WEMU and UMS celebrate partnership to mark Public Radio Music Day
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and Happy Public Radio Music Day! This is the third annual celebration put forth by the nonComm MUSIC Alliance. And we at WEMU are happy participants--more for what it intends and means than for the celebration itself. I'm David Fair, and the Alliance began this day of recognition to celebrate and unite public radio music stations, artists, and fans to highlight the contributions of public radio to local and national noncommercial music. Ultimately, this is a celebration of you for supporting jazz and WEMU for 45 years and investing in our ability to create community partnerships that enhance local, national, and international artists that make this such a unique cultural hub in Michigan. As we mark the occasion, we thought who better to talk to about it than the man who helped create one of the greatest cultural partnerships with WEMU. Ken Fischer served as head of the University Musical Society for 30 years. He is now president emeritus of UMS. And, Ken, it's great to talk with you again.
Ken Fischer: David, it's so great to be back in touch with you, man. We had so many good times together over the years, and I've missed you, pal.
David Fair: I miss you, too. And, hopefully, we'll be together once again at some point in the not-so-distant future. Meantime, while WEMU has been around over 50 years, and that seems like an eternity, UMS has been a part of the cultural fabric since 1879. But the ability of both organizations to expand impact were most certainly improved when we partnered up all these years ago. So, Ken, if you don't mind, can you take us back to the day or the time when you made the decision to expand program offerings at UMS to include jazz?
Ken Fischer: Well, I think I would want to credit my predecessor, Gail Rector, who brought in jazz occasionally. And so, it wasn't really curated jazz. It wasn't as thoughtful as I think we became, thanks to you guys. What I remember, most interestingly, is Alberto Nacif, who had the Cuban Fantasy program, said to me once "Ken, if you can put live on stage what we here at WEMU you put on the air, we'll be there to support you, and you'll be successful." Period. What a wonderful challenge that was. That's exactly what happened. And not only was it Latin jazz, but jazz in general, world music, all of these things just took off in ways that we had not expected. And you guys were right at the heart of it.
David Fair: Ken, UMS was long known and still is known for its commitment to bringing the world's best in the areas of classical music, dance, and theater to our community. Was there any initial hesitation from the UMS board when you said we're going to make a bigger priority out of jazz in our programming?
Ken Fischer: Well, I think the board at UMS was really looking to what can the University Musical Society do to expand its audience to get better financial footing and look to me and the staff that I was building to see what could be done with that. And I must say, there were things that we needed to do. The main thing was get out of the tower and into the communities of southeast Michigan. And that means developing partnerships. And, internally, right at the top of those partnerships for us over the entire tenure of my being at UMS is its partnership with WEMU because not only did you help us expand, I mean, you identify the kinds of artists that you felt we ought to be bringing in the kind of artists that you were featuring. And we're thinking up here, you know, just looking at Latin jazz that we ever had, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, or the Buena Vista Social Club or Celia Cruz or Daniela Mercury. I mean, those are all artists that we brought to our community and had enormous success with that. Celia Cruz was represented for the first time in the auditorium when they had 4200 people. And what was interesting is half the audience there knew that we had Celia Cruz, you can dance. You're gonna get up and dance. And then, the other half said, "Why are all these people dancing?" And, of course, they got complaints from both sides. But what I decided to do was just own the problem. I said, "Look, the problem here was wrong venue." We need to put this woman in the EMU Convocation Center. I don't know how many thousands we had down on the dance floor. And I must admit, they looked just like ant hills sitting in the stands. And we just didn't get it that, you know, we have Celia Cruz. You're going to be out there, and you're going to be dancing. But then, Daniela Mercury. The same thing. And then, Wynton Marsalis came. You know, he often would play--most often would play--in Hill Auditorium. But he wanted to do a swing dance party. And so, with Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and WEMU, we had the swing dance party. He was enormously popular. And, of course, it just deepened our relationship with Eastern Michigan University. I know we had a partnership with you guys, but then, through your support, you were able to be presenting events at the Convocation Center, which was hugely successful for us. And then, the wonderful hosts would invite the jazz artists that we would be bringing to UMS.They would come on over and do the interviews for their programs. I'm thinking of Linda Yohn in particular, you know, who was always open to, "Hey, could we bring in this artist or that artist?" And how could you say no to someone. And then, she was so respected that the artists that we would bring in happened to know who she was. Absolutely, we'll be there! And then, you know, the hosting of our jazz shows, it wasn't normal, you know, for me to get out on stage before the Philharmonic or before Jessye Norman to come on out and talk to the audience. But when we have an evolving jazz audience, you want somebody that they know and respect as the first person they see on the stage. And that's so often where our friends at WEMU--the hosts--be put to work and they're glad they did this, you know, welcoming people. And we think that helped us with our audience building around these genres with which we were not, you know, always identified over our entire history. So, not only Latin jazz and regular jazz, but also world music, where you guys really helped us expand our audience in that area.
David Fair: We're talking with Ken Fischer on 89 one WEMU, the president emeritus of UMS, is our guest as we mark Public Radio Music Day now. Your successor, Ken, Matthew VanBesien, was and is the perfect person for the job. Later in the 2022-2023 season, the Aaron Deal trio is going to make it to town, as will the Maria Schneider Orchestra and WEMU favorite, Cecile McLorin Salvant. Now, you've mentioned a couple of those jazz shows, Wynton Marsalis and Celia Cruz. Of all the jazz shows that UMS has partnered with WEMU over the years, is there a particular performance that stands out to you?
Ken Fischer: Yeah. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton. You know, I presented him 19 times, more than any other artist.
David Fair: And he's already done three different performances in our area this year.
Ken Fischer: Well, I think that's important for us to talk about, because Wynton had never done a weeklong residency in anyplace else that we know of. And that he was saying to me when I saw him backstage, this is unprecedented for us. You know, he had done this sort of thing. And, you know, for your audience, he was here for an entire week. There were performances of All Rise on Friday night and then Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on Sunday. But then he played the halftime show in front of 110,000 people with the Michigan marching band. But he was also in the schools and doing school day performances. He even went to the Milan...you know, his group went to the Milan correctional facility. But, you know, the events that I remember most...well, Wynton is a whole lot of things. He's a composer. He's a great trumpeter. Of course, he's a great bandleader. But, more than anything, he's an educator. And I was sitting in what I'll never forget was the the best school day performance was in middle school kids sitting in Hill Auditorium and Wynton Marsalis talking about Dave Brubeck and about the word discrimination. And what he talked about was how Brubeck would refuse to perform at venues or stay at hotels, where in the Black members of Dave Brubeck's group were unwelcome. And they would just say, "Well, I'm sorry, sir. We won't be playing with your performance tonight." Well, I can't tell you what the impression that made on these young people and had such a way of communicating that really got across. I'll never forget the time we were honoring Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with our Distinguished Artist Award for the Honors Program. Wynton played on a Sunday afternoon, and there were 300 people awaiting his arrival over at the Michigan meet. They all paid a little extra money to support our education program, and Wynton was running late, and he often does. And then, backstage, everybody comes back to see him. Well, I'm looking at him. He's looking at me. And he says, "Well, we really need to get going." And we go out the back door of Hill Auditorium, and there are two young boys, each carrying a trumpet. They'd been waiting an hour to see Wynton Marsalis. He looked at me. I looked at him. And we turned around, went back into his dressing room, and he gave each of these kids--he gave them together--a 15-minute lesson.
David Fair: Wow.
Ken Fischer: Well, then we left and went back to the Michigan lead. Everybody cheered when we arrived. I thought the most important thing I could do was go to the, you know, to the lectern and explain why we were late. Can you imagine how that story resonated with the 300 people there, all of whom were supporting our education program? But the reason we were late was that Wynton thought it was important to get these two young men a 15-minute lesson. And, you know, who's the partner? An educational institution like Eastern Michigan University at its radio station. And I got to say. Nobody recorded UMS events or the events of any of art, you know, organizations in town the way you guys did. You can always count on WEMU to talk about the event, to interview our artists. You know, you had me there on so many occasions where we had a chance to talk about the upcoming season and the season that we just had. What a fantastic partnership this has been for years, continues to be, and just how wonderful to be able to celebrate this on this particular day as, you know, all the public radio station. And I look and I hope about what they've done to support, you know, music, you know, in our country.
David Fair: Our time together is just about out. But I do want to pose a final question. Now as president and now president emeritus, you've, as mentioned, have had the opportunity to meet with, sit with, sometimes eat with the visiting artists. It's been my experience that when you engage an artist, you usually walk away with a little extra bit of life wisdom. Any pearls you've collected over the years that you've carried on with you?
Ken Fischer: Well, you know, what is jazz? Jazz is probably our most democratic form of music. And that's the lesson that I take away. Whenever I sit in a jazz concert, I'm looking at respect for everyone who is on the stage and with the audience. And then, you see these individuals do their particular licks, and the audience cheers. The rest of the gang is right there supporting them. It's that, and then there's the whole improvisation. You know, you've got the talent. You know how to read the notes. But then, you've also got to feel. You've got the instinct to know when to take it to an entirely new level. So, when I think of how democracy is challenged these days, then I think of this fabulous form of democracy, and we call them lessons from just observing how a jazz ensemble relates to each other, and I think there are a lot of lessons there.
David Fair: Ken, I'd like to thank you for the time. It is always a pleasure to talk with you. It's been too long, and I hope we don't wait this long for our next conversation.
Ken Fischer: Well, the best voice from public radio is speaking to me now, and I just loved it, David Fair. Let's get together, and thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about WEMU and all that you've done not just for UMS over the years, but our entire community.
David Fair: Well, we are better for having you as a friend, so thank you, Ken Fischer. That is Ken Fischer, president emeritus of UMS as we mark Public Radio Music Day and celebrate your investment in WEMU and its ability to continue serving music culture in Washtenaw County and Southeast Michigan. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station. 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Celebrating 45 years of jazz programing on the radio.
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