Jazz lovers, there's hope. Listen carefully, and you might hear a faint riff growing louder. Perhaps America's original art form will continue to have a place in the Old Pueblo after all, thanks to the efforts of die-hard jazzman Tony Frank and his Tucson Jazz Radio Project.
Currently, the music is available via computer streaming at www.TucsonJazzRadio.org, but Federal Communications Commission paperwork is in the works to obtain a real radio station frequency. "Somebody's got to get in front of it and speak up, or we'll all be stuck with Britney Spears," Frank says.
Tucsonans may remember Frank as the midday jazz jock several years ago at KUAZ, the local NPR affiliate. Frank was popular with his audience of jazz aficionados, but not so popular with new management. The station terminated his turntable time in early 2003, a month before announcing a format change that dropped daylight jazz programming.
The new format left Tucson with a reduced nightly four-hour block of jazz at KUAZ and a once-a-week, three-hour program on KXCI. Frank says he was "mad as hell" about his personal fate and the near demise of his beloved music form on local airwaves. But Frank has made a career of tilting at windmills. "I played gigs and continued to promote jazz, and about a year ago finally decided that if there was no jazz to be heard on the airwaves, somebody needed to change that. Somebody else might have had the same idea, but they never acted on creating an outlet to focus on the local jazz scene and play the traditional greats."
The beret-wearing, trumpet-playing musician eats, sleeps and breathes jazz. A Detroit native, Frank grew up in a theater family and appeared in 100 stage shows before he was a teenager. The applause was addictive, and by the time he was lead horn player in his high school marching band, he'd worn the grooves off vinyl of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. "The bug bit, and I fell in love with what jazz offered." So much so that by his college days, he was ditching classes and staying up all night listening to jazz radio.
The result of his dedication is a partnership with Arizona Jazz Academy director Doug Tidaback and creation of the Tucson Jazz Radio Project that "supports all jazz in Tucson." It's been on the air since Oct. 10, and reaction has been rapid and promising. "We've had thousands of hits from all over the world, from Germany and Japan to music lovers in San Francisco and Miami, and our local supporters," says Frank. "If that many folks will go to the trouble of typing in our URL, imagine how many listeners will join us when they can listen over the radio. If jazz fans are willing to join us on the Internet, we'll be a slam dunk when a frequency is allocated."
Tidaback says, "The timeline is developed to get a traditional FM jazz station in place. We're confident the Web-based station will be an outstanding foundation for an eventual broadcast operation and development of personnel and programming is underway. Tony's putting in the time, energy and effort to get everything off the ground."
Frank does a daily live afternoon gig that includes locally recorded sessions by jazzmen such as Ed DeLucia, Matt Mitchell, Scott Black and Fred Hays (and jazzwoman Susan Artemis). At 4 p.m., the Local Love program has featured in-studio interviews and performances including bebop drumming legend Artt Frank and keyboard master Sly Slipetsky.
As the radio project slowly gets off the ground, the jazz community has begun to take note. "The Tucson Jazz Society isn't involved in this project, but I wish it success," says Steve Emerine, now in his fourth term as president of TJS. "With KUAZ cutting back its jazz offerings over the past decade, the void in Tucson jazz programming has grown larger. Tony Frank is certainly knowledgeable of his subject matter, and the radio project would be one way to help fill the local jazz void."
Former Michigan jazz disk jockey Barlow (a single name worked well for Cher's career, also) is among the group of disappointed listeners who did not appreciate KUAZ's cutting of its jazz format. "We lost a lot of spirit of the music when those hours disappeared. We lost talented educators in the on-air DJs who were knowledgeable of their field of music that they shared with their listeners.
"Streaming jazz radio is a starting point to bring jazz back to Tucson listeners," Barlow says. "Tony is one of the better jazz personalities I've heard on any radio station, deeply committed to preserving this unique art form that combines ragtime and blues in syncopated rhythms. Whether performing or presenting the creative improvisations, his dedication is obvious, and it comes through."
Barlow, himself a member of TJS, says project success often needs a catalyst to create a feeling of unity. "'Can I help you?' is a phrase not commonly heard among the disparate jazz functions in town. We need a leader to create a cohesiveness to make things move forward."
Frank admits to an impatience to move the concept along further, faster. "I want creative ideas and programming," he says. "I want specialty shows, Tucson musicians, name talent from out of town, promoting local appearances, all of the vibrancy this field of music has to offer. The ultimate goal is to make broadcasting available 24/7 to the million-person market in Pima County, while a pipe dream would be to send a translator to Phoenix and pick up some of those 4 million potential listeners.
"I'd like to see the Tucson Jazz Society, Arizona Jazz Academy, bop musicians and clubs in this town get together and mutually support this effort," he says. "We're all brothers in jazz ... and there's strength in unity."
Because of his dedication to the cause, Frank says he is accustomed to being a magnet for lightning strikes. "I'm fully aware that I put myself on the line for what I believe, and I can be an abrasive personality. But my heart--and my cause--are true. I just want a venue to continue to bring jazz music to Tucson listeners."