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Published:September 3rd, 2012 15:14 EST
Jazz and the Future of Technology As Told By a Metalhead

Jazz and the Future of Technology As Told By a Metalhead

By Michelle Harven

During the annoying period of time even die-hard public radio fans turn to their CDs for refuge from annual pledge drives, I had tuned into WRTI, Temple University`s classical and jazz station.  Like some, I primarily listen to classical and jazz when I am too tired to listen to anything else, but do not want complete silence. 

It was a Monday, just before 1 a.m., and while zoning out to this quite predictable soundscape, my attention was drawn to a radio personality`s voice that sounded more lonely than normal.  His voice made him sound like an older man, perhaps in his forties, a little overweight, a cigarette smoker, and somewhat reminiscent of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. 
I imagined him sitting alone in the studio, close to the microphone, pouring his heart out to whomever might be listening.  He was extraordinarily personable, someone who just enjoyed speaking.

You don`t listen to the radio for a DJ that`s slightly delusional from lack of sleep; you listen for the music, " he rambled.  He asked for a pledge like he was expected to do, but instead of selling us like other public radio DJs, he acknowledged that we most likely wouldn`t pitch in.  I mean, I`m unemployed except for this WRTI job. "  This honesty prompted me to give him my full trust.  Every time he came on the air he surprised me with how open he was; it was better each time.  I soon found myself in my driveway waiting to hear the DJ`s strange digressions once more, listening intently to whatever he decided to spin. 

I decided I needed to contact this odd jazz crusader and pick his brain.

Frank`s charm from the radio, that personable, genuine quality, translated well in person.  When he called to tell me he was going to be late, I asked how he was.

    Good, "he answered, And yourself?"
    Well, "I say. 
    Well! "He blurts. I always forget about that."
    I meet Frank at a bar and grill that boasts about its tomato pie and singing bartender, a real delight during karaoke nights I`m sure.  

When I order a beer, he orders wine and says, I pussed out.  You order like the coolest beer and I just pussed out."
    Actually, I came here for the beer, "I say.
    Yeah, they used to have crap here until I told the owner he needed some craft beer."
Despite my impression from the radio, Frank is in his late 20s.  His dark hair touches his shoulders, and he seems like one of those people perpetually wearing a backwards baseball cap, which he later explains is to keep his hair out of his face.  He sports a clean-shaven goatee and black square-framed glasses. 

I initially contacted Frank so that he could be my jazz professor in an expedited course, but I soon found our conversation led further away from jazz and into the future of radio and technology.  He discussed what our dependence on technology is doing to us, and the goals of a podcast he co-hosts.

I learned that Jazz stumbled into Frank`s life about five years ago after he graduated from Temple University`s communication program.  He said that he learned about the genre while on the job and through his knowledgeable program director at WRTI.  With jazz having such a rich history and its fans being of the serious variety, I asked if he felt a responsibility towards the genre.

Jazz is one of the few genres that I wouldn`t ever dare overstep my boundaries of what I actually know.  Real jazz fans are so intelligent about the genre that they`ll call me at all hours of the night and get on me about the slightest misuse of a word or of the mispronunciation of a name.  You really have to appreciate the music as well as the history and culture. "

What do you find that`s interesting about the history of jazz?

  What`s interesting about jazz is that, aside from anything truly classical, every genre of music originates from Jazz.  I think jazz and original blues go hand-in-hand.  I often mention on air my fondness for hard rock and heavy metal, as well as even some old school hip hop.  I like to tie it into how it relates to jazz.  Even in some of the most hardcore thrashing Slayer songs, you can find elements of jazz, especially in the drums and bass. "

Is there a jazz scene in Philadelphia or the surrounding areas?  Do you know who your audience is?

It`s such an eclectic mix.  I would say the main demographic is older, but there are times when I`m walking in the city and someone will recognize my voice and it will be a younger kid, like a teenager or someone in their 20s.  You never expect it.  I`ve been to Chris`s Jazz Café, which is a great venue for jazz.  The first time I went there I was expecting to be the young buck in the smoky jazz club with the old guys at the bar, but there are people of all ages in there, which is actually kind of cool. 

Musicians appreciate Jazz on a much deeper level.  Young people may start studying music and learn an instrument, and they typically learn jazz or classical first.  I think that`s what draws a lot of the young people into jazz. Once you`re into it, you get hooked and start to understand it and gain a deeper appreciation of it. "

What do you think makes jazz special?  What sets it apart from other musical genres?

It creates a feel, an atmosphere, an ambiance that you don`t really get in much other music.  Some people may kill me for saying this, but I prefer when there are no vocals in jazz and it`s just instrumental. The very essence of jazz and creating that atmosphere is in the music, and mainstream music now relies too heavily on the vocals.  Too much of today`s music relies on the lyrics and vocals to create a mood for you.  It`s sort of how I differentiate good heavy metal from bad heavy metal.  With good heavy metal, you can take out the vocals and still have awesome music.  Sometimes the vocals ruin the song and sometimes they enhance it.  I like to think of Cradle of Filth for example.  They are extremely talented musicians, but I think they rely on the vocals too much. "

It`s so interesting to me that musicians can improvise.  I feel like it makes the music more honest because they aren`t hiding behind sheet music and lots of practice time.  Can you speak to the improvisational element of jazz?

I agree.  I love live music and I play it as often as I can on the air because I love jazz for the improvisational element of it.  They improv just because they feel it or they just want to.  Whatever their reasons are, it adds to the whole live element of it.  Whatever they put on record is awesome.  They might not have the pyrotechnics and the light show like some other mainstream concerts, but you are going there for the best music show that money can buy. "     

Do you think Jazz is meant to be heard live?

I think so.  I won`t say the recording studio has hurt or killed jazz, but it has taken away from it a little bit.  You hear it live, and it`s a whole other experience.  When bands sound the same in concert as they do on their CDs, what`s the point of going?  You could have saved yourself $45 and listened to the CD in your car and just jammed out. "

Do you think jazz is still changing?

I think that`s the beauty of jazz.  Some of my favorite subgenres of jazz are the afro-cuban style and Spanish elements.  I love that stuff.  The very essence of jazz is to change, add elements and evolve.  It always maintains what it is.  When you hear jazz, you know it`s jazz.  To hear an artist do a jazz standard and then hear someone else do it " you know it`s the same standard but you`re feeling it in a different way.  So even the classics are tweaked and manipulated into new styles. "

What are some good introductions to jazz?

It all depends who you`re talking to.  If you`re talking to a musician, you can never go wrong with the classics: Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Oliver Nelson, [John] Coltrane.  With someone younger, you can give them Jaco Pastorius and Idris Muhammad. Their stuff has a classical jazz feel, but they`re so funky and unique that I think it would appeal more to the younger listeners of jazz. "

Are you a musician?

I was a drummer and the front man of a heavy metal band. "

Are you not playing in bands anymore?

I wish.  As you get older you realize that your mortgage payment means more than being young and dumb again.  I got a real job at a pharmaceutical company and it sucked, but that`s why I do the podcast.  It allows me to keep the humor and fun spirited side of me still going. " 

Can you tell me more about the podcast?

Let me start by saying radio has changed.  Radio is not like before where you made a demo tape and sent it out to the most obscure place in America and got a job and grew and moved until you finally ended up in a big market and got a good job.  It`s sort of like that but not anymore with the technology change.  So my co-host and I, Tim , who also works at WRTI as an overnight jock, were both frustrated with feeling stuck at WRTI doing overnight shifts and sending our demo tape everywhere with no one picking us up.  So we decided we`d start a podcast and establish ourselves as a morning comedy show that a station would be happy to have us on as an edgy "I don`t want to say shock-jock because that`s a cliché term "but that in-your-face morning show, and that`s what we do.  Howard Stern is an easy parallel, but if you`re familiar with Kidd Chris who used to be in Philadelphia and used to be a contributor on the Howard Stern show, we kind of liken ourselves to a Kid Chris model with lots of pranks, stunts, and wild, sexual banter. " 

Do you listen to Preston and Steve (a popular Philadelphia-based comedy morning show that monopolizes the airwaves)?

Kid Chris battled with Preston and Steve in Philadelphia for a while but Preston and Steve were the safe kind of comedy.  I respect them for all the success that they have.  I wish them nothing but the best.  They`re good at what they do; they`re just not my flavor of comedy.  You can talk about any of their topics around the water cooler at work and I don`t like talking to people at work about that cliché bullsh*t.  My podcast is the complete opposite of Preston and Steve.  You`re not going to talk about it around the water cooler. " 

What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?

I`ve always listened to everything, but I`m a metalhead at heart.  I think the cool thing about heavy metal since the late 90s is that it`s taken on more of a hip hop element.  Since the 80s and especially early 90s it`s taken on different elements.  I think now more than ever you have different genres collaborating with one another. "

Can you name any artists that blend hip hop and heavy metal well?

Korn.  That`s my favorite band.  Also, Hed PE and POD.  Korn has a fairly strong jazz, funk, and blues influence in their music. "

Would you like to be a DJ for the rest of your life?

The beauty about being a radio DJ is that you can do other things too.  I definitely want to keep an on air radio job.  I love being on air.  I`ve been an entertainer my whole life so it`s kind of a natural fit for me.  But while radio is a lot different with the technology, radio is a very tough business.  You have to be prepared to move around the country and unless you have tenure or a morning show there isn`t much money in strictly being a DJ. "

Do you think radio will be around after our lifetime?

Yes.  Satellite radio is already playing commercials, yet their thing was to be non-commercial. Now, it`s cable TV.  When cable TV first came out, it advertised no commercials because you were paying for the subscription.  Even if you sold to 100% of America you still want to keep growing your revenue.  Satellite radio is going to die out; people are already getting tired of it.  Why would you pay for radio when you can get it for free?  You can`t watch TV in your car as you`re driving.  You can have your ipod, your podcasts, this and that, but that radio is always going to be there.  iHeartRadio is helping that.  You can listen to any radio station around the country.  That`s helped radio but even that is going to die out.  Smart phones helping radio will die out. I think radio is going to persevere on its own merit.  When Ben FM first started, there were no DJs and just like any other station that tried doing that, they got a DJ and now I think they have several DJs.  The thing about radio is, you listen to it because you build a connection to the perceived relationship with who you hear on air.  People just want to hear other people. You know when you listen to a song, it`s a recorded song, but when you hear someone talking over the air, even though most of radio isn`t live (there`s a couple second delay), you still connect to another person, another human being.  Because of that you will always have radio while you`re driving or whatever the case may be. "

This will be a total ramble, and I apologize, but I just finished reading this book called Physics of the Future written by Michio Kaku. He said that in the future, we will eliminate the need for gas in our cars.  We will eventually have roads that are magnetic and the cars will drive themselves.  Even in that instance when you sit back and wait for the car to take you where you need to go, we will still have radio because people want to have that connection.  They want to hear music and have it as a background.  You can`t have TV on as background filler as easily as you can with radio.  But this could be wishful thinking on my part as a radio guy. "

Do you listen to National Public Radio?  They still have some radio theatre shows playing that were popular before television. 

Everything cycles back. A couple guys that I used to work with have been listening to radio dramas on podcasts.  If a few random young guys listen to radio dramas, maybe there is something to it.  Maybe it will make a comeback.  I haven`t heard any since like 4th or 5th grade. "

They`re pretty cool.  I like the idea of everyone sitting around the radio listening to a story.  It`s taking out the visual factor, complete storytelling.  

I`m going to totally geek out here.  I`m in graduate school, getting my Masters in communication and leadership.  I`ve always felt this before but now that I`m educated about it, I get really passionate and fired up about going back to the communal way of living and getting rid of media effects.  Video has killed so much.  We have Internet and smart phones.  Everything is fed to us.  There is no such thing as thinking anymore, unless you`re writing or talking face-to-face.  I hope that does stick around. I hope that radio sticks around and radio dramas bring radio back to the forefront of media communication. "

Do you blame the Internet for killing communication, knowledge?

I love the Internet.  It`s the greatest technology ever created but I despise it that much more because it has really hurt our interpersonal communication.  It`s great if you use it right, but as mankind is known to do, we whore things out for our own purposes and manipulate it.  The Internet can be great, but it`s become such a drain on our brainpower and ability to relate to one another.  Which is why I`m against smart phones. I don`t want to be tethered to it at all times. "
I`ve never heard of anyone being anti-smart phone.  Everyone loves their smart phones.

I know and it`s absolutely sickening to me. "

But don`t you find those times where you wish you had a smart phone so that you could find an answer right at that moment?

I love thinking about things.  I`d much rather be in an hour and a half long debate and brain storming session than google and get the answer.  I`d rather mapquest or look at the map than use my GPS.  When I pull it out I feel defeated.  I don`t want to have an iphone and when I try to figure something out on my own, I just pull out my iphone, and think "oh my god, woe is me; I`m such a weak person`.  When my friends ask me to look up something up on their iphone I feel like an 80-year-old man. I don`t know what I`m doing. "

Conversation and debate is very philosophical.  When we have smartphones and have the answers at the tip of our fingers, we can`t converse anymore.  There`s no debate.  Philosophy is mainly only alive in academia or academia-like institutions.  Do you think this technology is why philosophy is not in our lives anymore and why we are not having these great conversations?

I`m about to get really weird and conspiracy theorist on you.  Are you familiar with the Illumanti?  In short, it`s the idea that thirteen families essentially rule the world and have for centuries.  I don`t want to get stuck on that so much as I like to focus on that it`s controlled people through technology and the media.  It`s leveling out the playing field where everyone is sort of becoming walking zombies tethered to their phones or their laptops and they lose their ability to think, reason, and analyze as much as philosophers of the past have done.  We are fed this pre-filtered, pre-determined message and we are controlled by it.  It`s ultimately Big Brother, a surveillance thing.  I try to avoid my dependence on technology.  I did this survey for class to document every time you use technology or media and it consumed almost 90% of my waking hour.  The only time I didn`t use a media technology was when I was in the bathroom or I was cooking food.  It`s awful. " 

Of course, the future of radio and media is the future of Frank McCloy so check out his podcast, Preying on the Weak.  It`s called such because a lot of the pranks and humor that he and his co-host incorporate into the show are directed at people who over-expose and make themselves vulnerable on the Internet.  It`s a far jump from anything involving classical and jazz, but maybe that`s why you`d like it.

A Top 5 Jazz List Composed by a Metalhead

The list below is for anyone, whether they are long-time listeners of jazz, novices, or musicians. " --Frank McCloy

1.) John Coltrane: Coltrane is one of those musicians that makes everyone playing with him better. His command and improvisation on the saxophone has made him a pioneer and jazz legend. Anyone wanting to learn about jazz should start with Coltrane, and Miles Davis.

2.) Miles Davis: No list would be complete without Davis. His album Kind of Blue is widely regarded as the coolest, most influential jazz album ever; however, there is so much more to Davis and his music than just that one album.

3.) Esperanza Spalding: She is a jazz bassist, vocalist, and composer, but more importantly, Grammy winner for best new artist. She has taken jazz and brought it to the mainstream (or as much as it can be while still staying true to its roots). It can be argued that she is where and what jazz is today.

4.) Poncho Sanchez: Sanchez, a conguero and singer, is one of my personal favorites because of his eclectic sound of Latin, soul, jazz, and funk. He is widely considered one of the best percussionists of our time, and it is reflected accordingly in his albums and spirited live performances.

5.) Hiromi Uehara: Hiromi delivers a funky, progressive, blow-your-mind sound both as a solo artist and band leader. If Spalding is where and what jazz is today then Hiromi is the out-of-this-world, future of jazz (in my opinion anyway). My two favorite albums of hers are Time Control and Beyond Standard, which feature her Sonicbloom. They are Hiromi on piano, Martin Valihora on drums, Tony Grey on bass, and David Fiuczynski on guitar.