Sam Ankerson's "Jazz Happy Hour": An Interview
Sam Ankerson arrives for our interview looking neat and studious in glasses and a crisp dress shirt, his short brown hair brushed and parted. Sam hosts a jazz-based program on the Radiator, a labor that allows him to express a longtime love of the music, to extend this feeling to others. The Radiator/Big Heavy World suite, the setting for the interview, is orderly and almost ornate with its density of objects, posters, radio equipment, a great variety of furniture, and shelved music recordings; fans churn at the windows, keeping the third-floor space relatively cool in the midst of Burlington’s recent heat. We settle into upholstered chairs in a small office.
Sam seems eager to share his thoughts on jazz—its meanings, its history, his own experience with the music—and speaks with a calm authority, though he maintains that he isn’t an expert, that his show functions as a learning process for himself as well as his listeners. His program, which airs on Monday evenings from 7 to 8, consists of jazz music—a broad range of it — and Sam’s commentary and explication of the records he plays. He also announces upcoming shows and other issues of interest to jazz fans.
Sam, originally from Brooklyn, has lived in Vermont since 1995 and currently works in fundraising at the Shelburne Museum. He is married “with beautiful wife, two kick ass daughters, and two strange dogs.”
AP: So how did you come to BHW? How did you first get involved and start your radio show?
SA: I heard the station driving around, on the dial. After listening a few times, it jogged my memory—this was a few years ago—just from listening to it on the radio…I started listening regularly; I had done a show at St. Mike’s.
AP: How about the process of starting the show?
SA: It was really easy—I got in touch with Jim and submitted an idea for a show — this went through Lee Anderson—and they got back in touch about available slots — the process is reflective of [BHW] — you don’t have to jump through hoops.
AP: Tell me something about the format of the show. It’s centered around jazz?
SA: It’s an hour long—fifty minutes of music—and the rest is me talking —explaining the music, talking about shows coming up in the area and interesting web sites if you like jazz. Get guests into the music, talking about it.
AP: What makes jazz such a valuable form of music? This is a broad question, so feel free to give a stream-of-consciousness answer.
SA: I’m actually relatively new to jazz — I’ve been a serious listener for a little over ten years. One of the most appealing things is the skill required to execute [jazz] — you have to be a really good musician and have a real understanding of the music, which isn’t always required in other forms of music. It’s a uniquely American form of music — its roots combine indigenous American music forms—like the blues with European music. Contemporary jazz has influences from around the world. When I’m listening, I like blues- and gospel-based jazz, jazz that brings up emotions from nostalgia to excitement. I also like listening to more loosely structured jazz based on folk or world music—bands like Oregon—other kinds of jazz can be more tranquil. Also, it’s flat-out exciting to listen to—the new ideas are exciting.
AP: How about favorite jazz artists? First favorite artists in general.
SA: I don’t have one. I would say Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny, Jimmy Smith, and Roy Eldridge.
AP: These all seem like highly virtuosic musicians…I guess pretty much all jazz musicians are virtuosic. Do you have favorite contemporary musicians—Pat Metheny is contemporary?
SA: There were a couple of great musicians at the jazz fest — Gerald Clayton, who’s an amazing piano player, and a guitarist, Stephane Wrembel, who plays Django-Reinhardt style music. I like Joey DeFrancesco, the organ player, and an organist and piano player named Larry Golding. I wouldn’t call myself a jazz “expert” — the show is a way to self-educate.
AP: And Vermont musicians?
SA: Gabe Jarrett, the drummer. Michael Chorney — he led Viper House — now plays with the Michael Chorney Sextet. A composer-guitarist, he opened for Allen Toussaint at the jazz fest.
AP: Do we have enough jazz in Burlington? We have the jazz festival, of course.
SA: It would be nice to see more jazz on the club level, people bringing in national and regional artists. They’re trying at the FlynnSpace. Radio Bean is an outlet, and Parima. It’s tough because jazz doesn’t sell like other forms of music; there’s no sense of a jazz club. Maybe Burlington couldn’t support it. Do people just rally around the jazz fest? The FlynnSpace has made a difference with its cabaret setting.
AP: Many—at least some—people seem to think that the spirit, the viability, of jazz has declined since the golden ages of bebop, Miles Davis’s great groups, Coltrane and the avant-garde. What would you say to this?
SA: On the one hand, it’s true—jazz was the most popular form of music—in the swing era, it was America’s music.
People would say you could make a case that rock ‘n roll killed or diminished many forms of music; certainly the boom years [of jazz] are commercially in the past.
Creatively, I’m not totally up on what’s happening in jazz, but it seems to be pretty fragmented, which is maybe a good thing. People trying to blend genres, people are trying lots of different things, which is great, though a lot of them aren’t taking hold.
If you start with Louis Armstrong-style jazz, jazz is getting more and more free. Start with Dixieland on into free jazz—everything’s been deconstructed. The question is what to pick up and put together.
There are the neotraditionalists like Wynton Marsalis and others, and others are trying to bring in electronica, which is very interesting and very challenging, but it’s hard to reach an audience.
There has to be something that someone can come up with. I don’t know what. To the extent I know, the thing is to combine jazz with other genres like spoken word.
AP: The volume of high-quality jazz on record is so great. How would you recommend that a neophyte find his or her way into jazz? Any particular records to start with?
SA: I’d recommend the All Music Guide to Jazz, it’s amazing, it’s my bible; I’ve never disagreed with a five-star rating. I try to listen to as much radio as possible. George Thomas on NPR, WBGO in New York, WWOZ in New Orleans. When I hear something I like, I write it down.
AP: And records you would recommend to a beginner?
SA: Red Garland Quintet, “All Mornin’ Long;” Oscar Peterson, “Night Train;” Jimmy Smith, “The Master;” Pat Metheny, “Travels.” The Ken Burns Jazz series is very good—the Coleman Hawkins disk in particular.
AP: What does jazz mean to you? Is there a “jazz aesthetic”?
SA: Jazz is a musical conversation. Improvisation is critical to jazz, the fundamental existence of improvisation. Beyond that, I don’t think so. There’s a degree of skill and improvisation.
AP: Does jazz have to swing?
SA: No, it doesn’t, there’s jazz that doesn’t.
AP: Can two people disagree about whether a piece of music is jazz?
SA: Definitely. The conversation about what is jazz gets more and more interesting. Me and my dad used to listen together—one person might say this is jazz and the other would disagree.
AP: Are there other types of music or specific musicians that you associate with jazz, that have qualities of jazz? Like Jimi Hendrix is in the Downbeat Hall of Fame.
SA: Like Jimi Hendrix, certainly he’s doing it
AP: And the Grateful Dead.
SA: The Grateful Dead absolutely, the value of improvisation is very high—and by extension in lots of jam bands. There’s a fair amount of house music and electronica that builds the layers.
AP: Do you receive much feedback on your show?
SA: I get one or two comments a week, not much. There’s not much of a way to gauge if people are listening. It’s great to get good feedback. The show’s also a process of self-education, and I try to pass that on, place the music in context.
AP: Finally, where is jazz going? What will come to mind when one thinks of the word or the music in a decade?
SA: I have no idea. Hopefully people will keep creating, keep innovating in the music industry, recorded and live. The upheaval will settle and there’ll be a legitimate way for jazz musicians to work and create and find an audience.
AP: Do you think there’ll be someone who might be able to bring jazz to a mainstream audience?
SA: Probably someone will come along. Take 5 by Dave Brubeck was a big hit. Always a possibility.