Dick Stein takes a look back at American radio jazz hosts who helped us discover some of the world’s best jazz talent. Part of our Jazz Appreciation series.
Sure, there's nothing like live music. But the next best thing is a good jazz radio show. And over the years, there have been some real giants in the business — so popular that great jazz musicians have honored them with their own songs — and maybe to get a little airplay, too. Here are just a few.
With his cheery rhyming delivery, Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie – “Your musical host who loves you the most” — was a longtime fixture in Chicago area jazz radio. Before that, he was a high school basketball star who went on to became a Harlem Globetrotter, before leaving the team to tend bar. There he brought his Globetrotter chops to bartending, cracking “I'm as nice as a mother's advice,” while flipping ice cubes behind his back.
One night at the El Grotto supper club, Dave Garroway, the original host of the “Today” show, caught his bartending act and told him he was wasting his charm and ought to be on the radio.
Starting in the late '40s, he did at a number of Chicago-area stations. Daylie was an all-night fixture at WMAQ, the first African-American to host an ongoing show on a network-owned Chicago station. And one of the first to have a following among both black and white listeners.
Daylie helped many jazz performers along the way. He arranged the Ramsey Lewis Trio's first audition with Argo, a division of Chess Records. And he's said to be the discoverer of Nina Simone.
Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie was inducted into the Black Radio Hall of Fame in 1990.
SYMPHONY SID TORIN
King Pleasure and Lester Young wrote “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” in honor of New York jazz DJ Symphony Sid Torin — “your all-night, all-frantic one” — an early champion of bebop and the up-and-coming Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
From the mid to late 1940s, Sid broadcast live from New York's Royal Roost, a jazz club he dubbed the Metropolitan Bopra House. In 1950, he moved the show to Birdland and later to the Three Deuces and Bop City.
Sid was so popular that airplay on his show almost guaranteed a recording's success. In addition to Bird and Diz, Torin helped such greats as Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole along the way to stardom.
Later, some listeners and critics found his growling hepcat delivery — what one called “his painful imitation of a hipster”— annoying. One critic even went so far as to rate his MC style as “odious.” But those were the times.
Sid continued playing jazz into the '70s on New York radio before semi-retirement to Florida, where in 1984 the cigarettes finally got him. Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame includes Symphony Sid Torin in their display of most influential disk jockeys in history.
Mort Fega’s show “Jazz Unlimited” was born in 1955, when Fega walked in to his hometown station, New Rochelle's then WNRC, and convinced the manager he needed a jazz show. Later, after moving to New York's WEVD, named for socialist Eugene V. Debs, Mort was on the air opposite Symphony Sid.
His conversational style was the antithesis of Sid's. If anything, Fega was the anti-hipster. Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, an early fan, described his delivery as “laid-back, knowledgeable and forthright, the cool uncle you always wished you'd had.”
Mort played the modern musicians of the time: Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins, Bill Evans. But he also played spoken word artists such as Lord Buckley, big bands and even stand-up routines — almost all from his personal record collection.
Mort’s Focus record label released the music of Carmen McRae, Bob Dorough and Earl “Fatha” Hines. Besides his many years as a jazz radio host in New York and later Phoenix and Florida, he emceed concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Jazz Festival and the Apollo Theater.
Here's an example of his modest style, introducing the Miles Davis group at the Philharmonic Hall.
During World War II, Mort Fega was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as a B-17 Flying Fortress captain with 29 missions. He retired to Florida's Del Ray Beach, where he continued to host a local jazz radio show, taught jazz history, and wrote a weekly newspaper column. He died at 83.