Steve Conrad on KJZZ's Record Stash, Nina Simone, Collecting Soundies, and How Shane Kennedy Inspired His Crescent Ballroom Gig

Although it's been more than five years since Steve Conrad pulled a regular air shift on local public radio station KJZZ, the 38-year-old disc jockey still gets many chances to share his love of jazz, blues, and soul songs on vinyl.

From time to time, Conrad says he helps out fellow KJZZ jock Blaise Lantana create special jazz programming for the station. He also can be occasionally found behind the record decks at local swing nights, as he's a die-hard devotee of both the musical genre and dance form. And on Sunday night, Conrad will lug some of the many jazz, blues, and soul records from his vinyl collection down to the Crescent Ballroom's lounge for an evening of classic hits.

We recently spoke with Conrad about his love of jazz, as well as what sort of gems are housed in KJZZ's in-house record collection, and how local DJ Shane Kennedy helped inspire his upcoming Crescent gig.

How long have you been a jazz fan? Well, I really started learning about the music when I was first attracted to the big band era, the early stuff from the 1930s and 40s, not the over commercialized big band music. Specifically when people think of Big bands they think of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, the bands that were Harry James and the Dorsey Brothers and all that. I actually found music that...I was attracted to the kind of music that wasn't played in the mainstream by African American artists and wasn't sold in stores of wasn't played on radios, what they called Black Label records back in the 30s and 40s...Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. Those were eventually sold as you got more socially aware and segregation ended and all, the things that kept that music from getting in stores and on radio.

Where did you go from there? Then as I worked for KJZZ and did an overnight show. So I got to really appreciate the music while working there and got into cool jazz and Miles Davis and loved John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman and all these great musicians that I really hadn't been opened up to. It was through the radio station, I went in thinking, "Hey, I would introduce and play more of this big band music," and it kind of expanded both of our horizons where I was trying to play really unknown bands that I hadn't heard on KJZZ when I first went to work there. And then got introduced to so much because they have a fantastic jazz library there.

How many records are in their stash? I would say at least 5,000. It's huge.

Are you going to sneak any records out of KJZZ's collection for your Crescent Ballroom gig? (Laughs) I won't be taking anything from library but because I've been in there before and fell in love with certain [albums], I would get the vinyl version. So I have a lot of stuff from KJZZ but it won't really be like tuning into KJZZ.

Are there any gems in KJZZ's collection that you would kill to have yourself? If I fell in love with something I saw there, I pretty much found it on my own later. They have some great Ella Fitzgerald with Count Basie recorded live back in the 70s. There's still quite a bit that I don't have that KJZZ has. They have thousands of CDs and records in there. But anything that I played that I just had to have I write down and look it up and get it downloaded. Now I have two terabytes of just music on iTunes, which is huge. It would take me forever to get through every single song in there but I know the ones I love and I through that collection from time to time.

Do you bring in things from your own collection when you work with Blaise Lantana? Yeah, KJZZ has more music but I'll actually bring music to the library from time to time. I'll find a new artist that's not getting radio play anywhere else, or I'll go to an event out of town and meet the band and bring a CD back. There's a lot from San Francisco, Seattle. Tuba Skinny, I met them on the streets of New Orleans. You can only get their CD if you hear them play live. They don't sell it anywhere else. It's not on iTunes, but it's this great street band and in fact a singer that used to be with them, Meschiya Lake did finally record an album separately and was named by NPR as one of the five greatest voices of 2010 when she came out with that album. It's really difficult to get that music anywhere else except just being there.  

That's the kind of stuff that I'll be playing at the Crescent Ballroom. Sidney Bechet from New Orleans and music that people hopefully haven't heard that will turn them on to finding out more about this. There's definitely no smooth jazz that's going to be played, let me put it that way, what some people might perceive jazz as being.

Because of the stuff that's typically played on KJZZ? We don't play smooth jazz. We call it classic jazz. And I'll be playing some stuff from the cool era but a lot of it will be these rare tunes from the 30s and 40s and I might be mixing in blues and soul, original country blues, Chicago blues, I'll just mix it all in there. I'm a big fan of soul music as well.

What sort of blues and soul will you be bringing? I always mix in some Sam Cooke. I also love to find original tunes that were then remade later, made popular, but finding for example the original version, an R&B version of "Hound Dog." It's a female singer that does it, Big Maybelle. So you actually have more meaning when you hear her sing it because "Hound Dog" done by Elvis, made popular by him, was about an unfaithful man so when you hear her sing it and she's kind of an original blues shouter, has this real gravelly voice and you hear that and you actually almost don't even recognize the tune. So I like finding early influences that changed into rhythm and blues and then turned into rock 'n' roll. But it's got this mix, this in between time when jazz was turning into R&B.

How did this gig come about? I really got inspired to do this show because of Shane Kennedy. I met him at the Crescent about two months ago and he was playing some Big Maybelle and all these great tunes and some really good soul and we just talked a lot about music. And I really wanted to go in there and do my own thing there too. It inspired me to go back into my collection and find the stuff that might get other people excited about that music form.

Will you be using vinyl or iTunes at your Crescent gig? I'm primarily going to be using vinyl. It's going to be the primary source because I really love the sound, I love that there's a visual aspect to music in that sense that it gives people the ability to see time passing, I love that about records, that you actually see it happening that you can see the time passing right in front of you. Every once in awhile there are some things I only have in digital format so I will have this mix of old and new. I'll have my vinyl and then I'll have an iPad iDJ mixing up.  

What else do you have planned? I haven't decided if I'm doing this part yet but maybe I'll play some jazz videos. I did a project years ago that converted videos from reel-to-reel and old VHS copies of soundies -- which were the early music videos in the 1930s when you'd put a penny in and you'd look through a viewfinder and it would play a video and you'd hear someone singing. It really wasn't like a music video produced to be anything but seeing the band play. So, I have over 500 of those and some of them are really rare, some you'll find now on YouTube, but this was done before YouTube.

Like what? Billie Holiday singing with the Count Basie Orchestra when she was a young girl, Ella Fitzgerald doing "Mack the Knife" in Sweden, Duke Ellington and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Shout Sister Shout." All these great soundies. Probably my favorite of all is Nina Simone live in 1972 when she did a song called "I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free." It's one of the most passionate things you'll ever here. But I just loved finding that. I actually played it on the election night when Obama got elected to commemorate. So I may be doing this video and audio mix which will be a strange, interesting combination of vinyl and digital format.

Has YouTube, or the Internet in general, killed crate digging or since everything's all online now? I find it unfortunate that there are people that don't even have record collections, people that don't even have CDs because of Pandora, cloud sharing, music sharing and even iTunes and like you said YouTube. I think it's unfortunate that people don't get into vinyl. There are some really hardcore lovers of vinyl that still will insist on it. There's really something to having and owning a record and always owning it. I grew up in that kind of atmosphere where we had records and an old record player in the house and we would had 45s. My aunt, my first introduction to dance was when I was five years old, had an old juke box with 45s with all the great rockabilly and rock 'n' roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis [and] Bill Haley. I think there is something to be said for collecting music and it is very sad to see it's all being replaced by video because that can very easily go away. It can be deleted, it can be taken down and then you don't have access to that music any longer.  

Will you be playing any avant-garde or free-form jazz, the kind of stuff that's almost never heard on KJZZ like Sun Ra? I enjoy that type of music. I may mix a little of that in because I know that contingency exists that more free form jazz is played on KJZZ. I read those blogs all the time and that was always the discussion. Some of that may get mixed in. I won't be doing anything that's like 16-17 minutes of that but I definitely want to find some really good free-form jazz -- even some of that [Ornette] Coleman, some of that Sun Ra -- that you don't hear anywhere. And that's kind of the idea, you won't really hear the songs I'm going to be playing and introducing, hopefully turning people on to it. We'll do things you really have to look up if you want to find.

Why isn't that stuff played more on KJZZ? That would be more of a question for the music programmer. It's been an issue and it's the same reason it's not played anywhere. It's considered a small market, and in a smaller market, unfortunately, we don't really think that way. But the music director has the programs that play [on the air] and I think she's done a really good job of putting in different music, but there's not a lot of avant-garde and I agree with you that there could be a little bit more from time to time. I've always liked the mix that she puts in.

Are there any newer artists who are doing innovative thing with jazz in the last 10 years? Absolutely yes is the simple answer. I can name a few for you: Gordon Webster is one of the better ones, The Leftover Cuties out of Los Angeles. This is a little different -- but it was kind of how jazz started in the first place -- is a band called The Lost Fingers and they're out of Montreal and they do gypsy jazz versions of popular songs. It sounds like it could get kitschy and is more of a novelty thing, but it's very good musicianship and it's really interesting to hear. They even do a gypsy jazz version of "Billie Jean" and you don't recognize the tune but you'll recognize the lyrics. That's really how Jazz began by taking popular tunes of the day and doing them innovatively and adding someone's own style to it. Music back then was never played the same way twice. Duke Ellington even said that to his players that he never wanted to hear the same solo played the same way

Any others? There are these bands that are doing these things differently. The Leftover Cuties do a ukulele jazz version of Lady Gaga. Now I know that that sounds ridiculous and I don't play it very often but it is interesting to see bands trying to put jazz into a form where people will first recognize it and maybe introduce them to jazz and [get] interested in finding out more and then they'll have more depth to their music. It's kind of fun to get introduced to it that way.

Steve Conrad is scheduled to perform at the Crescent Ballroom's lounge at 8 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.

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