Reflecting back on my flukish introduction to jazz, I have this seeming conundrum: How is it that my revelation of this “...only true indigenous American art form” (as Quincy Jones noted in the Foreword of my book) all came about because of a most passionate and knowledgeable Brit playing records on the radio?
Wes Bowen (uncredited photo)
And how is it that Wes Bowen, an erudite transplant from South Wales who served as paratrooper in World War II and rose to the rank of major in the British military, would somehow become recognized as one of the world’s great authorities in jazz. After moving to the US following the war, he began what would become a 30-year career in broadcast journalism, along the way even holding the post of national president of the Broadcasting Editorial Association.
From my own exposure to this great music in the 1950s, what I eventually learned is that Bowen’s popular “All That Jazz” program on Salt Lake’s KSL Radio had regular followers spanning 38 states, even reaching ships at sea.
Like so many others from across the pond, Bowen (born in 1924) received his “baptism” – also through radio – by listening to the recordings of such early jazz masters as pianists Duke Ellington (with whom he became a close friend), Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Earl (Fatha) Hines.
Interspersed with the great sides he spun, Bowen would share his personal accounts and interactions with various artists. Wes Bowen made you feel like you were part of his world...that you belonged, and were a member of this special family. His distinct accent, his cool, laid-back delivery during those early morning hours so perfectly fit with the captivating sounds I was hearing.
As a teenager, I guess I was too shy to even consider trying to get his phone number and letting him know how much of an impact he was having on me. Looking back now, I wish I had made the connection. I think we would have become fast friends.
In 1955, about the same time that Wes Bowen was exposing me and my ears to this exciting new music, Willis Conover launched his wildly celebrated “Voice of America” jazz broadcasts, reaching millions of new listeners throughout Europe, as well as behind the Iron Curtain.
Bowen may not have had the same reach that Conover enjoyed, but each in his own way made a huge impact in furthering the spread of jazz around the world. It’s interesting – while it was a New Yorker in the mid-20th century who brought this amazing American art to the Old World, it took a Britisher to bring it back to America...and, more importantly in my case, to me.
ALBUM Fatha's Pianology
PERSONNEL Earl Hines
ALBUM In a Sentimental Mood
COMPOSITION “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”
PERSONNEL Duke Ellington