In the years before Donald Fagen co-founded the rock band Steely Dan, he rushed home to catch Ed Beach’s “fabulously erudite” jazz show on WRVR-FM. The New York Times described it as “the best of jazz interestingly presented. In fact, there’s nothing else quite like it on the air.”
From 1961 to 1976, Beach hosted “Just Jazz” on WRVR-FM in New York City. For two hours every weekday and four hours on Saturday nights, Beach played jazz — soloists, bands, traditional, modern — offering commentary in his distinctive deep voice. His playlist ranged from the early 1920s to the 1970s. He featured artists who achieved great fame — Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young — along with musicians new to his audience, often airing first releases of recordings or first-generation reissues.
His show is a standout slice of the new releases that the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) unveiled on its website last year. The AAPB, a joint project of the Library and the Boston public broadcaster GBH, digitally preserves public radio and television programs and shares online content. The Council on Library and Information Resources awarded $330,816 to New York’s renowned Riverside Church and the AAPB in 2018 to digitize, preserve and make public previously unavailable WRVR archival recordings. Beach’s programs were separate — the Library acquired his collection in the 1990s — but they were digitized as part of the project. Beforehand, only a few were available on-site at the Library on request.
“Ed’s collection had incredible range,” said Rob Bamberger, the longtime host of “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” on WAMU 88.5, the National Public Radio station in Washington, D.C. “One of the things that I actually find so sweet about listening to Ed is that his presentation is stripped of the decades of analysis on jazz that we have now. Ed was working from a frame of personal reference, because he was so much closer to the original ground.”
“Just Jazz” is part of a larger new exhibit on the AAPB website devoted to WRVR-FM, a pioneering noncommercial broadcaster that influenced public radio’s early years. Operated by the Riverside Church — its dramatic limestone structure sits atop one of New York City’s highest points — the station presented a rich diversity of religious programming along with public affairs and current events.
WRVR’s civil rights reporting helped win the station a Peabody Award in 1964, and Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” into a WRVR microphone in 1967. Countless others were also heard over its signal: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, presidents and Supreme Court justices, novelists and playwrights.
But WRVR devoted most of its broadcast hours to music, especially in its early years, and “Just Jazz” was the station’s flagship jazz program. When Beach did his show, only the most celebrated early jazz recordings were publicly available, and jazz writing likewise focused on a small circle of performers. Beach’s show was far more wide-ranging.
Alan Gevinson, who directs the Library’s side of the AAPB project, invited Bamberger to help select which Beach programs to make available on the AAPB website. (Researchers can now access all 1,000-plus programs on-site at the Library or through GBH.)
Bamberger is a familiar face not only in Washington, but also at the Library. He joined the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in 1975 on a temporary appointment and retired in 2010 as an energy policy specialist.
A lifelong devotee of vintage jazz — a Tommy Dorsey Orchestra album hooked him in sixth grade — Bamberger started broadcasting weekly on WAMU in 1980 while continuing to work for CRS.
Occasionally, Bamberger also assisted with acquisitions, including the Library’s Jerry Valburn/Duke Ellington collection and the expansive 78 rpm jazz record collection of former Columbia Records executive Robert Altshuler. Bamberger also served as a liaison in acquiring the stunning William P. Gottlieb collection of jazz photographs.
In selecting Beach recordings for the AAPB website, Bamberger was guided partly by his interest in Beach’s take on artists from an era before jazz became an academic discipline and reissues became common.
Bamberger cites Sidney Bechet, master of the soprano saxophone, as an example. Born in New Orleans, Bechet lived in Europe in the last half of the 1920s.
“I’m curious to hear what Ed says of Bechet,” Bamberger said. “Louis Armstrong has gotten the predominant nod as jazz music’s first great soloist. I suspect that had Bechet been making records then in the U.S., the histories might regard him as Armstrong’s equal.”
In any case, Bamberger said, “The shows are an embarrassment of riches. How do you make choices when you can’t go wrong?”
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