Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music feature: Jazz DJ keeps the flame alive in WXEL show

Stu Grant, jazz deejay.


By Bill Meredith

For someone who isn't a professional musician, jazz deejay Stu Grant sure sounds like he's crafting a restaurant gig set list -- rather than a radio playlist -- for his Jazz Impressions show on WXEL 90.7 FM.

"I look at the first hour of the show as the dinner hour, and keep it lighter," he says of the weekly Saturday evening broadcast. "As the evening goes along, we get more adventurous."

For listeners, that can mean early Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Elaine Elias leading to Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and Diana Krall, then John Coltrane, Chick Corea and Miles Davis.

Grant has tinkered with the piano, saxophone and drums. But it's his 38 years of jazz programming for several South Florida radio stations that make for his sound instincts. Jazz Impressions debuted as a 6-9 p.m. program on the National Public Radio station in late February, then expanded to 6-10 p.m. on July 4. It also streams at www.wxel.org.

"We've had a huge positive response to the show," says WXEL program director Joanna Marie. "I get e-mails every week from people who say they're glad they've found us, and they're happy to find Stu back on the air."

Grant's previous radio gig was for Love 94 (WLVE 93.9 FM), which let him go last December after 12 years as the station's jazz host.

"Love 94 decided to go to a disco and R&B format," Grant says. "They let me know I was out on Christmas Eve last year, which was a surprise. But Joanna and WXEL general manager Jerry Carr were very receptive to bringing me in, plus another Love 94 deejay, Gina Martell. She hosts a Sunday Brazilian music show."

Stuart Marc Grant, 61, was born in Brooklyn. His career path was impacted by father Alan Grant, a jazz deejay, promoter, producer and emcee. Now 89 and living in North Miami, the elder Grant presented live jazz on the radio during the 1960s, including shows by Davis, Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Art Blakey and Bill Evans at New York City clubs like such as the Half Note, Village Vanguard and Birdland.

"Those guys were so creative that, I guess, they didn't leave too much for the musicians today," Alan Grant says. "There are good musicians now, but not of that level. But jazz was a heck of a lot more popular then, too. I worked with so many of the greats.

"I remember one day I was doing a live radio broadcast at the Half Note club with Wes Montgomery," he continues, "and we had to be done at a certain time because I was supposed to go from there to Carnegie Hall to introduce Oscar Peterson. I realized that I was running late at the Half Note, which was downtown. Carnegie Hall is uptown, so I had to get a police escort to get there on time.

"And for some reason, I asked Oscar if he knew the tune The Nearness of You. He said yes, and asked if I wanted to sing it. I wasn't going to turn down that opportunity, so I can always say I actually appeared onstage at Carnegie Hall with Oscar Peterson."

"As a youngster, I made a point to go with my dad to all those clubs," Stu Grant says. "I remember so much of that, particularly at the Half Note, where he did a Friday night broadcast over WABC-FM. I'd sit there eating an eggplant parmesan sandwich at 11 p.m. while Wes, Cannonball Adderley or Horace Silver were on the bandstand. The world was good, and it's become a father-and-son tradition. I'm trying to keep jazz alive in South Florida, working with organizations like the Gold Coast Jazz Society and Jazz Arts Music Society of Palm Beach."

"I'm so proud of Stu," Alan Grant says. "He kept tabs on everything I was doing, so he's very knowledgeable. He does a wonderful job."

Like many New Yorkers, the younger Grant moved south for the tropical weather, and started hosting a midnight-6 a.m. jazz show six nights a week at WBUS on Miami Beach in 1971. Grant's mother (who, like his father, divorced and remarried) now lives in Delray Beach; his younger brother is in Fort Lauderdale, and his older sister in Boca Raton, where she hosts many family reunions.

"I live just west of Aventura, and north of Hallandale, in the California Club now," Grant says. "I've lived there since before Hurricane Andrew. I remember one of my co-workers and I manned Love 94, back when they were just in one building, on that dreadful night. We'd never realized how many leaks there were in the roof."

Some people in general, and musicians and critics in particular, may see smooth jazz as a deterrent to jazz tradition, but not Grant. His four-hour shows are likely to include almost every tributary, from the American Songbook, bebop and bossa nova to smooth, Afro-Cuban and traditional. Everything, basically, except fusion or avant-garde.

"No 10-minute bass solos or wild guitar riffs," Grant says. "I love melody. Smooth jazz has that, and is a step in the right direction. It can arouse curiosity to go into a record store and look for Ella or Dizzy."

If true, that could provide a shot in the arm for jazz radio, which has essentially declined in popularity despite occasional surges since dawning 85 years ago. The Public Broadcasting System Website estimates that 583 radio stations existed in 1924, two years after Radiola introduced the first retail radio.

That was before the advent of many modern musical forms, so jazz -- then considered America's "popular music" -- was a huge part of radio programming. Yet even with the expected expansion of the radio industry, the AllAboutJazz Website estimated that the number of radio stations ha decreased to 317 nationally by 2005, with considerably less programming for jazz than for the popular music forms (like rock, oldies, easy listening and hip-hop) that essentially replaced it.

"I'm working with Miami jazz saxophonist Jesse Jones Jr., who just retired as a bailiff with the Dade County Court," Grant says. "He has a great new CD out, which we just sent out to program directors at about 250 stations around the country."

Jazz can still be found on most NPR stations, but often in small doses, and presented by one deejay. Grant certainly qualifies as the lone jazz voice of WXEL, but his dosage is potent, even as satellite and streaming stations such as www.jazz24.org attempt to lure away listeners.

"I don't think those kinds of stations are having a very large impact on us yet, although they may eventually," Marie says. "We're primarily a classical format, along with news and information. But most of our shows last only an hour. My own weekday classical music show is three hours long, so four hours definitely makes Stu's show the longest we have."

Grant has started his own Website, www.stugrantjazz.com, to expand and expound upon his show's popularity. By day, he sells two-way radios, GPS devices and surveillance cameras, but his jazz mission statement once again makes him sound like a musician.

"The show is a labor of love," he says. "It's not about the money. I truly love jazz; the harmonics, the melodies and the interplay. I always just felt like it was where I was supposed to be."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively on jazz, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times magazines.

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