Jazz fans surely know WBGO, the Newark-based jazz station that broadcasts throughout the tri-state area, and fans of WBGO surely know Monifa Brown, the station’s “global jazz queen,” who hosts her soulful Saturday afternoon show from 2-6pm. What you might not know is that Brown lives here in Montclair with her husband and 5-year-old son. Baristanet spoke to Brown about her love of jazz, how she got started at WBGO and where to go to hear great jazz locally.
How long have you been at WBGO and how did you get started there?
I started in 1996. I did jazz radio in college, at WRTI at Temple University. I studied classical voice and music therapy and was always a huge jazz fan. I knew WBGO was where I wanted to be because it was always on at my house growing up. I thought, ‘Great, ok, I know a lot about jazz, I grew up listening to the music, I worked at WRTI, it will be easy–I’ll get a job there right away.’ It actually took two years of constant phone calls, certified letters, and sending them packages with air checks. I was relentless. I also do publicity, so I had other journalists I know contact the station on my behalf and help ease it along. After two years I finally got on the air as a fill-in host. Eventually it became a permanent position on the shift I have now, Saturdays from 2-6pm.
Is the PR work you do jazz related?
No. I actually started off doing jazz publicity but now I work for an independent record label called Shanachie, which is Gaelic for storyteller. It’s been an independent label for 40 years and started out as Celtic label. Now, we do everything: Celtic, world music, R&B, gospel, contemporary jazz, folk, country, singer-songwriters and beyond. We’re very eclectic and real music and musicianship is our thing.
You’ve said your parents introduced you to jazz and used to take you to jazz concerts when you were a child. What is your earliest memory of that?
Probably a concert on the pier on the west side of Manhattan to see Miles Davis. I must have been about seven. He wore a green satin cap and I begged my parents to get me one. I remember that summer in sleepaway camp wearing it all summer until it fell apart. We used to go to the Village Vanguard, we’d go to the Village Gate. My dad was the kind of guy who would argue with the bouncer until they let me in if they thought I was too young. I try to do the same with my son. I take him to a lot of shows because I want him to be exposed.
Where did your parents’ interest in jazz come from?
My dad was from Philly and that has a very rich jazz history. He went to Cheyney University, where he played football with Ed Bradley and was part a jazz fraternity. McCoy Tyner lived nearby. My aunt played piano and Tyner would sometimes play at her house. Also my grandfather had a barber shop and was part of something called the Barber’s Hall and my dad would presents concerts there. My father told me that one of the first times Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan met was at a concert he helped put together at the Barber’s Hall. So there’s just a great history there. My mom is an artist. She went to Pratt and loved jazz as well. Nina Simone is one of her favorites.
What are some of your favorite local venues for listening to jazz?
My favorite is probably Shanghai, which is in Madison. It’s a lovely husband-and-wife place. It’s a Chinese restaurant with phenomenal food and an amazing plum wine. The owners, David and Martha, come around and talk to everyone. The music’s good, the food is good, the ambiance is nice. I like Trumpets here in Montclair, too.
What about venues in New York?
I like the Jazz Standard; again, the food is good. But Birdland is probably my favorite. It’s a great space and they have great bookings. Smoke, on the Upper West Side, is pretty decent too. I love the Upper West Side. I went to high school in New York and my closest friends lived on the Upper West Side, so I was always there. I always tell people I live and work in New Jersey, but I’ll always be a city girl.
Jazz lovers seem to be passionate about jazz in way others aren’t really passionate about other genres of music (I always think about that scene in Jerry Maguire). Why do you think that is?
It’s an interesting question. You hear a lot of jazz musicians say that jazz is a way of life—it’s not just music, it’s a state of being, a state of thinking. I think in a sense that’s true and I think the music represents different things to different people. For me it was a very personal thing: it was a gift given to me by my dad and my mom. My father has passed, so I feel that every show I do is a tribute to him. I used to tape every show for him, even in college, so it was a very personal investment. For me it’s more than just doing a show, it’s continuing my father’s legacy.
I think for each person it’s different, but it is almost a way of life. And because it’s not everywhere–you don’t see it much on TV, it’s not covered in mainstream magazines so much–unless you’re introduced to it, it is not readily available in the way that it should be. So maybe people take a certain ownership or pride in it because of that.
But people do seem to have deep connections to the music. They remember the first album they heard, the first time they were introduced to it. And the history is so deep that you never feel like you know enough, you never stop learning. So that discovery maybe also takes it to another level.
There are also so many dynamic characters who have come through the music, and then there is the fact that jazz is a spiritually driven music that fuels the soul and spirit. In fact when I was growing up my dad and I had a Leonard Feather encyclopedia where we collected and housed our jazz memorabilia (autographs, photos, articles, etc.). We called it our jazz bible and it is still one of my most prized possessions.
Who are some of your favorite jazz artists?
Absolutely Horace Silver. Whenever I hear someone say, ‘Oh i don’t like jazz, it’s too cerebral, too over my head,’ I say, ‘Start listening to Horace Silver.’ So many of his songs have become jazz staples or classics. His music is very soulful, very lyrical. It’s almost hard to sit still and not tap your foot. I just think the music very accessible. He’s a master composer.
Sarah Vaughan is also a favorite. I had a dream in high school that I was going to meet her and that she would take me under her wing and I would be her protege. Of course that never happened, but to me she’s the ultimate instrument. The range that she had was unmatchable and technically what she can do with her voice and the emotion of her voice in just in one note, you know that it’s Sarah Vaughan. The first album I spent my money on was a cassette–at a flea market—of Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown. One Christmas my parents got me an album with Milton Nascimento called Brazilian Romance. That’s still one of my favorites as well.
I also like Lee Morgan (another Philly trumpeter), Jackie Mclean, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane. I can’t believe I haven’t said Betty Carter yet. She had a fearless individualism and would really work her bands. She was a very tough woman–she was an entrepreneur and had her own record label at a time when people weren’t doing that, particularly women. She was an amazing composer and sang a lot of her own music. When I think of her I always think of this one time I went to see her and all the musicians looked like they were starting to get undressed–the drummer took off his shoes, the bass player took his shirt off and had a towel around his neck and I wondered, ‘what is going on here?’ because they had come out in suits. Once they started playing, I understood why. She was relentless with them. She worked them so hard.
She was also unselfish in her knowledge of the music. They call Art Blakey a university because so many musicians have came under his tutelage. Betty Carter was the same way. So many great artists came through her band: John Hicks, Winard Harper, Benny Green, the ‘jazz maniac’ Kenny Washington and countless others. Many of those coming up through the scene now have studied or worked with her. So I love that aspect.
Are you able to choose the artists you want to play when you’re on air, or does WBGO create a playlist?
Every D.J. has a template to work with, but within that framework everyone gets to decide how they want to fill it. If you listen to the station you’ll see that each personality really has a different sound. I think those personalities can really come across through how they program the set of music. So I will often come in with a sort of framework of what I want to play but that, in the spirit of jazz, gets shifted or changed during the course of the show. So sometimes I’ll be playing whatever I initially had planned, then I’ll change my mind in the middle of the song because I’ll hear a different segue or think of something that might make the songs flow better. So it’s definitely good to be organized because you’re running back and forth a lot. Sometimes you’re answering the phone in the studio, you’re operating the equipment in the studio, and you have to log your playlists. I’m also doing Twitter while I’m on the air. So it’s good to be organized but also keep it loose so you can be in the moment and take the liberty of changing your playlist if you think something else should happen next.
How long have you been in Montclair? Did your job at WBGO bring you here?
No. We’ve been here since about 1998. Back then we were in Brooklyn and were actually about to sign a lease on a bigger place when the landlord said, ‘Sorry, I just gave your apartment away to a gentleman who paid the entire year in cash.’ It took forever to find a place we liked, too. So then we thought, ‘Ok let’s look in Jersey.’ Montclair was the only place I really knew of that I liked. So we were like, ‘All right, let’s look in Montclair.’
Do you have any favorite spots in town?
We spend a lot of time in Edgemont Park and Anderson Park. I love Tinga and Davinci’s, that whole strip on Bellevue. I love the Presby Iris Gardens when they’re in bloom. I just love being anywhere outdoors. I also love the store Dem Two Hands.
Is there other music you like besides jazz?
I love Andrea Bocelli. I also listen to a lot of roots reggae, so I love Bob Marley and Augustus Pablo. I like old Bob Dylan. Right now I really like this Spanish singer named Buika. I really like Ben Harper, too. And I love old Tears for Fears. I love 80s music. I always say if I didn’t do jazz radio, I’d want to do 80s radio.