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Interview with Deborah DeMoss Smith, September 20, 2007

Photo of Deborah DeMoss Smith

Deborah DeMoss Smith is as gracious as her soft southern accent is appealing. She took time out of her busy, overflowing life to welcome me into her home office for an interview. Deborah has been a DJ at KMHD for 12 years. She's also a wife and mother, writer and author. Her book Reflections of the Heart- What Our Animal Companions Tell Us was published in 2004.

Deborah grew up in Plain Dealing, a small town of 1,200, in northwestern Louisiana in the foothills of the Ozarks. She and her four siblings were fortunate to be surrounded by music in their home – jazz, blues and big band. She liked rock, too, especially the Beatles, saying they were such great lyricists. Her parents would dance to Ellington and Deborah's father taught her to dance.

Deborah got her undergraduate degree in English, and she received a Masters in Special Education from the University of New Orleans . “Jazz is part of the culture,” she says about New Orleans . Deborah's early experience in radio was doing a two-hour show for the blind, reading the newspaper. She took a class in TV news and ended up getting hired. So she was teaching during the day and working in news at the TV station at night. She eventually started writing and producing documentaries.

A Portland TV station brought her here in the early 90's. When they cut documentary programming, and she was between jobs, she was listening to KMHD and heard a request for DJs. She went to the station and was put through a test and they said, “You're perfect, when do you want to start?”

What inspires her to volunteer as a DJ is her love of the music and her strong belief in community service. It also gives her a chance to focus on our local musicians. She considers it a gift to have the opportunity to share jazz, America 's original music. Another way Deborah gives her time to the community is as an MC for jazz events and festivals.

When asked what her most memorable experience in jazz was, Deborah paused for a long time and then asked if she could share two. In the early 80's she and her husband were visiting his family in Chicago and they went to a jazz club to hear Dexter Gordon. He was scheduled to start at midnight , but didn't come on until 2:30 . There weren't many people left by then. Just Dexter Gordon and a pianist performed. Dexter sat on a stool, with one light shining on him, and played. Deborah said it was like in a movie. A few months later he passed away and she was thankful she stayed and experienced that. The other was with Teddy Edwards, a tenor player. Their mutual friend, Leroy Vinnegar, introduced them and she said they couldn't stop talking because they were both ex-Southerners. This formed a bond that developed into an abiding friendship. They argued over who made the best gumbo. She would make gumbo for him and have him over for dinner when he was in town, and he would tell stories. Deborah said, “He'd written so many tunes and played with everyone. He wrote Sunset Eyes.” She feels he was a brilliant musician that never got his due, probably because he resided in Los Angeles . The memorable experience was when she and her husband were visiting L.A. They called Teddy and agreed to meet at an IHOP. Teddy had written a new tune for a film and started singing it to Deborah. She thought he'd sing a few bars, but he sang the entire song, a ballad. Everyone was silent by the end, and she had tears in her eyes, as did her husband and Teddy.

Deborah is also the manager for Devin Phillips, the phenomenal young saxophonist, who was the first to respond to Azumano Travel and the Portland Jazz Festival's invitation to relocate here and assist with housing and work for New Orleans musicians after Hurricane Katrina in ‘05. She had Devin on her Mardi Gras show in '06 and shortly after that he called to say he was in need of a manager. She offered to find one, and said she'd be his manager for a few months. She's still is a year and a half later. Deborah helped Devin & New Orleans Straight Ahead produce their Wade in the Water CD and directed a video for it. NOSA also auditioned and won a Rhythm Road State Department tour to Africa this year. Deborah is more than just Devin's manager, though, and has him over for Sunday dinners with her family, where they can talk about things other than business, including the New Orleans Saints.

Deborah's latest endeavor is as the acting executive director for the newly formed OJO, the Oregon Jazz Orchestra. Their mission is to keep jazz alive by exposing people to jazz and employing professional musicians. She envisions this group touring the state. They're planning fundraising events, including a New Year's Eve gala at the Governor Hotel.

To bring kids to jazz, she says, “It's all about exposure.” On her wish list is to produce a program Bop to Hip Hop to show the connection between hip hop and jazz, explaining that hip hop is half rap and half jazz.

Deborah would like to get back to writing and is feeling ready to write another book. For her it's all or nothing. Deborah feels you have to have a passion and the universe will lead you. She certainly does, and it has.

To hear Deborah's show, tune into Deborah's Place Jazz New Orleans Style , Tuesday's 6-10 am on KMHD FM 89.1.


Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon