Sir Doug of Edwards

Doug Edwards KPFA and Vibist Milt Jackson

(Doug Edwards left with Milt Jackson Center)

The Art of Improvisation: Doug Edwards, a profile

by Bob Hershon

Radio on a public station is something of a dead-end job. The airwaves are full of DJs who talk about public or college stations as a stopping off point, a charming little rest stop on the road to success. Few of those who have carved, or are carving, a career out of radio have music as their raison d’étre. Perhaps no one I know has committed more time, money, and energy to chronicling the Jazz scene in the Bay Area and beyond as Doug Edwards.

One of Doug’s special talents is his ability to improvise with whatever people, materials, funds (or lack of) he happens to have. Although his entrance into radio was wholly unplanned, he has followed the solid rhythms of a big heart in making a most unique and valuable contribution.

What else but a love of the music could motivate this man to endure a decade of dragging his mixing board, mikes, stands, and cables into out-of-the-way clubs and school auditoriums, recording hitherto unrecorded musicians, and editing it for his Saturday night broadcast on KPFA? What else would motivate him to devote a lifetime to something that would provide so little financial reward?

“Payback monetarily was not what I was after, although God knows it would have been nice,” Doug explained. “It was the ability to transmit or reflect what you’re feeling, your excitement, the magic of the music, your commitment to your love. To deal with the musicians on a level which would find me leaving an interview with someone I respect like Ed Kelly, John Handy, or Branford Marsalis high as a kite because we shared something real, emotionally and intellectually. It’s as close to being part of the music as I could hope to be with that caliber of musician. I guess when it’s good, it’s some sort of art.”

One of the things that sets Doug Edwards apart as a programmer and as a human being is an abiding commitment to the community in which he resides. Doug is a fixture not only in the clubs, but also in the lives of the players. He will pursue a chance to do a live recording with resident artists such as Denise Perrier or Faye Carol (whom he was the first to record) with the same energy as he would with Max Roach.

“From the first appearance on his show he made me feel like family–like it was personal, not professional,” Faye said. “As a result, his audience learns something about you and your art. They develop a feeling for you. I know because they come up and talk to me about it. With the commercial stations it’s a matter of programming. It’s cut and dried. Doug takes the time they don’t or can’t to know your work. Often if you don’t have a record, he will record you. And because his tastes are refined, his audiences pay attention to you. It’s not just the idle exercise so many media appearances are.”

His attention and care for the blooms in his own backyard have not been lost on these artists, as Donald “Duck” Bailey points out.

“Doug is like a walking Jazz flyer with 59,000 watts to back him up. When I was committing my heart and soul to preserving at least one open jam session in the area, Doug was right there, not just once as a courtesy, but continually doing live recordings and promoting upcoming programs. He lights a fire under people and doesn’t let it die.”

It was Mr. Edwards who cured many of us of our provinciality by quite forcefully making the distinction between referring to a player as a “local” musician and a “resident” musician. Ellen Hoffman, accomplished pianist-composer and one of the forces behind the Oakland Youth Chorus, elaborates. “I used to refer to myself as a ‘local’ musician. Doug showed me that through a change in language, I would hold myself and the music scene in general in higher esteem.

“One of the other unique aspects of Doug’s commitment is his never-ending enthusiasm for youngsters. He is always ready to meet the next up and coming performer as long as they’ve made the effort whether they’re on a club stage, at Cazadero Jazz Camp, or at Macateer High School.”

A little bit like a character in the old E. F. Hutton commercial, I listen to Doug quite closely when he says to check out this singer or this pianist after seeing his hints turn into soaring stars like Bobby McFerrin. Especially astute at picking out pianists, he saw great promise in sixteen-year-old Benny Green, a young Bruce Barth, Terence Blanchard, and most recently, Kito Gamble who appears in the May 1994 issue of Down Beat.

“One of the reasons I got so connected to musicians in the community came from living in Harlem where I had musicians like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Art Taylor, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Parker living and working all around me. There was another parallel between those musicians and the ones I came to know here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I saw the slide that great performers like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker went into when their cabaret cards were pulled and they couldn’t practice their art. I’ve seen the struggles that many artists here like Bishop Norman Williams, Pony Poindexter, and Gaylord Birch have endured in an attempt to achieve their goals.”

Doug has a set of vibes in his apartment in Pacifica, California. He lives under the long shadow of Milt Jackson. His innate understanding of phrasing, tone and timing is undeniable. One of his first musical loves was the drums, an instrument his parents discouraged. In the service, however, he found a set of drums and a place to practice and pursued them on his own. Despite the lack of any formal training, he was recruited by the army band. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve got the wrong cat.’ What they said to me is that I had the understanding of Jazz and bebop (which was the music of the time) that the other musicians didn’t have in terms of being able to drop bombs and accents. So I got into the quintet and leaned to play drums on the stage.”

Doug traveled to Europe upon leaving the armed forces. There he saw the level of respect given to American Jazz musicians, and as a fan he was able to contact at close quarters players like Cannonball Adderly, Dexter Gordon, and Ray Brown.

In 1978 he stumbled on Pony Poindexter playing in a club with only eight fans in attendance. Being new to the Bay Area, he was unable to accept the lack of support as the status quo. So when the opportunity presented itself, he found himself behind the mike for the first time at radio station KPOO promoting a benefit for Poindexter. During his stint at KPOO he had artists like Jessica Williams, Bishop Norman Williams, and Ed Kelly performing live in the studio. “I felt there was a niche to be filled here,” Doug pointed out, “Where talented artists who had not recorded could be displayed to a public that might not come out to see someone they had not heard.” Fittingly, he called this exposition “The Audible Art Gallery.”

In an interview, pianist Ed Kelly expanded on Doug’s thought. “In New York, the spotlight rarely fails to find the great and not-so great players. Out here, Doug and the resources he applied to the problem help keep many fine players from slipping into obscurity. He also provides a platform for prodigal sons like Craig Handy, Benny Green, and Peter Washington who return from the Big Apple. Something that should be required of all of those who proffer their opinions on the efforts of others is at least an attempt to struggle with the demands of an instrument and the changes, especially on a tune like ‘Cherokee.'”

The next step was to take this battle to the streets. Upon moving to KPFA, Doug found that they had great equipment and numerous producers all wanting to use it at the same time. Unwilling to settle for infrequent access and missed opportunities, Doug found an equipment angel named Barbara Sherman who bestowed a grant from a philanthropic fund she administered. This turned Doug loose on the music world with a Sony TCD 5M recorder, a mixer, some seinheser 421 mikes, and miles of cables.

Then followed two years of recording which included Bishop’s Charlie Parker Memorial Concerts with luminaries like John Handy, George Cables, Eddie Marshall, and Professor Eddie Henderson, as well as the Cotati Jazz Festival with Billy Browning’s Big Band, Eddie Duran, and Mary Stallings. But in 1982 Doug was beset by doubts about what he was doing. The lack of wider recognition and financial reward (a measuring stick for the value of our lives in this society) had doug ready to pack up for a civil service position in Arizona.

“Because of the lack of financial support, I would be scuffling for essentials like tape. So invariably some fine recordings like John Handy’s Indian Boogie Shoes were erased during these scrambles for tape to hit the streets with,” Doug pointed out. “Sometimes we are so busy going from gig to gig and editing that we don’t have a chance to sit back and appreciate the body of work we created.”

Helen Van Heusen, Doug’s Jazzmate and fellow cable carrier, laid on him some perspective which she had gathered while accompanying him to all these venues. She pointed out the importance of what he was doing and the need for him to continue.

Other encouragement came from listeners in towns outside of the Bay Area who pointed out that what he did was even more vital to them because they couldn’t drive to the gigs form Fresno or the Russian River. And when they did make a special trop, the information Doug armed them with ensured they would make good use of their time.

Doug Edward’s programs on KPFA also covered issued outside of the musical realm. When Doug found that he was loosing his vision to glaucoma, he organized an informative set of shows centering on the theme of what it’s like to lose your sight, what the physical process is all about, and how to deal with the loss. Rarely has a program been aired by someone so involved in such a process.

Perhaps most important for our purposes here is the integral part Doug Edwards played in the creation of Jazz Now, (formerly California Jazz Now) and my own continuing participation in it.

“When I met Haybert Houston, I was MC at Donald Bailey and Suzie Laraine’s jam session at the Berkeley House, now the Ramada Inn. He came over and introduced himself and said he had started a Jazz magazine,” Doug went on to say. ” I gave him my card, and he surprised me because the next day he showed up at my house in Pacific with a copy of the first issue of the magazine. All he needed was a little help. It represented an opportunity to give something back. It was a gas to watch someone who mirrored me and my enthusiasm. Underlying everything with Stella and Haybert was a consuming love of Jazz. I was thrilled to be part of his dream. I went out and peddled magazines one at a time, wrote articles, sold ads, and helped gather a group of committed and industrious people like Phavia Kuchigagulia and you Bob. We sold magazines one at a time. It was really satisfying to be part of something that’s evolved like JN has.”

I would like to conclude with a prayer that Doug will be provided the resources and health to allow him to continue following his dream and helping others realize theirs.

by Bob Hershon

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