A Conversation with George Fendel
It's hard for me to imagine anyone who's at all familiar with Portland 's vibrant jazz scene not knowing who George Fendel is. He's been active in jazz radio for over twenty years, most recently as host of his own Sunday show on KMHD. He's written articles as well as hundreds of record/cd reviews for the Jazz Society of Oregon's Jazzscene magazine, and he's served for many years as a JSO board member. For these and other reasons, I wanted the opportunity to engage George in a Clubscene conversation, and in the process, provide readers a more comprehensive take on this man whose devotion to the music and to sharing it with his radio and jazz reviews audiences, has done so much to bring people's attention to and appreciation of Portland based and national jazz artists and their work.
(BK: George, if it works for you, I'd like to divide this conversation roughly into three sections: how you came to jazz and established your preferences; your work in radio, and how it evolved to your current Sunday program on KMHD; and your work over the years as jazz writer/reviewer.)
George readily agreed and the conversation began.
I started studying the piano when I seven years old. I took lessons fairly steadily, but there came a point when it became very clear to me that if I were destined to go to Carnegie Hall it would be as a patron, not a performer! I was taking lessons from a classical teacher, but at age 15, I switched to take lessons from a teacher who taught in what was then called the Portland School of Music,
in a building that would later be occupied by radio station KWJJ
. So there I was taking lessons from a teacher named Fred McKinney,
in a place where, downstairs, they would someday be broadcasting...you got it...country music! We did a variety of things, learning to play Gershwin and Ellington pieces, as well as good tunes from what we now call the American Songbook. I also continued playing some light classical music. I studied with Fred from the time I was fifteen to when I reached nineteen.
My discovery of jazz had also already happened. I was certainly influenced by Fred McKinney. Another influence was Bob McAnulty, a wonderful DJ and a good pal. I used to drive over to KLIQ, which was in Oaks Amusement Park at the time; I'd bring three or four of my own LP's with me, Ella (Fitzgerald) and Oscar ( Peterson,) etc., and it was a great thrill for me when Bob McAnulty would play my LP's. He introduced me to people such as Joe Mooney, Jackie and Roy, and Mark Murphy, and a lot of singers. His show was not strictly a jazz program- perish the thought; you'd better not call it jazz on KLIQ! In other words, he had to play a lot of other stuff as well. And there was another DJ who was a friend of mine, a guy named Ross Davis. He was at KGW, 620AM. Ross had...I think it was the midnight program. This was in the early sixties. I got to know him, and I think I kind of nuzzled up to DJs, never for a moment thinking I might become one of them. A lot of these guys just became pals, because, well, I think I wanted to introduce into my life some sort of relationship/friendship with people who knew about the music I was growing to love.
Another influence I would definitely say, was my father. He was not a big jazz fan, but he was a better than average classical violinist, as were a lot of Jewish kids of his generation. But he had an ear for what simply sounded good. If I was studying upstairs in my house in northeast Portland , he'd call me to come downstairs and he'd say, “I want you to listen to this guy; he's going to come on after the commercial. You need to know about this guy. His name is Joe Williams!” My dad just had an ear for what was quality outside the classical arena, and certainly, inside it as well. And he knew the work of a lot of people who weren't strictly jazz guys or girls, people like Sammy Davis Jr., Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. And he knew songs, my father; he knew all the Gershwin and Porter and Berlin and Ellington and Mercer and Mancini tunes. So he was definitely an influence. (BK: With all of these influences working on you over the years, George, did you then find yourself leaning towards a special thing, like, say, piano music, or big bands, or...?) No, it wasn't big bands...I can remember this like it was yesterday. I was about sixteen. I was driving the car, and at that time, music was on AM radio! I heard this piano player, and it just blew me away. I got so excited, I think I pulled over to listen. It was my first time hearing Art Tatum playing piano; I thought for all the world it was two people playing!
But for me, initially, I think I was a bit more into vocal music. Ella became a sweetheart immediately, and by the time I was fifteen or so, I was pretty much done with the pop music of the day, because I had discovered Ella, and Frank Sinatra, and people of that ilk ...Sara (Vaughan), Carmen (McRae). So I was listening to quite a bit of vocal music, and as they say, the best there was to be heard. I do, though, also remember that when I was going to high school, that when it came to instrumental music, I was listening to a lot of piano players. Certainly Tatum, and that led almost immediately to Oscar (Peterson). I was also listening to George Shearing's lovely quintet ... a lot of music like that that was very accessible. Avant Garde, however, at that time and even to this day, has never held much interest for me.
I'll tell you another facet, if I can jump ahead a number of years to KKUL radio in the late 1980's ... my taste, if you can characterize it in one word, was Verve! Oscar, Ella, (Count) Basie, "Sweets" Edison, Roy Eldridge, and on and on and on. But even though I was in my forties at that time, KKUL also opened my eyes to the whole Blue Note thing that I was kind of late arriving at. KKUL introduced me to Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan and all of the classic Blue Note people. I hadn't really arrived there until KKUL, and that was in 1986, and I was forty four years old. The whole Blue Note catalog is a kind of treasure to me.
One more little story ...
One day, Bob Dietsche in his store said, “I want you to do something for me. Go on home, put the little baby to bed (that's my son, Marc, now thirty five) and I want you to put on any Bill Evans album that you own (and I owned about five at the time) and I want you to listen to both sides - those were the vinyl days - uninterrupted. Tell your wife not to take any phone calls for you and then call me and tell me what you think.” I was not really into Bill Evans all that much at that time. Well, I did exactly as Bob requested, and it just opened a whole, new world for me. And now, every Bill Evans record that I can get my hands on, and all the Evans influenced players, the Tommy Flanagans, the Alan Broadbents...all these guys, I realized, created a brilliant, beautiful world of piano. And this just opened the door to all the lyrical pianists, and many of them are not yet even that well known. So all these things, I guess, were influences. And I have to admit that, because of my love of jazz, it really hit me hard. I became very intolerant of pop and rock music, so much so, that people are amazed to learn that I wouldn't recognize the voice of whoever the big pop or rock star is right now. You know, the end of pop music, for me, was The Platters and Fats Domino! I thought both of them were kind of cute ... still do!
(BK: George, many of the people in the area know you as the Sunday afternoon guy on your wonderful KMHD program, a show I know you prepare for thoroughly and imaginatively. Talk a little, please, about how you got into radio and how your experience as a DJ has evolved.)
Well, it happened initially at OPB radio. The year was 1984; I was 42 years old. I was doing other things, of course, such as raising a family and working in a title company. Yet still, I knew some DJs, still kind of mixed with some people in radio, and I'd done a little guesting now and then with Homer Clark and Bob Dietsche at KBOO. Bob at that time was also doing a program at OPB radio, and apparently OPB at that time was experiencing a bunch of problems. So they asked their once-a-week hosts if they would do their programs voluntarily. Most of them said yes; one of them said no: “Pay me or I'm gone!” I don't remember her name. Bob then spoke to Patricia Joy who was once one of the news reporters on Channel 8, and by the time I ran across Patricia, she was the manager at OPB radio, which at that time was known as KOAP. Bob said to her that he thought he knew somebody who would be willing to do the program voluntarily, someone who also had a significantly sized record collection, and who will show up! So she called me, and I went in and we talked. And the way it started out was, they gave me two months to learn the board (remember I was only on one night a week) and they had an engineer for me and part of his task was to teach me to man the board by myself. And he was going to be there eight times. After that, I was on my own, which I was plenty nervous about. I also recall very clearly when working for Patricia Joy that, though this was a voluntary effort, I was to be probationary for the first couple of months! If they liked what they heard, fine, they'd keep me. If they didn't like what they heard, I believe her words were, “We hope there will be no hard feelings.” I said, “Let me give it a try.”
So, what started off as two months probation at OPB in 1984, came to an end eleven years later, in 1995, when OPB decided to drop most of their music, classical and jazz. And I was one of those dropped. (BK: Great story, George. So, did things move along fairly quickly for you after that?) Well, in between (I'll get to KMHD in a moment) we had little KKUL, cool jazz radio, 1410 AM. It was owned by a judge in Berkeley , California , who made it very clear to the manager that his ability to keep his staff (because this was commercial radio) would be connected to the station's ability to garner advertising. So, we had a sales staff, but everything was against us: we were AM already then in an FM world; we were on sun up to sun down; we didn't have a real good signal - get a little outside of Portland, and we were gone! So there we were, playing mainstream jazz on an AM dial. Nevertheless, the station lasted, miraculously, for about two and a half years: April 1984 to October 15, 1986 . By the way, the irony of launching a station on April Fools day did not escape me! And really, the only reason the station lasted that long was because, after a certain period of time, most of our DJ's knew it would fail, but also knew that what they were doing was essentially a labor of love.
That then came to an end. It was a wonderful experience, especially doing the program at 6:00AM in the window of what was then the Imperial Hotel and seeing all the folks walking the downtown streets at that time of morning. And I actually had a chance, too, to become a program director there and make all the decisions as to what music would be played on the air. It was a great musical thrill to be able to do that. (BK: But you also worked hard at it, correct?) Yeah. That was my workday: 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM as a DJ, and then from 10:00 to about 3:00 when my workday was over. I did it virtually unpaid for a long, long time, with promises, and with a little money now and then. I'm not trying to say I was any kind of hero; I loved KKUL and I loved what we were doing. When it was finally sold they made up about 25% of what they owed me, and I was lucky to get that. So enough about KKUL; financially it was a disaster because we couldn't get the advertising that was all based on agencies who want numbers. But artistically, I still believe it was a great radio station. Then I did the OPB thing that ended in June, 1995. So, after that, I was off the air completely from then until January, 1997.
And then, Tom Costello from KMHD, out of the blue, called me and asked, “Would you like to do a shift for us?” I told him I'd call him back the next day because I'd become accustomed at OPB to receiving a modest compensation for doing a once-a-week program, and I knew that at KMHD it would be voluntary. But the love of radio, and the need to keep something - the jazz that I love - on the air was too overwhelming, too tempting, and my wife, Laura, knew the whole time that the answer would be yes. So I called Tom the next day and said, “Yeah, I'll be out there.” Just a little side story about that. Once I started with KMHD, I asked Tom if I had been the subject of any discussion with his staff. I asked him to tell me truthfully if there had been anything negative said that would suggest that they didn't want me out there. He replied that, in fact, there had been. And the reason there had been some objection (remember, I was a bit surprised that Tom had called me in the first place) was because I was writing a little column then in the Downtowner called “Jazz Matters” and on occasion I was critical of KMHD when I thought they deserved it, you now, when they were playing the Ames Brothers and Johnny Mathis on the station. So, occasionally I was critical. Yet when they deserved praise I gave them praise. But, I was surprised when he called me!
Anyway, I started doing Wednesday evenings for them which was fine for a start. But I was still working until 5:00 , and to hit the rush hour traffic and get from downtown to Troutdale and be on the air by 6:00 was a test! But I made it, and was there with a few minutes to spare every time. So I was on for Wednesdays for quite a while, and then switched with another guy for Thursdays. I had earlier told Tom that if a weekend slot ever came up I'd really like that. Then Sunday opened up because somebody had left, and I got it. And I thought it was the perfect time for me, following Art Abrams that is, because our tastes run very similar, and yet they're different: Art is much more into the big bands than I am, but he plays a lot of stuff that I would be comfortable playing. Yet we're geared differently enough so that our programs don't sound the same. It's a time spot ( 2:00PM-6:00 PM ) that I really like.
(BK: Knowing how your program flows together so nicely, George, I've got to assume that it takes a good deal of time, effort, and creativity to get it all ready each week?)
For me, putting the program together takes about three hours for every four-hour show. It means coming up with the idea for the thematic program for the first hour which I call “High Standards” (That was the name I used on OPB, by the way). This coming Sunday, for example, I'm doing something I've never done in twenty some years on the radio: I'm featuring two harmonica players, Toots (Thielmans) and Hendrik Maeurkens. The last three hours of the program consist of playing what I've pulled off the shelf for that day. Another thing I've always done on jazz radio and what I think is kind of fun is to do what I call a double-play: to play, let's say, an instrumental version of a standard and then a vocal version of the same song. I do three, four or five of those during the last three hours of my program. (BK: George, I'm curious: do you augment what you play from KMHD's collection with some of your own stuff?) Actually, my program is almost entirely my own stuff. (BK: I'm not surprised; I've seen your collection and it is mind-boggling!) Yeah ... my wife doesn't call me a collector; she calls me a curator!
(BK: George, Let's wind up today's conversation with some commentary from you on the reviewing that you do. Certainly anyone who reads the Jazz Society's Jazzscene magazine has to be familiar with you and your extensive reviews of new and re-issued jazz CD's. I'm sure a number of people have come to depend on them. Tell our readers a bit about how that evolved and how you're feeling about it these days.)
I'd be happy to. Actually, I alternate months with Kyle O'Brien. Kyle's in Denver now, but he continues to do the reviews. This works out nicely for me, and it's about as much writing as I want to do. Every other month is just fine. And the way it happened was that I had done a little bit of writing for Jazzscene kind of early in the game for Wayne Thompson, when he was editor, and I'd do a feature story now and then. I think I actually had a couple of cover stories. Wayne was doing all of the reviewing, every issue, every month! That was a big job, and I asked him if he'd like to take a break every once in a while and give me a shot at reviewing. And in essence, he kind of said the same sort of thing Patricia Joy (at OPB) had said, “Give it a try, George. Your writing has been fine on other things. Let's see what you can do.” So I tried it and that evolved into doing the reviews monthly. Then Kyle came along and we all settled on every other month. And I think that's a good thing from another standpoint: Kyle is much more into a variety of contemporary things than I am, and that gives readers a chance to scan reviews of those things that I probably wouldn't be as kind to. It balances out nicely. (BK: How long have you been doing this for Jazzscene?) Ummmm ... let's see ... Wayne put in eighteen years ... I'd have to say it's probably been twelve to fourteen years. (BK: You also did some jazz related writing for the Downtowner, that you referenced earlier, I think?)
Yes. That was a column I did for Maggie White, the editor of Downtowner (later called Our Town). Maggie is a big jazz fan and was a regular attendee at Otter Crest (Jazz Festival) and attends a lot of concerts in town. And this is another one of those out-of-the-blue things. I think Maggie had read some of my stuff in Jazzscene, so she called me and asked me if I'd be interested in doing a column for Downtowner. It was just as innocent and simple as that. I wrote that column for a couple of years. And over time the paper evolved and, I guess, just got interested in covering other things. I also think leadership at the paper changed. So that ended, but writing the column was a nice experience and it certainly wasn't a bitter pill to swallow when it was over. I really enjoyed doing it.
(BK: At Jazzscene, George, may I assume you have a free hand to review whatever you wish to?) Yes. It's a very fair and accurate assumption. The reviews are essentially only limited by what there is out there and to what I have access. That is, either to what I receive from the labels to review, or to new things that I purchase myself. Those are pretty much the only limitations. And Wayne (Thompson) through the years found some magical way to get all of my reviews into almost every single issue for a dozen years or more! (BK: George, Wayne Thompson, after eighteen very productive years, has now left Jazzscene. Lynn Darroch has stepped in as editor. There will probably be, as is understandably and frequently the case, some changes made. Any thoughts on this?) To be really truthful with you ... something I approached Wayne with, and it was a rare instance where he and I were not in agreement ... and it was a small item: I'm not real crazy about having to give star ratings to reviews. Wayne felt that stars gave readers a real quick idea of the overall quality of the recording. I felt that sometimes a three star CD could be real good in certain ways, e.g., maybe the recording quality was not up to standards, or maybe there was the use of too much electronics for my taste. You know, there are so many things that go into the process. So I've spoken to Lynn (Darroch) about my preference for not using these stars, and the first issue under his editorship still has them, but he said he also kind of favors not using stars, and we've agreed to talk some more about it.
(BK: There are, I think, no letters to the editor in Jazzscene. I'm, however, curious: do people who recognize you ever stop you on the street and take you on for a review you gave with which they take issue?) Actually, very rarely. More of what I hear, thank goodness, is something like, “I was so glad to read your review of so and so; it made me go out and buy the album.” One other thing that has been a policy of mine: with Portland resident musicians who are kind enough to give me a promotional copy of a new CD (and just like anybody else, I'm not always crazy about everything I'm given to hear), I won't write a real negative review of a Portland based musician. I just won't do it. (BK: Wouldn't your choice be just not to review it?) Exactly. I just don't want to be some part of a reason why somebody has a more difficult time making a living in the world of music than what is the case already. And surely we all know how difficult it is! (BK: Amen to that, George, and I think that's a fine, fitting place to end this most enjoyable conversation. Many thanks for taking the time to allow our readers to get to know you a little better.)