Canadian Music Week 2014

THE STATE OF JAZZ, PART 11… with JAZZ.FM 91.1 CEO ROSS PORTER

Interview conductor, Bill King - America may be the heartland of jazz and yet Canada has filled the coffers both domestically and internationally with artists whose contributions continue to resonate throughout the world. Among them: Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Rob McConnell, Peter Leitch, Michael Buble,  Renee Roses, Jane Bunnett, Oliver Jones, Doug Riley, Jeff Healey.

Historically, commercial radio played a big part in promoting jazz—that is until the CRTC relaxed its compulsory grip in the early ‘90s and suddenly those three-hour syndicated weekend jazz shows were abandoned.  In fact, all jazz was erased after decades of being heard on commercial radio in Canada.

 Jazz would continue to be heard coast-to-coast  on campus radio and CBC radio, but a viable twenty-four hour a day presence would have to wait another decade until a makeover of local educational channel CJRT FM went full blown jazz in 2001 under the Jazz. FM banner. It would be three years before current CEO and radio man Ross Porter took the reins. 

It was a PC government under Bill Davis in 1974 that committed dollars to cover 60% of the station’s annual operating costs. It was a PC government under Mike Harris who would cut the cord, sending the station into a period of uncertainty until it rebounded through the evolution of creative fundraising.

Porter’s ten years at the helm has seen numerous changes from morning and daytime drive hosts, to the building of first class studios, an international presence through streaming, archives, outreach programs, superb website and new innovations.

Before assuming the senior executive role at JAZZ.FM in July of 2004, he was widely known for a distinguished career as a Radio and Television broadcaster and producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. For eleven years, Porter hosted a daily national show on CBC Radio 2, and covered pop culture for CBC Television’s The National and CBC Newsworld’s On the Arts, becoming integral to the careers of many of Canada’s most successful performers, including Diana Krall, Molly Johnson, Jane Bunnett, and Holly Cole.

Winner of numerous honours and accolades throughout his illustrious career, Ross Porter was accorded the 2000 CanWest Award for his ‘Outstanding Contribution to Jazz’ by friend and mentor Izzy Asper. The prestigious National Jazz Awards named him ‘Broadcaster of the Year’ in both 2002 and 2004. In the spring of 2009, Porter was nominated, by the Jazz Journalists Association, for the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Broadcasting.

Ross Porter studied at the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College and the Schulich School of Business. On June 28, 2013 he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada for lifetime achievement - (Jazz.FM Website)

What follows is a conversation I had with Ross recently:

What do you see your role and that of JAZZ.FM91 in the community?

We have a large community of interest that includes our donors and listeners and the musicians who create this incredible music. As an arts enterprise/ institution both on air and off, we entertain, educate and inform our audience.  Our community outreach is important to us. We are committed to helping young people and to reinforcing the positive values music has.  We have our Jazz 4 Kids series with a waiting list of thirty schools.  The JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band is very good and has become the finishing school for the musicians of the future… and on a regular basis we present the Jr. Jazz Jam in Regent Park

We do approximately 100 live events a year including concerts, history of jazz classes, film screenings  and live broadcasts. The concerts take place in different venues across the city.  We want to create an experience for audiences, provide employment and exposure for artists, and because these concerts are recorded, we want to create programming for our listeners. 

This is a tremendous time to be in broadcasting. There have been more changes in technology in the last five years than there have been in the last 25. We embrace change because it provides us an opportunity to question worn out assumptions about who wants what, and why. The music has momentum. Like all musical styles, jazz must keep redefining itself. This is an incredible genre because today it incorporates, and is influenced by so many, including pop, world beat, blues, hip hop, classical and country. Is there a better time for a music fan to be alive?  Also, we live in a city where 50% of the population comes from outside of Canada. The cultural diversity footprint is huge. All of us have to find comfort in the discomfort of going where the music hasn’t gone before.

How can radio help artists overcome the absence of jazz in mainstream press and declining interest?

We focus on a positive perception of jazz and all that comes with it. Toronto is the largest radio market in Canada and we have a highly sought after niche group of listeners and a deeply impressive, versatile musical community. The core is a healthy audience and donor base that supports what we do. 

Radio is important in terms of creating awareness of an artist, and now with the internet, etc., We truly are a global village, taking the musical message about Toronto and Canada around the world. But remember, radio is only one piece of the pie.  Artistic success is the sum of the parts, i.e., Radio airplay, a strong, entertaining live show, touring, promotion, a good business sense and most importantly, recording interesting music that people want to hear. 

This year in the GTA, 550 music students will graduate from Mohawk, Humber, the University of Toronto and York. What are they going to do? Are there enough jobs? If we can contribute to a sense of hope that you can make a living and be acknowledged for what you do, and at the same time keep developing audiences for them, then I feel we have accomplished something.

Montreal has created a hub for jazz around the Place des arts. How can Toronto do the same? 

This not a simple answer. It is complicated with many layers and issues that need to be addressed in Toronto before that can happen.  Firstly, Montreal has done a remarkable job with their festival because they have unlimited resources and Andre, Laurent and Alain, are visionaries with a sense of adventure and understand the importance of creating unique experiences. They  operate with a budget of around $27 million and 40% of that is from sponsorship.

In Montreal, there are three levels of government pulling together financially to make the festival work – municipally, provincially and federally. It is a well-oiled machine that has a positive ripple effect on the economy.

I think the people in the business development area of the city of Toronto should visit the Montreal festival and see first-hand what can happen and then help lobby the province and feds to get behind Pat Taylor. We certainly have no shortage of people who are visionaries.

I do have to say though that I’m truly baffled by some of the business decisions that are made by other Toronto arts organizations.  Luminato, which is truly doing an innovative job, recently announced their dates for next year and they run in the same time frame the jazz fest has occupied for decades.  I don’t understand why they would want to fragment the Toronto audiences that enjoy music outside the mainstream.

What’s been your most memorable radio interview?

I’m going to have to give you a few. I’ve been in the business for almost 40 years and started freelancing for the CBC when I was in university. I worked in TV and radio, covering current affairs and pop culture, but it is truly the musical aspect of pop culture that sets my compass. I learned a lot about the art of interviewing from John Sawatsky, Ralph Benmergui and my friend Paul McLaughlin. The most important thing to remember is that the interview is not about you. Your role as an interviewer is to be curious, and guide and direct with the right questions. The ultimate goal is storytelling and staying out of the way at the key points.

The ones I hold close had careers and a substantial body of work that made them very interesting as guests. Oscar Peterson was particularly important to me. He had elegance few have and there was a noticeable sadness I saw in his eyes that made me care about him immediately. Many of the most memorable interviews have been with songwriters.  I’m fascinated by their creative process.  Highlights include Antonio Carlos Jobim backstage at Carnegie Hall, interviewing Alan and Marilyn Bergman in their home in Beverly Hills, in the very room they wrote “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and “The Way Were”, Johnny Mandel in the study above his garage in Malibu, Quincy Jones at CMW this year, and Toronto’s Marc Jordan is always a highlight because we’ve shared so much off the air, that I connect with him in a special way.

I spent a few years covering pop culture for CBC TV’s The National and On the Arts, and that put me in a position to interview so many fascinating people. Brian Wilson was inarticulate and challenging to interview. It wasn’t so much what he said, but what he couldn’t say that made it an interesting documentary. You cheer for him every step of the way because he gave so much of himself creatively for us to enjoy. If all he had written was “Good Vibrations” then we would still be in his debt.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvj3Na7GvCU   Joni Mitchell was also a highlight. The interview was in LA and she had been up all night listening to a radio show about taxes.  She was energized, opinionated and smart.  http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/arts-entertainment/music/joni-mitchell-all-sides-now/jonis-jazz.html  Both of these people wrote music that has now transcended musical boundaries.

Oh, and I can’t forget Jimmy Webb. As a songwriter, he’s created a staggering body of work and to have him sit in front of me in our performance hall and play and tell the stories behind “Keep it Hid”, “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “MacArthur Park”, well, that will last a lifetime.

The common denominator with all of these people is they questioned assumptions and took risks. I am very fortunate to have a profession I love and indebted to people who given us so much.

 

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