Sunday afternoons just won't be the same...

July 25, 2008

When I moved to Chicago eight years ago to begin working as a jazz announcer here at Chicago Public Radio, I quickly became, like every other other jazz fan in Chicago, a habitual listener of Dick Buckley's Sunday afternoon program. So as a fan of his program, it will be hard to see his amazing half century in radio come to a close this Sunday.

With that wonderful Ellington opening theme, he made you want to be right there, on-time and tuned in every week for the first minute of the program. And from that simple and inviting opening line, "Hello everybody, I'm Dick Buckley and I've got jazz records for you" to the single word he uses to close every show, "Happiness," there's never been a more unpretentious way to frame a presentation of such a frequently misunderstood genre of music. The music? Well, I'll be the first to admit that while I immensely enjoy everything Buckley plays, my personal taste in jazz doesn't line up identically with his (I'm more of a blues, hard bop and B-3 guy). That said, the man clearly has impeccable taste in music, and if he's ever played a bad record, I've never heard it. Who else features a solid hour of Lester Young, or Sidney Bechet, or Pee Wee Russell, or Thelonious Monk? For us jazz lovers, it doesn't get any better than that. And the way Buckley weaves the back stories into show - he doesn't just tell who played in the band, he tells you about the trombonist who cracked up after his movie star wife flew the coop, or the clever technical invention that the drummer revolutionized the music with. Even if you think you know everything about an artist, he comes up with some interesting gem that you've never heard about, something in many cases he witnessed first hand. Stuff like that gets left out of the history books, but it's at the heart of every Buckley jazz show. The amazing thing is to me is that most of dates, names, places, and all of the stories he mentions on the air, don't come from a book or a website, or even from a stack of handwritten notes. He does damn near everything you hear on the show off the top of his head. It's astounding to watch him in action. I got to see it first hand when I started engineering and editing the show for him last summer. Every week he brings in a suitcase full of records, and with nothing more than a peek or two at the song titles on the album jackets, he produces a jazz history lesson worthy of a university classroom. It goes down so easy though that you don't even realize you were being educated until it's over. Unfortunately, with Buckley getting up into his eighties now, it's making it increasingly difficult for him to perform the sort of magic feats of radio he's pulled off effortlessly for so many years. He hasn't forgotten a thing though. As we drove to the studio on the morning of our last recording, he recounted to me, in high-def detail, his first visit to Chicago, in 1934, to see the World's Fair and a Cubs game with his dad. Not only did he remember the final score of the game (2-1), he reeled off the names of both starting pitchers and the way in which each run was scored. Everybody talks about his voice (and rightly so, it's a powerful instrument), but working with Dick over the past year really enlightened me to the extent which his mind is a highly advanced super computer. He's got more information about jazz in there than most of us could ever hope to learn. And the way he's able to translate all that detailed knowledge into great radio that's actually fun for the rest of us to listen to is incredibly impressive. If the voice isn't quite as smooth as it once was, and if the anecdotes don't flow quite so smoothly into the microphone as they did for more than a half century, a master of his craft is still a master, and that's what Dick Buckley is. Over the past year, there have been times when I think he's gotten through the recording of his program on pure guts alone. It's been truly inspiring to work with him. And it's been a lot of fun. Thanks Dick...Sunday afternoons just won't be the same. Editor's note: Check out this interview with Dick Buckley from Stop Smiling, which includes a great vintage photo of Dick from the 1950's.