day, where you gather Polk, Monroe, Wilson, Chester Arthur, and talk about all the under-appreciated things they’ve done, rather than just talking about Lincoln, Jefferson, and Kennedy. The difference in content would be that. But the real difference is that, although I’m sure the population’s grip on U.S. history is losing ground, we’re not really in danger of losing sight of the accomplishments of the various nation-shaping presidents, because to at least some degree everybody gets exposed to the info in school. In the absence of that exposure, our former stars are slipping toward oblivion so that they’ll have to be considered "lost masters". Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Red Allen, James P. Johnson — impeccable artists who were serious headliners but are quite unknown right now. So anyway, the field is very broad. The most overlooked people would logically be so overlooked that even I wouldn’t know who they are to call their names in answer. Before long it comes down to a matter of who you happen to know about. Jazz culture still carries a torch for [trumpeter] Frankie Newton because of Dan Morgenstern’s (and Nat Hentoff’s, and George Wein’s) championing of him; [arranger] Eddie Durham because of Phil Schaap’s championing of him. I guess I end up pulling people’s coats to [cellist] Abdul Wadud a lot — he’s still alive but not in circulation. If you had a slide rule that took into account innovation, singularity, longevity, renown, you’ll always end up feeling an enormous loss in [bassist] Scotty LaFaro and [trumpeter/composer] Booker Little disappearing in their mid and early twenties — how fascinating would it have been for either of them to live a few years longer into the broadening of Free jazz? Or for Jimmie Blanton or Charlie Christian to actually have made a bebop record? None of those is the wrong answer. But to take it further, there’ s not a single recording of Andy Kirk Jr., the tenor player who died young. Apparently also none of Ike Day, the Chicago drum idol. So it’s hard to say. I still remember a cat playing “Night in Tunisia” in the 14th Street L about 6 years ago who I really wished I could have stayed and met...

Q: For the radio station as well as other projects, you've interviewed countless musicians and peripheral characters, with a waste-no-time zeal and a desire to document their first-hand stories before they're lost to history. Who has granted you some of your more revelatory interviews, and who out there would you still like to talk with?

A: I’ll answer that zealously: I hope these cats are listening. I’m looking forward to interviewing the bassist Errol Henderson, now known as Ken Hutson, and also drummer Rashied Sinan, a drummer from the Lofts who’s now working as a janitor in Brooklyn. Now that that’s in print I hope some folks will hold me to it. Also must connect again with Don Moore to play some music for him. Revelatory for me, the answer would be the hours and hours spent speaking with Bill Dixon for the last twenty years. Many people who have only talked with Bill for twenty minutes would echo that sentiment. Also almost twenty years of illuminating interviews with [drummer] Milford Graves. You’d probably be surprised to hear me say that some of the most informative chock-full-of-nuts interviews I’ve ever taken part in were with some less-than-famous folks: I was privileged to spend two hours with pianist Hal Galper in the company of “Bowl-Cut” Ben Heller for the Sam Rivers Festival in 2007, and Galper just laid everything out perfectly — details, new facts, insight, and a vivacious personality. And then pulled out an acetate of hitherto unheard recordings of the band. Ditto for composer Bob Ceely talking some precious words about his school time at New England conservatory in the company of Cecil Taylor. Christopher Capers had some angles on John Coltrane’s music in 2004 — people still call me up and ask about that. Must get with Capers again soon to talk some more about his own history.

Q: Over the last few years you produced the dazzling Albert Ayler Holy Ghost box set, single-handedly tracking audio sources, co-mastering, writing and commissioning liner notes, and traveling to Cleveland to interview Ayler's 91-year-old father and gather family photos and mementos for inclusion in the set. You've also assembled and put out yourself a live double-album of 2008 duets of pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Tony Oxley, and put together a set of live recordings by alto-playing Taylor-collaborator Jimmy Lyons. In addition, you've sketched out a deluxe package of unreleased Ornette Coleman music, as well as a one-off reissue of Oxley's lost album Ichnos, both of which have yet to see light. What's the status of those would-be projects, and are there any others out there in the ether that are begging for the deluxe treatment?

A: Well, Ornette’s success story has allowed him to write all the terms about the publication of his music, and so far he’s sticking to his 1965 pronouncement to the effect that he’ll concern himself with the music of the future and isn’t so interested in music that he’s done long ago. So that’s on hold, or maybe in deep freeze. Ichnos has been discussed again recently as an LP project, but it’s not clear whether, when, or how at present. I will say that I’ve been enthused lately by some talks with folks close to David Izenzon’s estate about creating an LP project that would be the first ever under his name. Don’t want to jinx it, but that would be a treat for many listeners and for me to be a part of it. "Stay tuned," as we say.

Q: Those are some pretty forward-pushing artists, yet your tastes also include much earlier players such as Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Milton Brown, Don Redman... What's the common denominator in all the disparate music you dig?

A: I like the idea that there’s a single answer to that, but I also hope there’s room for folks to like different music for different reasons. There’s a section of my library that has Bill Doggett records next to Peter Brotzmann records, next to Booker Ervin, and Chris McGregor. Whatever it is that those guys have in common may be so broad that it’s not worth commenting on. Originality... singularity, maybe. Musicianship is part of it, but I will say that I think the deeper/longer you listen to something, the more you get to a refined understanding that welding a compelling, profound line out of individual sounds is a skill that transcends what we call style. You would hope that if Freddie Keppard had lived long enough to hear Lee Morgan he wouldn’t get hung up on the fact that Lee solos for 128 bars...

Q: Your love of jazz music spans its entire history - well, almost. What years or periods do you find the most interesting? 1925? 1939? 1947? 1959? 1964? And least interesting?

A: I’m endlessly captivated by 1961, partly for what we hear from that year and for what we don’t hear enough of. Least interesting? Nah.

Q: Do you like any jazz of today?

A: Of course the answer is "yes," but of course almost anything I’d mention would be the exception that proves I’m really a "mouldy fygge", or whatever the contemporary update would be. What I don’t do — for better or for worse — is keep up with all of the new records coming out by emerging artists. Some jazz journalists I think are able to do that kind of surfing but it really makes being conversant into a full-time job. Folks would probably look at my listening habits and say I’m stuck in the past; I would say that from a slightly more Zen approach I think that diving again and again into the very rich pools of music — wherever they’re from — is more rewarding than sipping from every pool there is. Then there’s at least a small issue of what it means for something to be "of today". If you listen to Bob Dylan (which I don’t, readers), do you have to be spinning his new Christmas record a lot in order to be "in-touch"? Many of the folks I went out of my way to see and hear and hang with in 2009 are between 60 and 80, but they’re still doing music that’s "of today" — Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Giuseppi Logan, Graves, Evan Parker, J.D. Parran, Roswell Rudd. To get further into the twist of all of these logics, a lot of jazz today is re-creative music — visiting or dwelling on bodies of sound made long ago by others. Speaking very broadly, there’s usually something less interesting about that than listening to original players doing what they do, even if they’ve been doing it for 50 years. Joni Mitchell versus Herbie Hancock-doing-Joni Mitchell... I am indeed challenged to point out a lot of people under 40 doing profound things who I actively could advocate for. I was impressed last fall by a college guitar player named Armand _____; it will be interesting to see where his talent leads. There are definitely artists in addition to the aforementioned whom I really try to follow – some who are on the fringe of so-called jazz, but who have the integrity to inspire one to follow their work with every new record that comes out: Barry Guy, Daniel Levin, Mark Dresser, Duck Baker, Rob Brown, many of the musicians already mentioned who are still active; much respect for Nate Wooley and Peter Evans; after knowing Steven Bernstein for a decade now, I’ve really in the last few years come to appreciate his projects.

Q: You wrote a biodiscography of trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon, published (by Greenwood Press) in 1998, charting every known performance by the man. For the last several years you've been working on compiling a similar document on Cecil Taylor, whose performances, dauntingly, far outnumber Dixon's. What is the scope of this project and where are you with it?

A: Well, it’s hard to measure these things, but in the spring of ’09, after being committed to the project for nearly eight years, I finally started to feel like there’s more that I know than that I don’t know. One challenge, as you suggest, is the scope of Taylor’s activities. Another is realizing — partly from the example of Dixonia — that the most effective bio-discography ought to have a pure-prose narrative history of cause/effect/explanation, in addition to the catalog-style data about the works themselves. So I’m trying to advance on all those fronts simultaneously. You’ll perhaps agree that the world could use some explaining of "how" and "why" within Cecil Taylor’s music. The factors involved are very complex, with many sources, and almost none of them straightforward. Hoping to not be too self-important about it, I am being careful that all possible stones are turned in the process, trying to live with and within the music to grok it most deeply. That answer seem a little empty now, without having written produce to show for it, but I do feel like the wisdom and theories and understandings are surfacing, fermented from the vast vat of facts. Meantime, I write a little bit every day.

Q: What's been in your ears lately?

A: Taylor’s music, of course. Seems like through the holidays recently I ended up hearing a lot of solo music by pianist Dick Wellstood in family situations, Emily Haines’s Knives Don’t Have Your Back — which is a classic — and likewise (believe it or not) Death Cab for Cutie. Honestly, there’s enough of a rainbow of music that comes past one by just doing activities at WKCR to keep one nutrified. I’ve been privileged to do some transfers lately of location recordings made in the lofts in the seventies — always intriguing, and some very powerful music. I’ve always revered Elliott Carter’s later string quartets, just recently re-acquainted with the first one. It too is a masterpiece. Also the string quartet by Lukas Foss that I haven’t heard in years...

Q: You worked with Verve Records from 1996-2001, spearheading the audio and historical research for CD reissues of the best chunk of the label's catalog. What were your favorite projects from your work there, musically and otherwise?

A: Well, if you’ll forgive a little over-taxonomy, I guess there are some that are favorites because they’re known and wonderful music, some that were largely new to me and still wonderful; some that were significant that they came out at all and some that seemed like an accomplishment because they required a lot of chiseling to bring out the lustre. To give a few examples of each:

  • Konitz: Motion; Mingus: Pre-Bird; Ornette: Dancing in Your Head; the Ella and Louis three-CD package
  • Getz: Mickey One; The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions; Modern Jazz Society; Chico O’Farrill: Cuban Blues
  • Alan Shorter: Orgasm; Art Tatum 20th Century Genius; The Complete Bill Evans
  • Chick Corea: Light as a Feather; Lambert Hendricks and Ross: Sing a Song of Basie; Woody Herman at Carnegie Hall

Q: Following the late-'90s merger/collision of PolyGram (Verve) and Vivendi/Universal (GRP/Impulse!), you were elbowed out of a job in a cloud of unsavory politics and corporate buffoonery. While you worked at Verve, employees numbered sixty-plus; the label now counts fewer than ten. As a music fan/scholar, record collector, and former (reluctant) music-biz insider, how do you look at the last ten years of the music industry, and what do you think the role of the label will be in the future?

A: It’s an intriguing matter even beyond the capitalist intrigues, but I don’t know if I really have any answers or insight beyond what we all sense. It can seem like the power shift back toward the artists as owners of the means of production is a good and counter-exploitative thing, but it’s not clear yet whether that really is having a benefit for the rank-and-file of dedicated creative artists/craftspeople — who all now more than ever have to fight their way into a much broader marketplace (rife with YouTube dilettantes), distracting them further from concentrating on making art. I can say I’ve been impressed with the orientation and progress represented by the Future of Music Coalition, which does stay on top of these things. Whatever positivity shakes out of the upheaval, they likely will have helped to guide it into place.

Q: There is a great deal of rare music shared on blogs today. How much do you turn to these sources for your own listening, and for WKCR programs? And have you ever come across any otherwise unique WKCR material on blogs or bootlegs?

A: Most of what we/I concentrate on work-wise is the very first step in this chain: restoration and optimized transfer of not-yet-digital recordings. I don’t actively go out trawling for new boots on the web, but like everybody else I enjoy going to the deli and getting a few juicy surprise rarities as a garnish to the sub I ordered. I do feel good about having relationships with some guys who are vigilant about grabbing limited-time goodies when they appear. [All About Jazz publisher] Andrey Henkin’s guest appearance on the air a couple of years ago pointed out to me that for those remaining connected, there’s quite a harvest of new/improved material from European broadcasts—predictably, much better sound quality to be had via the versions that circulate now, as opposed to hearing important music through so many cassette generations.
Probably the greatest part of that revolution is seeing the (admittedly few) truly dedicated, ravenous listeners who are able to make appropriate use of new stuff, digesting it in context. What I mean by that is that the general listenership has hardly put in enough time listening to the “un-rare” versions of things to derive all of the benefit from listening to alternative versions, new performances, etc. But I guess all roads lead to the good, as Plato tells us. We just gotta keep following them by continuing to listen. For me this goes back to your earlier questions about record labels as well: since the collapse of records, record labels, liner notes, etc., a radio presentation — or any sort of ‘broadcast’ (which blogging has become, really) — has some responsibility to try to contextualize appropriately the music that we’re sending out, to call listeners’ attention to salient things, be in command of the discographical history, make comparisons, etc.

Q: How involved are you in the non-jazz programming of the station?

A: I don’t do a lot beyond New Music and Jazz as a volunteer programmer, but as the Director of the place I’m in touch with all of the captains in all of the sectors of the station, trying to facilitate, counsel, solve problems, and train people in general skills that aren’t department-specific. I teach classes or courses in location recording, audio restoration, turntables and records, reel-to-reel tape, and as needed seminars in elocution style, and occasionally other stuff—like on-air fundraising style, discography. I was privileged last fall to speak on the topic of free improvisation.

Q: Do you have an opinion in the great debate of analog vs. digital?

A: Well, fundamentally, analog wins, because that’s how we hear. But the playing field is very seldom level enough to really make the comparison fairly. Was it Ara Parsegian? Some badass football coach years ago who was remarking on the comparison of team talent viz. coaches’ talent and he said “I could take your’n [i.e., your team] and beat his’n [team]; and I could take his’n and beat your’n.” I’ve done some projects in digital that could not have been published with the same depth in an analog format. Likewise, we’ve all heard analog recordings that have not yet been brought to life appropriately and are not in the league of the analog mastering.

Q: For Ailanthus/Altissima, the double-album of Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley duets you put out, you decided to issue it only on vinyl. Was that decision based on audio quality, sell-ability, or both?

A: You may be surprised by the answer. I was very eager to facilitate this project for Taylor and Oxley, mostly because I wanted to see if it could be done - "it" being the prospect of creating a vinyl artifact of their music that’s true to life, and also the "it" of the public wanting to drop the bread to own a collectors’ item. There is still one shoe to drop on the former score relating to vinyl pressing quality, but largely it’s getting done. It’s given me an excuse to get up close and personal with the physical mastering process of cutting, metal work, etc. to really comprehend how that comes together. The surprising part is really more philosophical: Taylor and Oxley have been making music for twenty years and the only analog recordings of their formidable music are sketchy cassette bootlegs from the late 80s. In a way I see the making of one record project for them like raising a stone monument: It will remain tangible, sturdy, playable longer than any of their or our lifetimes without having to prayerfully trust the information to the custodianship of generations after us — which I think is a web we’re caught in, having so much data imperfectly stored on our hard-drives and servers. A record is a finite kind of ‘forever’ that one need not worry about fading away around — at least for another 120 years, if recent experience holds. My curmudgeonly nature might be morphing into a new chapter where I’m positing oblivion and measuring back from there to ask: 'What are the absolutely essential things that really must carry on beyond the immediately visible?' Packaging things carefully to survive the new Dark Ages on the horizon.

Q: Where do you see yourself and KCR heading in the future?

A: Ten years ago in the Ken Burns Jazz documentary we heard Mr. Marsalis turn a clever phrase, saying "when America becomes itself,..." Methinks there’s something to that that has not just to do with jazz but with a lot of stuff. WKCR keeps chasing some pretty high principles in art and culture, embodying them in the chase, but not yet totally in command of being a controlled force in executing these grand designs. I find myself thinking and saying a lot, ‘Imagine what our little world would be like if we were able to re-purpose the time we spend groveling for subsistence money into the vital and real training of young minds as cultural special forces.’ It’s kinda like that... for me and for the station—visualizing projects that present the music and creeping toward them, but having to do that work in the margins of more basic and often mundane functions. I can say that things have been slowly falling into place for the Soundscape archive to blossom online and on the air — hopefully that will finally happen this season. When that becomes itself, it will model some of the directions that we might hope to take in packaging the past for meaningful digestion. Hopefully slow and steady wins the race against oblivion.