Ed Bemis shares his seven-decade love affair with jazz
If you've been to a jazz concert around Burlington in the last 40 years, chances are you've seen Ed Bemis -- but not on the stage. He's the lanky redhead with thinning, flyaway hair, often sitting alone towards the back of the hall, or intensely discussing the show with a friend between sets. The 78-year-old radio DJ, lecturer and member of the Discover Jazz Advisory Board has been a tireless -- and largely unsung -- lobbyist for jazz since the local "scene" consisted of combos coming down from Montreal once a week.
Says saxophone player Larry McCrorey, "Ed Bemis on the radio kept jazz alive." And he hasn't let up. These days he's the most senior -- and sage -- voice on Vermont college radio.
"My life parallels the history of jazz," Bemis reflects, sitting in the dining room of the South Union Street home he and his wife Anne have owned since 1965. He speaks quietly but relentlessly, pausing only to search his memory for a forgotten name, or to indulge a sheepish giggle. He says, "I was born at the right time" -- 1928, the same year Louis Armstrong teamed up with Earl Hines and the word "bop" made its first appearance in a song.
Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, Bemis discovered jazz as a 6-year-old listening to the radio. His first jazz memory is hearing Fats Waller playing piano. Later he liked to stay up late to tune in remote broadcasts of big bands playing at hotel ballrooms. His parents were supportive; mom had been a promising pianist, and dad had abandoned plans to go into show business. Both retained their love for music, and encouraged their son's interest. When he was still "no higher than a table," Bemis recalls, the family stayed at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, where he met his first jazz musicians: the vibraphonist Red Norvo and his wife, singer Mildred Bailey.
By the time he was in junior high, Bemis was taking in matinees after school. He and a friend saw Duke Ellington in Springfield, and traveled to New York to see Louis Armstrong. "My parents didn't seem to mind that," he reflects. "They were happy that I was interested in something." Bemis was never much of a student. What he liked about jazz, he says, "was that I considered it my music. It wasn't anything anybody told me I had to listen to. I was never very receptive to those sorts of things anyway," he acknowledges with a laugh.
When Bemis was in high school, the "sweet" bandleader Sammy Kaye brought his radio show, "So You Want to Lead the Band," to Springfield. In a sort of precursor to "American Idol," contestants conducted Kaye's ensemble and audience applause picked the favorite. Bemis, who was just 17, led the band in "The Jersey Bounce." He took first place, and went on to the nationals in Hollywood, where his performance on "The One O'Clock Jump" won him $1000 -- a princely sum in 1945. He used it to buy a drum kit from Kaye's percussionist. Bemis played with a high school band, The Midnight Suns. But, he demurs, "I was never very good. I couldn't coordinate my limbs."
After high school, Bemis moved to New York, where he worked by day at Barnes & Noble, and by night soaked up music, at clubs such as the Five Spot, the Half Note and Birdland. He also became friends with the jazz guitarist Sal Salvador, who had played with Stan Kenton before forming his own group. Attending jam sessions with Salvador brought Bemis in contact with bassist Oscar Pettiford and many other musicians.
Although he served for a while as Salvador's personal manager, Bemis found he wasn't cut out for the grittier aspects of the work. "I didn't know all the wheelings and dealings and things like that," he notes. "I'm not a tough business man."
But he was deeply committed to introducing people to the music he loved. The question was, how? Bemis was pointed in the right direction by a man named Marshall Stearns, who held meetings in his Greenwich Village home for aficionados interested in promoting jazz through classes and lectures. Stearns' efforts led to the foundation of the Institute for Jazz Studies in Newark, New Jersey.
Ultimately, though, it was Anne Bemis who helped her husband find his niche. For a long time, she'd told him he could do a better job than the disc jockeys she heard on the radio. Plus, the RCA Broadcasting Institute was right across the street. With his wife's encouragement, Bemis attended a six-month licensing program in the early 1960s.
After successfully learning how to run the boards, Bemis convinced WBAI, an independent New York radio station, to give him a chance. He began interviewing musicians, fearlessly starting with big-band leader Woody Herman, whom he interviewed in the basement of Birdland, and drummer Sonny Greer, a veteran of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. How did a novice broadcaster convince big-name acts to sit down and talk with him? He just asked.
Given his devotion to the urban art of jazz, Vermont might seem an odd choice of residence for Bemis. But he's also devoted to his family, and with two young daughters, he and Anne opted in 1966 for a more child-friendly, saner life. "I'm not the kind of guy that should be in New York City," Bemis observes. "It was too intense for me."
The move proved a boon for Vermont. At a time when area schools offered no jazz courses, and there was no jazz festival in the area, Bemis produced the state's first jazz show, on WRUV at UVM, where he was working at the college bookstore. He played recordings and offered commentary, and interviewed touring and local musicians.
One early guest was Larry McCrorey, who credits Bemis with making his own jazz-radio career possible. When he came to town in 1966 as an assistant professor in physiology, McCrorey says, he went looking for the local jazz scene. He found Bemis' radio show.
"He was as helpful to me as anybody could possibly be," says McCrorey, who went on to become a UVM administrator and is now professor emeritus. "He brought me up to the station, asked me to sit in for him, and more importantly, he helped me through the licensing program so I could run my own show."
For years McCrorey and Bemis aired parallel shows on WRUV. "Other people are just reading off the back of the album," McCrorey suggests. Bemis "knows what the hell he's talking about," he says. He is "bringing personal interactions with jazz musicians of old," he notes. "He's heard them, he's talked to them, he's been on the scene for years."
On the air, Bemis has the natural, conversational vibe of a guy who might be hanging out in his living room. He loves giving away tickets to shows, and at least once in the course of every broadcast dedicates a tune to the woman responsible for getting him on the radio in the first place: "My beautiful wife Anne."
When Vermont Public Radio went on the air, McCrorey took his show there. There was initial talk of Bemis going on public radio, too, but in the end the station opted to give the slot to Bill Cole, out of Hanover -- for the "geographical diversity," Bemis was told.
Looking back, he's just as glad, Bemis says. He enjoys the freedom of college radio. His WRUV show ran until 1979. When he left his job at UVM to work at the Dartmouth College bookstore, he produced a similar show there for the next 14 years. Since his retirement in 1993, he's had a regular Tuesday-night gig on the St. Michael's College station, WWPV 88.7 FM. He takes the bus to the Colchester studio -- neither he nor Anne has ever learned how to drive.
Off the air, Bemis has found other ways to spread the word. Although today UVM has a thriving jazz program, nothing of the sort existed 40 years ago. Bemis began lecturing on jazz history and playing records -- first at a Church Street coffee shop, then for the jazz club at St. Mike's, and finally at UVM. He taught a not-for-credit class in the music department, then went to the school of ed, where he offered a graduate-level course for teachers interested in incorporating jazz into their curricula.
"I didn't have any degree," he points out, still marveling that he was teaching teachers. "I barely made it out of high school."
McCrorey recalls it differently. "I don't think the university treated him very well," he says, "because many people didn't understand the art form itself, and had a rather antiquated view of jazz -- that it wasn't 'high art.'" When Bemis first proposed his course, McCrorey goes on, "there were all sorts of barricades set up. Ed had to fight like hell."
Persistence is one way to explain how Bemis amassed such a vast collection of interviews with jazz luminaries who've played over the past four decades in the region. The conversations are historically significant. Max Roach talked to Bemis for an hour about the evolution of be-bop. Ornette Coleman described his "harmelodic" style, and Julius Hempfel described his work with the World Saxophone Quartet. Roy Eldridge, whom Bemis calls the next really great trumpeter after Louis Armstrong, told him how Benny Goodman effectively ended Fletcher Henderson's career when he bought his arrangements.
Bemis hopes to combine his interest in jazz and books by publishing selections from his most interesting exchanges. But first he needs legal advice about copyright issues, and someone to transcribe the tapes; Bemis can't type. Whoever takes the job will hear the likes of Slide Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland, Chico Hamilton, Sun Ra and Lester Bowie, to name just a few.
Missing from the list is Wynton Marsalis. Even a promoter has his preferences. "I shouldn't say this to you," Bemis confides, "but I don't like Wynton Marsalis' playing." For all the trumpeter's good work as a musical ambassador, and his beautiful technique on classical pieces, when it comes to jazz, Bemis says, "I like a lot of the musicians he's got with him better than I like what he's playing. He just doesn't have it . . . He doesn't have the gutsy, soulful sound." Most varieties of electronic music leave Bemis cold, too, and fusion is pretty far down on his list.
Classical? Bemis likes Stravinsky and Bartok, but has little patience for chamber music. Classical music "has to be played the way the composer meant it," he says. "I like the fact that jazz is the performer's music."
Burlington's annual Discover Jazz Fest is like Christmas for Bemis. Halfway through the week, he's still looking forward to Dafnis Prieto, who plays the FlynnSpace Wednesday night with the Absolute Quintet. "He's a musical drummer who complements whatever music he's playing with," Bemis says. "He's the most amazing drummer I've heard so far of the newer ones."
Another show he's psyched about is the World Saxophone Quartet, Friday night on the Flynn MainStage. Bemis has been a huge fan of reedman James Carter since he first heard him at Nectar's before he became a headliner. Carter's blistering sound isn't the most accessible, Bemis acknowledges. After a WSQ concert a couple of years ago, he recalls, "Someone said that it sounded like a traffic jam to them."
His response to that friend is the same advice he'd give anyone who wants to get into jazz: "You've got to open your ears more. Open yourself up and listen to it," he says. "I think that's what people ought to do: Open their ears and their minds a little more."
With Bemis's help, a generation of Vermonters has been able to do just that.