STAY TUNED: ELECTRONIC MEDIA FEATURE (NEW)
"GOSPEL JAZZ: A Radio Perspective" - Interview with Gospel Jazzations' Tony Smith
By Terrence Richburg, Debbi Johnson and Andrea R. Williams © 2009
Without a doubt, Gospel Jazz is a rapidly-growing genre with daily spikes in popularity among fans and those "called" as musicians and artists to lead the way. However, another vital component of the Gospel Jazz movement is none other than the elements of electronic media--radio stations, television programming, announcers, engineers, and personalities who with a single "wave" reach thousands upon thousands of listeners and viewers. We invite you to meet these dedicated resources that champion wide-spread broadcasting of these dynamic sounds and truly relevant art of music to the masses. JGC's new electronic media feature, Stay Tuned... explores the world of mass-media broadcasting as it relates to the marketing and promotion of Gospel Jazz in today's music industry.
Tony Smith , an accomplished Gospel Jazz Saxophonist in his own right has taken on the challenge as his personal mission to advance the presentation of Gospel Jazz and its gifted proponents to his loyal listeners on his Gospel Jazzations radio program. Tony also advocates the education of artists and fans alike on how to better support the procreation of this music, spread the word to build interest, and make a meaningful contribution to expand this biblically-based Christian ministry. JGC recently interviewed Tony about his ministry as a Gospel Jazz musician and a radio broadcaster.
JGC: How did you get started with the Gospel Jazz/Inspirational Jazz genre as a musician and as a broadcaster?
TS: First of all, as a musician, I was given the opportunity to play along with the church choir at my church. They really didn't have an instrumentalist, per se, to play with the choir. It was always either the pianist or the organist. When I inquired about playing with the choir, the reaction was "a saxophonist in the church?" They had never really experienced that before, but they gave me an opportunity. It was just regular hymns that we hear each and every Sunday during church service. I was able to play along with the choir, playing the hymns, but also interject some of my jazz stylings in that. I didn't want to play too much over the top, but added a little jazz here and there and it was accepted quite well.
JGC: What about as a broadcaster?
TS: As a broadcaster, I was given the opportunity by the music director, Stacy Wendell, to be on WFDU, 89.1-FM, in Teaneck, NJ. She was in charge of the Gospel Music Department at WFDU. It's a multi-genre radio station, and they had two shows, Traditional Gospel Music and Holy Hip Hop on that station. When I was given the opportunity to come on board, I wanted to do something that I enjoyed, which was Gospel Jazz, Gospel Instrumental, because traditional radio does not play our music. I had a lot of the music anyway as far as Gospel Jazz is concerned, and I said I'd like to put together a show that focused on the Gospel musician or the Jazz side of Gospel music. They gave me the opportunity, opened up the door, and the rest is history. My first guest for that show was Kirk Whalum. The name of my show is "Gospel Jazzations," and we're on from 1:15am to 6:00am EST every Wednesday morning.
JGC: How long ago was that?
TS: Seven years ago.
JGC: How would you explain Gospel Jazz or Inspirational Jazz to a Christian who might find it somewhat difficult to understand as a concept acceptable in ministry?
TS: It's difficult to pin it down to exact words because every one has their own take on it. But, as far as I'm concerned in trying to explain it to a Christian, it's just taking the songs that we worship with at church and playing them instrumentally, albeit, with a Jazz flavor to it. It's not to say we are trying to take Christian or Gospel music to the world, it's just taking our styling as a musician and incorporating those stylings, whether it's Jazz, Classical or any other genre, and infuse it with Gospel music or Christian music.
JGC: In terms of your listening base, how large is it; and, what would you say the demographic is?
TS: In our latest Arbitron ratings, we have about 1500 listeners worldwide. We're streaming live over the Internet, as well as servicing the New York City Metro area - which is New York City, parts of New Jersey and parts of Connecticut. The makeup of the people listening to the music is a mixture. It can be male and female, anywhere from 34 or 35 all the way up to 55 years old, and that's demographics all across the board, whether it's White, Black, Asian, you name it, the whole gamut.. People are just really enjoying this style of music because it's something that they like. They hear it, and they say, "it's not really Gospel," or "it's not Jazz, but I can really get into this." The majority of people who do listen to it, who are into Gospel, will say I wish I knew a little bit more about this music. It's not advertised enough to let people know who the artists are.
JGC: That's great to know. One of the interests I personally have, as a Gospel-Jazz artist, is to make sure that it reaches people across the board, particularly when we have to go play and hopefully everyone will show up to the gig. Because you're a broadcaster, you get to do that with a push of a button. Do you feel that your listenership is growing and at what rate?
TS: Oh, absolutely. Since the first show I did seven years ago, I didn't think anybody was actually listening, to be honest with you, but over the years it has grown so much. I have reached out to the artists who have product out, like you, Terrence ( R&R Band ), Kirk Whalum, Allen & Allen, Ángella Christie, Ben Tankard. These artists who are trying to get their music out have their own fan base, depending on where they are - whether it's California, Alabama, New York, New Jersey, Florida. I'm trying to reach out in order to spread this music to people who may be in other parts of the country. Say an artist, like Kevin Moore, who has his fan base out in the San Francisco Bay Area, is going to be in the Texas area, I'm going to reach out to my listeners from the Texas area and say, "Hey, Kevin Moore is coming to your area, you need to check out his music."
JGC: How would you say technology has affected the role of radio in the music entertainment industry and along with that, how would you say Internet radio measures up to traditional radio?
TS: Internet radio is just an Internet broadcast. In fact, true radio, FM or AM radio, is always going to be far superior then Internet radio. Albeit, yes, with AM and FM radio you can only service the people who are in your listening audience. People really do appreciate, however, that they can turn on the radio in their car and listen to actual radio. As far as Internet radio is concerned, that's a great opportunity because you can be heard all over the world. People can log in and tune into the program. But, I don't think people are going to forget about true, free radio or regular. With the technology that's out now, we as Gospel Jazz musicians can now stream our show live over the Internet. Right now I'm streaming live video footage, as well, while doing my show. So, if I have an artist come through, like, for instance, bass player Reggie Young, they may see him on their computer at home or at work and say, "oh wow, I didn't know Reggie looked like that." Technology is helping us with these MP3 downloads. People may not be able to purchase the artist's cd at their local bookstore because they may not carry a Gospel Jazz section. They can go to the artist's website, or go to Amazon.com or iTunes and download the particular cd from their computer. That's definitely how technology is helping us as Gospel Jazz artists.
JGC: When it comes to Smooth Jazz or Gospel Jazz, specifically as it relates to Smooth Jazz, there's been a move for those FM stations to disappear for a variety of reasons. My question to you is doesn't the Internet offer more options radio-wise as far as different genres? Aren't people able to hear more of the music they want to listen to via Internet as opposed to FM with some of the programming restrictions there?
TS: The radio station where I am, WFDU-FM, is a public station. We are not bound by commercial advertisers where we have to stick to a particular playlist. That's why I like free radio, some college radio and public radio, which is what WFDU is. We can play whatever we like. With the Internet, yes, you do have the freedom to play other styles of music, other artists, Smooth Jazz for that matter. As you know, here in the New York area we lost our No. 1 Smooth Jazz station, CD-101.9FM, last year. Four o'clock one afternoon they just switched over to Classic Rock. People were listening to it and said, "What's going on?" It was a sad thing to see, and a lot of our Smooth Jazz stations are disappearing all over the country. The only way you can get Smooth Jazz now is either if you have an HD radio set or on the Internet. I guess that's the biggest advantage Internet radio has now.
JGC: In terms of your personal mission regarding Gospel Jazz, can you tell me what you would like to see or what you would like to do as a broadcaster? Particularly, relating to playing and promoting Gospel Jazz music.
TS: I would like to see more exposure of this genre across the board. In certain circles, where they may have the Stellars or the GRAMMYS®, the problem that I've been hearing is that the reason there is no category or the category keeps being passed up is because there is not enough entries. I have tons of cds, many artists who have put out product and released it as far as this genre is concerned. I don't believe that there are not enough entries; I just think that it is not exposed enough, the artists don't know enough about it, the listeners don't know enough about it and what I'm trying to do with this radio show, Gospel Jazzations , is to expose the general public to it - to educate them. What that will entail is playing the music, introducing the artist, their website, their contact information, the name of the selection, the name of their album and, of course, where the listener can purchase it and just letting the listeners know this is who we are. We are Christians. We should be able to be recognized, as well, as far as this music is concerned. Why should traditional radio only concentrate on choirs or female or male vocalists? Why not give us musicians an opportunity to be exposed, as well? There are some Gospel Jazz artists and music that are used with singers. Like a Barbara King. She's a fantastic Jazz artist, but she sings Gospel music. The instrumentalists themselves may not be able to sing, but they sing with their instruments - guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, even flute. What I want to try to do is get the exposure out to the public so we as a whole can be more accepted across the board in the music industry. There are some Jazz stations that are actually playing our Gospel music - Ben Tankard, Allen & Allen, Kirk Whalum - they're playing those songs on their Smooth Jazz stations. I just want to see more of our traditional Gospel music stations playing our music and not just using it as background music, but to let people know this is, for instance, Terrence Richburg being played, this is Tony Smith being played, this is Kevin Moore, this is Alton Merrill, Gregg Haynes - a fantastic guitarist in St. Louis - he's been in the business for a number of years and, honestly, his music is not even being played on traditional Gospel music stations, and there are lyrics and vocalists in his music. The traditional Gospel radio stations just do not accept or respect this style of music. I don't know why that is. I checked myself and asked. They say there is not a viable income for this style of music to keep it going; to even expose it. What I'm trying to do is just expose it as much as I can. I very rarely play my own music. I have four cds that I've released, but I want people to know why I have this radio program - to expose the music, to expose the artists, to get more recognition. It's not ever about me. God gave me an opportunity to play this music and to have this radio show, and I just want to expose it to as many people as possible.
JGC: What do you think needs to be done as it relates to advertisers and promoters in order to attract more listeners to Gospel Jazz?
TS: More work needs to be focused on advertising and promoting because, again, radio is not going to do it for us and some of these bookstores are not going to do it for us because they don't know. They are confused by the term "Gospel Jazz." What categories do they put us in? Do they put it in the Jazz section? Do they put it in the Gospel section? They aren't sure. So, I think if we promote it, if we invest in ourselves, by having ads done in magazines, taking out 30-second commercials on traditional Gospel radio - even with the Smooth Jazz stations - take out a 30-second commercial. We need to let the listeners know, "Hey, we're here, and we have product, we have music that you will enjoy." We need to work a little bit harder in promoting ourselves.
It's hard for us singularly as artists to do it ourselves. But we can band together, like all the other genres do, and put together a workshop or even a tour - a Gospel Jazz tour. There's a gentleman, and I think you've already interviewed him, Duke Guillaume here in the New York City area, of the Metropolitan Gospel Big Band. We're getting together with Tyrone Birkett, who is a fantastic Gospel Jazz artist, and his wife Paula Ralph-Birkett, to put together a Gospel Jazz seminar or a venue that we can go to and expose this music. If we band together across the country as far as putting our own events together, then I think it will catch on.
JGC: That's exactly where we're going with Jazz Gospel Central. That's exactly what we're trying to do. We're working on putting together some Jazz cruises, showcases, seminars and conferences. We're trying to get the word out so we can have the level of support needed, so when we put together an event, the people will actually come.
TS: Right, and, again, it's all about exposure, getting the word out and commitment and banding together to invest in ourselves to get it out to the public. Some of these artists really won't.
The station that I'm at is listener supported. We do a fundraiser once a year for three weeks in February. You pledge $5 to the show and it keeps our program on the air for another year. I told a lot of these artists, invest in yourself. Invest the price of one of your cds. Pledge your support - $10, $15, or $20, whatever the cost of your cd is - to keep this show on the air. Even though we have a lot of listeners tuning in, at the end of the day it's all about dollars and cents. So, if a show like a country western show or a bluegrass show is being supported by their listeners and they are bringing in $5,000-$6,000 for just 3 weeks of pledging and a Gospel Jazz show is only bringing in $20 for those 3 weeks, what message are you sending to management? You have all these listeners, Tony, but they are not supporting you financially. So, what do they do? How can I go to management and say "put us on during the day when more people will be able to listen to us." Why would they take off a bluegrass show or an alternative music show or blues show that is bringing in $15-20,000 in pledges and put on a little Gospel Jazz show that is only bringing in $20, $100, $300? I try to encourage the artists to always invest in your product at the stations that are playing it, especially if it's listener supported. It's only the cost of one of your cds.
JGC: What is your perspective of the number of stations, both Internet and traditional, that are supporting Gospel Jazz as a genre?
TS: Eric Chambers, who's doing a Gospel Jazz show (Jazzspel) out in San Diego, he's supporting Gospel Jazz. Dewayne Benton out of Memphis, he's supporting Gospel Jazz. Don Culpepper, he has a radio Internet show. He's supporting Gospel Jazz, as well. As far as the East Coast is concerned specifically, I'm the only one doing Gospel Jazz here for the whole show, as opposed to 20 minutes of a 6-hour show or 5 minutes of an hour show. This is strictly Gospel Jazz from 1:15am - 6:00am. We throw in a little bit of the other music - you may hear a vocalist here and there. Someone may call in and request this style of music. So we try to support everybody, but it's strictly Gospel Jazz as opposed to others who may just infuse a Gospel Jazz artist here and there within their 2 or 3 hour show. Gospel Jazzations is probably one of the only ones doing it exclusively from start to finish.
JGC: Who would you say, personally as a Gospel Jazz artist, are some of your mentors who inspire you to play, particularly in the style of Jazz?
TS: Some years ago, I was watching a video, "Live at Jackson University," with Rev. James Moore. I saw that video, and the band was killing. A man by the name of Donald Hayes, out of Los Angeles, was playing the saxophone. He's the one who actually encouraged me to play in that style, in that Jazz flavor. When I heard this brother, I was like, "who is that?" I started listening back to some of the old Gospel songs with Joe Pace and Fred Hammond and Donald Hayes would be the saxophonist of choice for a lot of those selections. You hear him on a lot of the old John P. Kee selections, as well. He plays in that style, has that Jazzy flavor to it. He is probably the main person who encouraged me to play in that style; to even feel it was okay to play Gospel music in that Jazzy style. After that, Allen & Allen, and right now my biggest influence is Kirk Whalum, with his latest, "The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter III." I play a lot of his music. I'm a huge supporter of Kirk Whalum, and he's probably my biggest mentor. Donald Hayes for the first and Kirk Whalum being the biggest. If I had any dreams, only one chance to do something, that would be to share the stage with Kirk Whalum or record with Kirk Whalum. I love his styling, I love his spirit. He truly is a man for Christ, and he loves want he does. I love his passion and encourage others to have that same passion for whatever they put their hands to do.
JGC: How can people get in touch with you?
TS: People can get in touch with me at www.tonysmith.com , the radio station website is www.gospeljazzations.com or they can email me at email@example.com . I'm always available to minister anywhere, and I take my whole band with me. I don't mind going to a small church, 4 hours away from me, 20 minutes away because you never know where you're going to get your blessing.