Piano Jazz hits its silver anniversary in April, a landmark that surprises nobody more than venerated host and pianist Marian McPartland. "It's kind of amazing that we've managed to be on the air for 25 years and no end in sight," she says with a laugh. "I sort of envisioned doing it for a few months, or at the most a year. It never occurred to me that people would like it as much as they do." Today it ranks among public radio's most popular music programs, airing on 241 stations and reaching almost 400,000 listeners a week.
One musical voice gaining ground on public radio sounds a little scruffier than the rest. Rather than a viola or sax, it bears a six-string axe and a heavier backbeat than your average chamber ensemble. Triple-A, an eclectic format that blends rock, folk, blues, world music and other genres, has already proven popular and lucrative for stations such as New York's WFUV, Philadelphia's WXPN and southern California's KCRW. But smaller stations in fly-over country, inspired by the format's major-market success, are also displacing jazz and classical music for newer musical genres that carry themselves like outsiders. As a result, listeners may be tuning in to the sultry lilt of young chanteuse Norah Jones or the twang of O Brother blues rather than Mozart and Gershwin.
When the NPR-distributed program Piano Jazz had its 20th anniversary in 1999, Current Contributing Editor David Stewart wrote this profile of the program and its host. Marian McPartland is the host of the longest-running jazz program in the history of network radio. Her Piano Jazz has also enjoyed the longest run of any entertainment series on NPR. In March 1998, she celebrated her 80th birthday on stage at New York's Town Hall. Billy Taylor, himself the host of an NPR jazz series, Billy Taylor's Jazz from the Kennedy Center, kept up the musical action as a parade of Marian's friends came to perform and wish her well: pianists Tommy Flanagan, Jacky Terrasson and Ray Bryant, bassists Christian McBride and Bill Crow, drummers Joe Morello, Grady Tate and Lewis Nash, and trumpeter Harry ("Sweets") Edison, among others.
Max Morath reminded America about a largely forgotten part of its musical legacy, but beyond that achievement of mass education, the musician also helped educational TV accept the element of entertainment in its programs. This article by Contributing Editor David Stewart is part of Stewart's planned book on public TV programming. Stewart, who retired as CPB's director of international activities, profiled early television's favorite professor, Frank Baxter, in a January issue of Current. In the summer of 1959 an itinerant musician and sometimes TV producer, Max Morath, was playing piano for melodramas in the restored mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo. A year later, the 33-year-old graduate of Colorado College had written and performed a 12-part TV series that would change noncommercial television forever. Over the next five years — while the music rights were held by National Educational Television (NET) — The Ragtime Era became the most watched noncommercial series up to that time, run and rerun constantly by all the educational (and many commercial) stations throughout the country.
This is the view from Martin Goldsmith, then host of NPR's daily classical music program Performance Today, who served as announcer, producer and program director at Washington's WETA-FM between 1974 and 1986. From the same thinking that has offered "seamlessness," "affinity," "modes" and "appeal-driven programming" as ways of capturing the public radio audience now comes "customer service." At first glance, this concept seems perfectly reasonable, even admirable. It conjures up images of the radio programmer as shopkeeper, hustling to fill his customers' orders, keeping them satisfied so that they'll continue to place their orders at that familiar stand on the dial. With customer satisfaction, so the theory goes, comes customer loyalty ...
Admired series disappears into copyright limbo
The series contained so many musical clips that the producers apparently didn't want to spend what it would take to extend their broadcast rights. For years, as a result, the series has not been available for broadcast or for purchase on DVD or videocassette. As a result, PBS's online store began selling videos of Time-Warner's rock history series not originally made for public TV, The History of Rock 'N Roll. New York Times critic John O'Connor preferred the BBC/WGBH series. Buying extensive new rights to resume broadcasts of the famed doc series Eyes on the Prizecost hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2006.