Ray Smith (1922-2010)

This is not an easy one to write. I feel the need to pay tribute to Ray Smith, host of the Jazz Decades radio show for fifty-two years, on the occasion of his passing February 26. But the obligation to write about what Ray Smith’s program did for me is so overwhelming that I need time. So for now let me post an mp3 of the tribute show Smith’s home station WGBH did for him last night, and a link to the archive stream of old Jazz Decades episodes.

The tribute is an overwhelming experience of one man’s dedication to his craft. And it is a pure pleasure to hear Smith’s precise diction from the fragments of early episodes. Did people once speak that well? His comments on focused listening are an inspiration. Since I came to early jazz and swing long after being fascinated by contemporary improvised and new jazz music, Ray Smith was the first person I ever encountered who treated listening to old forms of popular music with the seriousness and respect that is taken for granted by folks who listen to John Cage or Evan Parker. It was impossible to hold on to the ill-informed dismissive attitude that I had about old music when confronted with the evidence of Smith’s lifelong obsession. To him I owe a love for Luis Russell, Red Allen, Red Nichols, Bob Crosby and so many others. Not to mention his New England accent and manner, which came to represent the best aspects of my home country during a lonely exile in California.

I’ll have more to say about Smith in time, but for now let’s just say that he represents a kind of radio, and an attitude towards presenting music, that we can never have enough of and that suffers greatly with his passing.

Please support WGBH and listen to the stream.

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