Interview with Art Abrams - October 5, 2006
Visiting with Art Abrams is like uncovering a treasure chest full of interesting artifacts. The longer we talked, the more animated he became, and you could hear in his voice how grateful he is to be doing what he loves (at 73, he thought he'd be retired by now, but he just can't — "I'm happy doing this,") and how passionate he is about sharing not only the history of jazz, but the continued development of it along with the up-and-coming talent in the Portland area.
Art never imagined he'd be a DJ. Playing music was his life (he began playing trumpet at the age of 15) and had the good fortune of growing up in Hollywood, CA at a time when jazz was "really happening," during the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie era. He played with guys like Charlie Barnett, Jerry Gray and Keith Williams to name a few. When a family member in Oregon needed to be cared for, he commuted back and forth between CA and OR for a number of years until he and his wife, Yvonne, pulled up stakes and made the move up North. The Big Band Era had begun to wane as rock became more popular, and with the move he packed his trumpet away and sadly thought his music days were over. Eventually, he discovered KMHD on the radio, learned they were looking for volunteer DJs and checked it out. They trained him and he began his work "on the air" in 1987. He has been with the station ever since.
That was nearly 20 years ago. It was interesting to learn that this volunteer DJ spot was instrumental in creating the other venue that Art is well known for, "The Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band." The band originally started as a result of KMHD becoming a listener supported station. When Mt. Hood Community College could no longer fund the station, Art was asked by the station manager, who knew of his background in music, if he could pull together a group of musicians for a few fundraisers. He did, and the band caught on with the audience in Portland and has been pleasing crowds ever since. There is much more to be said about this group -- in addition to performing concerts, the band is in great demand and has a loyal following of swing and ballroom dancers for public and private dances. They also have three critically acclaimed CD's to their credit. For more information, go to their website at http://www.artabrams.org/.
Other than listening to the music, Art most enjoys, "Getting the music to the people, that's our job. I'm happy when people learn something from what they're listening to, or to find that it has meant something to them." Reaching a young audience is also important to him, and he believes that KMHD is filling in some of the gaps in education that have been left by what is no longer being offered in schools. He particularly likes introducing people to different artists and their histories, and does this on both of his weekly shows, Juke Box Saturday Night (30's, 40's 50's music) and the Portrait Show on Sunday (today's artists and beyond).
He's encouraged to see a growing number of arenas within the Portland jazz scene where young musicians can come to listen and jam with the more seasoned musicians in town. He believes these are incredibly valuable experiences for the next generation of musicians who will be keeping the music alive as the years go on, and encourages them to make the most of those opportunities.
Art also revealed that he is a big Elvis fan, so keep your ears to the ground for an upcoming Elvis project with the "Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band" . . . that's all he would say about it!
We're listening, Art. Thanks for sharing the music.