News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

June 19, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Looking for the avenue to jazz? Follow the Night Lights

TERRE HAUTE — My idea of heaven is listening to great music and learning something I didn’t know about it in the process. Every Saturday night at 11 on WFIU-FM — or anytime online — David Brent Johnson’s “Night Lights” opens the pearly gates.

Johnson is only 43, but he has the bona fide jazz-geek sensibilities that usually come after a very long life of listening to everyone from Bix to Billie to Bird. He offers not only marvelous musical selections from an extensive period, 1945 to 1990, but also he sets them in historical and cultural context, providing a narrative theme for each show.

One of the most creative themes so far was “Jazz From Rehab,” an entire hour devoted to music recorded in the 1960s by musicians recovering from drug or alcohol abuse. The tracks offered the sounds of such struggling stars as guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Charlie Haden and alto sax man Art Pepper, along with text, written and read by Johnson, that illuminates the era and a rehab culture that was all about privacy and discretion, not the cover of People magazine.

Not bad for an English/journalism major who only began listening to jazz in his early 20s.

“I was mostly into indie rock when I was growing up,” Johnson said last week in a phone interview. “My light on the road to Damascus came one day when I was sitting in the Daily Grind here in Bloomington, reading a book and they were playing Count Basie on the overhead. It was something from the late 1930s. Jimmy Rushing was singing this song and I was, ‘What is this?! I’ve got to get some of this music!’ It was like something clicked inside me.”

Johnson has been sharing that awakening ever since. Next month marks the sixth anniversary — or birthday, as WFIU is calling it — of the most complete realization of his revelation, Night Lights. To help support Johnson’s extraordinary research efforts and growing music collection, the show is conducting a micro fund drive until July 3.

(Go online to indianapublicmedia.org/nightlights for information or to donate.)

Because it’s micro, Johnson said, contributors have been kicking in $10 to $25 online instead of the large amounts that keep WFIU broadcasting over half the state. (Around here, we receive the station at 95.1 or 103.7.) The cool part: People have been kicking in from Australia, the Philippines, Florida, Oregon and California, as well as Indiana. Night Lights is now syndicated in 38 markets on 14 stations. 

The host of another fine WFIU show, “Afterglow” (10 p.m. Fridays), Johnson wears many hats at the station and works his rear off to share his love of jazz and American standards with his audience. Programs he did on pianist Vince Guaraldi, composer of the “Peanuts” TV specials soundtracks, and Willis Conover, an almost mythical disk jockey for Voice of America, took more than 50 hours each of preparation.

But Johnson swears, “it doesn’t even feel like work.” He also says Night Lights likely would be impossible were it not for two elements: “This is the age of the Internet, and I’m five minutes away from the IU School of Music library.”

It helps, too, that Johnson’s wife likes jazz and that Johnson is obsessive.

“I was trying to quit smoking at the time I got into jazz, so all my addictive tendencies — and all the money I suddenly had by not buying cigarettes — kicked in to feed my new obsession,” he said. “I worked in a record store for awhile and took all the overtime and holiday hours I could so I could buy boxed sets of artists I’d discovered.”

A few years on Bloomington’s community station, WFHB, eventually led to WFIU, where Johnson occasionally sits in for the station’s jazz-big band dean, Joe Bourne. (Bourne once called WFHB to compliment Johnson during an 80th birthday tribute to Charlie Parker: “It was like the jazz pope calling and giving you his blessing.”)

Six years ago, Johnson pitched the idea of a show that conveys “the way jazz is tied into the history and culture of the United States, and do it in a story-like way.” WFIU Station manager Christina Kuzmych took a gamble and gave Johnson a late Saturday slot that had been vacated when another show’s corporate sponsor dropped its funding.

Johnson said he is mindful of the fine line he must walk to create a program that attracts the breadth of audience he always envisions.

“I want it to appeal to jazz lovers, but also to people who kind of like some jazz but don’t necessarily know a lot about it,” he said. “You don’t want to get too insiderish or sound like you’re patronizing people. You never want to be talky or sound like you’re in a classroom, but you want to frame it so it has a kind of a narrative. I want Night Lights to be this kind of avenue to jazz.”

Recalling some of his narratives, Johnson sounds more like a musician jamming with himself on several instruments. He once did a show on jazz covers of Beatles songs that were recorded by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and guitarist Grant Green. He did a program, “Dearly Beloved,” on husband-wife jazz duos, another on Jack Kerouac and jazz, and another on Miles Davis’ comeback in the 1980s.

“A lot of people did shows about ‘Kind of Blue,’” he said, referring to Davis’ 1959 album. “But they didn’t do shows about Miles playing Michael Jackson tunes.”

Johnson enjoys devoting Night Lights to “overlooked greats,” such as Terre Haute composer, pianist and bandleader Claude Thornhill and trumpeter Freddie Webster, who died at 30. This past week’s show, titled “Daddy-O,” offered the music of father-son collaborations, including a cut from an album recorded in 1966 by Ornette Coleman that featured Coleman’s then-10-year-old son, Denardo, on drums.

“It’s a real challenge to edit this stuff down to 59 minutes,” Johnson said. “But I’ve learned not to cram it all in at once. I remind myself there will be sequels.”

Best of all for those of us who like to learn as we listen, Johnson said the past six years have only tickled his Muse. “I’ve got a big list of ideas that I keep adding to,” he said. “There is a lot I really want to do.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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