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Radio and Jazz: On the Air

by Paul Schomer, Senior Producer for Online Cultural Progamming, National Public Radio

Audio sample Singin the Blues by Frankie Trumbauer
Recorded February 4, 1927
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

DJ spinning records
DJ spinning records
Image courtesy of University of Missouri

In 1920, while Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were mastering their craft, engineers at a Pittsburgh company were experimenting with a new technology called radio. Conceived in 1898 by 24 year-old scientist Guglielmo Marconi, radio allowed messages to be transmitted over long distances without telegraph wire. The engineers at Pittsburgh's KDKA had taken the medium a step further, using radio to broadcast programming over the air. Radios were not yet available for purchase, so only hobbyists heard these first broadcasts, but before long, Americans were enchanted by this new technology, and companies selling the paraphernalia necessary to build small radios boomed. Finally, in 1922, Radiola introduced its ready-built radio, the Console, for popular use. Even with the prohibitive price of $75, radios soon became a fixture in the American home. By 1924, there were 583 stations nationwide, and an estimated three million receivers in use.

As audiences became accustomed to radio, they demanded a variety of new and entertaining programming, and before long, radio stations were under growing pressure to find enough material to fill each broadcast day. From the beginning, music was a key programming element, and live performances were regularly broadcast directly from the studio. Unsurprisingly, radio was alluring to singers and musicians; it gave every performer a chance to gain national exposure.

Family listening to radio
Family listening to radio
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In particular, jazz and radio shared a unique relationship. Unlike America's musical venues and bandstands, the airwaves were not strictly segregated. So it was radio that helped to spread jazz, piping Duke Ellington's Cotton Club performances into American homes just as families sat down for dinner or settling in for the evening. But the relationship between jazz and radio wasn't always a positive one. Savvier radio programmers marketed their broadcasts by cashing in on racial stereotypes, labeling jazz "jungle music" to suggest a kind of mysterious, erotic aspect. In addition, the opportunities afforded by radio were only available to a minority of African-Americans. The constraints of segregated America were felt acutely by black station owners and programmers, who struggled — often in vain — to establish and maintain stations in an less than welcoming white nation. But as time passed, Americans proved unable to pull themselves away from the irresistible melodies of jazz, and with the help of radio, men like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong were on their way to becoming household names in black and white households alike.

Jazz Radio Today

Jazz radio today reflects the unyielding dedication of jazz performers, programmers and promoters, individuals and groups, for-profits and non-profits. These artists, patrons and organizations make a truly noble collective effort to preserve the extraordinary legacy of jazz and to ensure its bright future for generations to come.

As the new century begins, this worthy cause is borne primarily by America's public radio stations, whose devoted and skilled personnel create and broadcast innovative independent jazz programming and allow their airwaves to carry syndicated jazz programming from worldwide networks like National Public Radio. NPR Jazz programs include Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, JazzSet with Branford Marsalis, Jazz from Lincoln Center with host Ed Bradley, Jazz Profiles hosted by Nancy Wilson and Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. The programming features documentary profiles, live performances and firsthand insight into the finest minds in jazz.

Musician, composer, educator, and recent recipient of the ASCAP Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award, Marian McPartland likes to call her 20 years of hosting Piano Jazz "the best gig I've ever had." The Peabody Award-winning program is always comfortable, improvised, and full of great music and memories. JazzSet, hosted by Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis, showcases the hottest live performances from festivals, clubs, and theaters around the world. The program delivers jazz as it's being created, by the best-known, seasoned artists, as well as younger talent deserving of wider recognition.

Jazz from Lincoln Center, hosted by Ed Bradley of CBS News, presents jazz in all its glorious sound and diversity. The program features performances produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, music by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, and the work of countless special guest musicians. Also a Peabody Award winner, the show is a jazz experience like no other. NPR's Jazz Profiles mines the rich trove of NPR archives and beyond to present a stellar documentary series chronicling the people, places and events in jazz. Grammy-winning vocalist Nancy Wilson narrates the stories, providing invaluable commentary on the lives and music of jazz legends.

Dr. Billy Taylor, a highly respected pianist and educator, is a living jazz legend and the recipient of the latest Society of American Musicians Lifetime Achievement Award. For Jazz at the Kennedy Center, distinguished guest artists perform with Dr. Taylor's trio, taking time between numbers to field questions from both host and audience members. The responses are spontaneous, often leading to unique musical demonstrations and the show's finest moments.

These programs from NPR Jazz, along with NPR news magazine feature stories on jazz and, are a significant part of why the NPR Cultural Programming Division has been honored by the White House this year with the National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest arts award.