All that jazz

A conversation with NPR's Dick Buckley

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By Bob Sullivan

There's a legend living right here in Oak Park. No, you don't have to be dead to be a legend. A treasure? Too lofty. An institution? Maybe that's it. A radio voice heard throughout Chicagoland for nearly half a century.

Dick Buckley's brought you some of the finest well-known and little-known jazz over the years. Chicago musicians know all about him; so do Chicago and Midwest jazz lovers. If you like what you saw and heard on the recent Ken Burns jazz documentary on public television, you'll like what you hear on National Public Radio (91.5 FM) every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. when Dick Buckley of goes on the air. We sat down with him recently for a wide-ranging conversation.

What about your beginnings, Dick?

My beginnings were in Decatur, Ind. A typical little Midwest town. About 5,000 people with two major highways running through. Also, they had a General Electric plant which meant that employment and the salary rate were probably higher than in most nearby towns.

Was this in the 1920s?

Thirties. I was there in the 20s--born in 1924. But things didn't start registering until some years later.

Somewhere back there you fell into the clutches of jazz, right?

Yeah, and I've got the standard answer for people who ask me why I've always loved jazz. It's only my own inborn, inherent good taste. I'm a child of radio and radio music. My mother and father didn't care for jazz music. They thought it was a dirty word. My dad was a fan of country and western. Every Saturday, it was the National Barn Dance and the Grand Old Opry. But late at night I'd tune into the big band "remotes" from high atop hotels all over the country. Bands from Count Basie to Vincent Lopez. Then one night I heard the Benny Goodman Band, and that really caught my ear. As did the Bob Crosby Band. Also, my dad was a musician. He played tuba and sousaphone in the town band. As a matter of fact, I had a picture of me at age 1 in the bell of his tuba. Being a very religious woman, my mother liked church music. I tried to tell her that's how jazz originated--that and band music. But she didn't buy into it. By age 13 or 14 I was buying 35-cent Vocalian, Decca and Bluebird 78s--as many as my newspaper route earnings would allow. And the music kept on sounding better to me. My dad absolutely forbade me to bring any more records home. But I sneaked 'em in anyway.

What does your current family think of jazz?

My wife, Marge, puts up with it. But my kids seem to be coming around to it. My daughter, Jan, is 42, one son, Jim, is 41 and another, Jeff, is 40. The Ken Burns TV jazz thing especially intrigued my daughter, who wanted me to recommend some Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

It would be interesting to hear your views of that documentary.

It was a show that wasn't designed with me in mind. Maybe more for those who had an interest and wanted to build on it. Or for those who didn't know much about it but were curious. Like my son, Jim. After watching most of the segments, he went out and bought a Duke Ellington CD. He's a little puzzled by it, but he listens and is trying. Incidentally, I've loved Ellington's music from the start. I know I've got everything Ellington ever recorded. Our other son, Jeff, is beginning to acquaint himself with Ellington, Parker and Louis Armstrong.

I felt that Burns spent too much time on those three, as great and seminal as they were. On the other hand, that could've been the best thing he did. By constantly repeating them, he might've attracted the ears of younger people. By the way, I don't think I've ever talked about my kids so much in an interview.

Why not? They seem like good subject matter, and your fans are interested in the personal side of Dick Buckley.

Oh, people have heard my kids from their first day home from the hospital. Marge and I lived in a one-room efficiency on the North Side when we moved to Chicago. Later, when we moved to Oak Park, I'd be taping the radio show at home and picking up family background noise. Early listeners would send me dubs of my show with sounds ranging from frolic to colic. (Sorry about that.) But as they grew up, I never pushed this music on them. You know, they're not going to like it because the old man does. Therefore, the peer group was stronger than the home influence.

Here's a question I'd hate to have thrown at me. Who are some of your favorites in jazz?

You know how I already feel about Ellington. Same for Basie, Armstrong and Dizzy. Then there's Zoot Sims on tenor sax. When I listen to Zoot it's purely for pleasure. He starts with an idea and carries it through one chorus, two choruses, 55 choruses. Never the same idea but a continuity of ideas.

Who else in jazz do you like very much?

Oh my, the more you name the more you leave out. There's Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong, Bix [Biederbeck], Goodman, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Parker, Gillespie, Jack Teagarden, and on and on into the present. Look at Wynton Marsalis, for example. He's the number one man in the business today. Making more than anybody else, better known than anybody else and probably a better technician than anybody else. But he's not the best jazz
trumpet player. There are a lot of others who can play better. I think his brother Branford [tenor sax] is a better jazz player. Like everyone, I've got my personal favorites that may or may not be household names even to other jazz lovers. People like trumpet players Don Fagerquist, Jabbo Smith, Bobby Hackett; trombonists Bill Watrous, J.C. Higginbotham, Bill Harris, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Carl Fontana and Abe Lincoln; pianists Tommy Flanagan, Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan, Art Tatum--the list goes on.

How come so many trombonists?

Maybe because I took a few stabs at conquering that instrument. I played in the Indiana University marching band and in the service. I just didn't have the chops for it, though.

So you're a frustrated musician?

DB I've never been anything but a frustrated musician. While I was an undergraduate at Indiana in 1942, I was told I had an unusual vocal range and that I should take voice training. So this voice instructor listened to me and tried to get me interested in a singing career. He said he could train me to reach a low G--a level, I was told at the time, that only one other person could reach, the bass singer of the Don Cossack Chorus in Russia.

Well, that was interesting--and I could've made a mistake--but my first love was to be a radio announcer. At any rate, World War II intervened and I, along with the Army Air Force, helped protect Texas from 1943 to 1946.

What then?

It was back to college, supported by the G.I. Bill and supplemented by small change earned by working in the music department of the old Boston Store in the Loop. There was a guy there who got me more and more interested in classical music. From him I learned to appreciate the full orchestral sound of Wagner. Also major soloists like Isaac Stern, [Vladimir] Horowitz and [Artur] Rubinstein. To this day those four still knock me out. Horowitz was quite a jazz lover, by the way. He and Art Tatum were friends.

What followed your illustrious career at the Boston Store?

Radio announcer school in Chicago, then a succession of jobs at a handful of stations in Indiana.

Then Chicago?

Yeah, after four or five years, in the fall of 1955. We lived for a while on the North Side. Then the move to Oak  Park. It's been over 40 years now. At the same time I was lucky enough to get my first Chicago radio job at WAAF. After 10 years there in the mornings--and simultaneously at WNIB in the evenings--programming changes took place, WNIB dropped jazz and I was--what's the term?--"at liberty."

Then I got a call from Morrie Rosenfield who owned WAIT. Their slogan was "The World's Most Beautiful Music." Andre Kostelanetz, Percy Faith and the like. He asked if I'd like to work for them as a staff announcer. My answer was a fast yes. The pay was good and I had a family to support.

During slack times, and even busy times, did you get into the freelance thing using your voice to persuade people to buy products and services?

Did I do commercials, promotions and film narrations? I sure did. I was very busy, and it was pretty lucrative. I did the voice-over for many, many national advertisers. An example was Schlitz Beer for a year--all radio and all television, all over the country. Leo Burnett had been trying to find someone to compete with Ed McMahon who pitched Budweiser. After 12 months, I was doing pretty well when the powers that be wanted to try another voice.

Who'd they pick?

Jose Ferrer. If anyone was looking for a good voice with a sincere "sell," I was hard to beat. But if they wanted any acting, forget it. I wasn't an actor.

How long were you with WAIT?

Another 10 years, 'til 1977. That's when National Public Radio gave me a chance to showcase jazz on WBEZ. It's been 24 years now. For awhile I was on a few weeknights plus a four-hour Sunday show from 11 a.m. to 3 in the afternoon playing what I call the good ol' good ones--jazz in the traditional vein by musicians no long around, or those who had a "little mileage" on them. The show is still on, only from noon to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

What happened to the first hour, 11 a.m. to noon?

That's a story. Pianist Marion McPartland had a one-hour show a few years ago on NPR--at some godawful time like 5 in the morning. I told the station manager to take the front hour off my program and move her program into it. She's still in that spot and I still follow right after.

Here's an almost impossible question. What are your gut feelings about this kind of music?

I think my feelings about jazz come through on every Sunday afternoon broadcast. At risk of sounding pedantic, I'd say my ultimate goal has been to let people know that to enjoy jazz all you have to do is listen.

I noticed a quiet pride when you spoke of your family earlier.

Our kids are still great kids and they've all turned out well. Thanks to my wife. I credit it all to her. She loved them and guided them as only a woman like that could. You know, [before Marge] I didn't even know what love was. I thought it was just something they wrote about. Until I met Marge I was never in love with anybody. I never had a date with another woman since the first date I had with her. She cured me of all the others. I just can't understand how one person could have been so lucky.

Our daughter called me the other day and somehow the conversation came around to a certain regret she had. Not a major problem, but a big enough problem to her. She was always an A student, elementary grades, high school and college. Later, she fell short in one area and didn't feel so good about it. I told her,  "You're everything I ever wanted in a daughter. If I could've sent a message to God about what I wanted in a daughter, you'd have been it.  As far as I'm concerned you've been perfect."

What's the best way to go about starting a jazz collection?

I usually tell people to start with the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. It begins with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, then goes to Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and everything in between. Listen and find what you like or don't like. Then go from there.

Can you name some jazz artists you feel are underrated?

I think of Bobby Hackett. Even when he made those Jackie Gleason albums with strings--those beautiful fills. Even the guys in the control booth would say, "No way will he get out of this one." And he always got out. A few more names that rate more respect: Art Farmer, Thad Jones ... it just goes on. Carl Fontana on trombone is so good it's a crime.

What musicians or groups don't you like?

I play Dave Brubeck but only because he played so much with Paul Desmond. I just don't care for Brubeck's piano. It's a matter of personal taste and I'd have trouble telling you why.

Then there's Miles Davis. It always seemed hip to dig Miles, but he never played that well. All musicians miss notes, but in Miles' case I'm betting that it was a lack of practice. Yet he did develop a style, and sometimes that's all you need.

Any words on past Chicago DJs?

Ha! For a while I introduced Daddy-O Dailie's show every morning from 9 to 11 on WAAF. It went: "This is the Daddy-O's modern jazz patio; the home of jazznocracy designed for those who go for the class in jazz, for those who live it, love it, for those who make a living of it, and jazzistically speaking, will be Chicago's number one jazz impresario, Daddy-O."

Anybody else you remember from your early Chicago radio days at WAAF?

A lot of characters came on board. Studs Terkel for one. He and Daddy-O were two of the most straight-up, honest individuals I've ever met in the business. I can't praise them enough. Studs would turn down good money because he couldn't see himself being associated with certain kinds of products, projects or promotions. And Daddy-O? With all his big name accounts he had everything to do with making WAAF the only AM jazz station in the country.

Any regrets?

Uh ... a lot of 'em, in a way. I can't say if I had it to do over I'd do it the same way. A thousand times I've heard people say, "Buckley, if I had your voice I'd be worth a million." Money has never been the big thing with me. I've always made enough to get by on. I know I could make a million dollars if I really went after it. But the guys I know who have made it big have always lost their wives, the family--everything. All for the career. Without exception.

Dick, thanks for the sharing, and "Happiness."

You bet.

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