The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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A Stowaway in the Sky Returns to the Air
Thursday, August 9, 2018 -- For most of us, music always has been the soundtrack of our lives on the road.
We toted transistor radios in our carry-on bags. Then it was Walkmans or CD players. Then came the iPods and other music players. Now, of course, all our sounds reside on our smartphones.
When it comes to music, I have always hewn to Irving Berlin's prescription: Count Your Blessings.
It was my father who first pointed me at music. He was one of those build-your-own stereo freaks and he would obsess over every melody that came from whatever box he favored at the moment. He was also the one who tuned all our home and car radios to WNEW-AM, the New York music station whose influence once rippled across the nation.
It was on WNEW where I first heard a brilliantly written Sondheim song, Small World. I didn't know Sondheim's name, of course, but even as a kid I knew I was hearing something special. It was on WNEW where I first heard a jazz vocal. When you're 10 or 11 and you hear Irene Kral's Better Than Anything, your world changes. And it was on WNEW where I first heard the bossa nova. More than 50 years later, I fly nowhere without Jobim music--and it's always an ecstatic day when I find another cover of Waters of March.
A pair of art directors--Larry Brill and Les Waldstein--shepherded my transition to musical adulthood. Working in their shop while I studied at NYU a couple blocks away, they gave me records no teenager would have otherwise found. And it was Larry Brill who once delivered an ultimatum: Go see a trumpet player named Chet Baker, playing his first New York gig in years, or get fired. I went. I was dazzled.
Then there is Jonathan Schwartz, the constant voice on the radio, decade after decade, station after station, technology after technology. His passionate promotion of the Great American Songbook and the men and (one) woman who created it, has been most admirable. His patter about those creators--his father, the composer Arthur Schwartz, was one of them--has been enlightening. And he has been wise enough to expand his definition of great popular music. His shows, always heavy on Sinatra and Bennett and Ella, also inject carefully curated doses of Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and new-wave performers such as Cyrille Aimee and Jason Robert Brown.
I write about Schwartz today because he is back "on the air" after a six-month absence. His newest venture, The Jonathan Station, is modest and technologically limited. But Schwartz, now 80, still has the passion. That's what matters to any of us who want to listen and learn about great music.
His first shows on The Jonathan Station have had all the Sinatra and Bennett and Billie Holiday that you'd ever want, all his familiar tales about Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and Sondheim, all his Red Sox obsession. Shows open with the same music as always, a private piece featuring Carly Simon. They meander as always from jazz to pop and from vocals to instrumentals. They career from career (the life of novelist Phil Roth) to career (tales of the arranger Nelson Riddle). Then more Sinatra, maybe some Basie and surely some Fred Astaire and Nancy LaMott. Shows end as they have for decades: with Riddle's delicate and delightful version of the theme from Stowaway in the Sky, a gentle 1960 film about a French ballooning adventure.
Schwartz has also been a writer and novelist, a television personality and a voice-over artist. He's even been a singer and recording artist. He never performed outside New York because, as he often says, he "has an aversion to the word 'Ramada'." What frequent flyer would argue with that sentiment?
But it's as a radio personality where Schwartz has had his greatest impact. He was one of the original free-form rock DJs of the 1960s even though he didn't know much about the rock vernacular at the time. As WNEW-AM struggled in the 1980s, he created a fabulous show called New York Tonight featuring live, in-studio musical performances. He's fronted Sinatra-themed and American Standards channels on XM and Sirius satellite radio.
In 1999, he landed at WNYC, a powerhouse public radio station, and it seemed like he'd found a permanent home. In 2013, WNYC even created The Jonathan Channel, a 24/7 streaming service. Besides Schwartz five days a week, the service also showcased new voices, most notably Radio Deluxe with the chatty, charming husband-and-wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey.
Then one day last December, Schwartz was gone, fired along with another WNYC fixture named Leonard Lopate. Their crimes seemed vaguely related to the #MeToo movement, but WNYC refused to satisfactorily detail the offenses. Many savvy radio watchers think the station moved hastily on Lopate and Schwartz, an overreaction to management's egregious bungling of the genuine scandal surrounding John Hockenberry. Schwartz has never spoken in his own defense.
I know nothing of Schwartz's office demeanor. I've never met him, although we once passed each other in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel between shows at the now-closed Oak Room nightclub. I spoke to him once for about 15 seconds when I called in to his New York Tonight broadcast and convinced the aforementioned Pizzarelli, a talented musical mimic, to sing Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours in Bob Dylan's voice. And, full disclosure, Schwartz once hilariously mangled my name when it was included in a commercial for a magazine where I'd just written the cover story.
No, fellow travelers, this isn't personal. It's all about the musical soundtrack of our lives on the road. With Schwartz again on the metaphoric air, I've got mine back.
Wherever I am in the world now, I can once again tune in, listen to Sinatra and Blossom Dearie, learn about a new release from Nicki Parrott or Diana Panton and maybe hear for the hundredth time Schwartz's tale of how he and his father would switch to "the Dorothy Fields side" of the street.
If I'm really lucky, I'll be in some thank-god-it's-not-a-Ramada in London or Lisbon or La Crosse and Schwartz will spin Bennett's masterful It Was Me. It's the perfect segue into one more playing of Stowaway in the Sky.
AS I WAS SAYING ...
I have written about music and the road before, including last year's reconstruction of two live Ella Fitzgerald concerts on Continental Airlines flights. In 2009, I wrote about contemporary music that made it into my playlists thanks to a TV show called Chuck. Since I always wanted to be mentioned in the same sentence as Stephen Sondheim, I wrote the sentence in 2001 while simultaneously celebrating a revival of Follies and my third anniversary as a columnist at a now-defunct Web site. And in 1998, on the day Sinatra died, we talked about Come Fly With Me, his seminal 1958 album that became the soundtrack of the then-new jet age.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.