A Few Minutes With… WCDB-FM’s Bill McCann

Bill McCann
Bill McCann

Interview, story and photographs by J Hunter

It was a true gathering of the tribes at the Van Dyck Restaurant & Lounge in Schenectady on Saturday, June 23: A Place for Jazz and the Swingtime Jazz Society, musicians and media people, and a big cross-section of the multi-faceted fan base that supports the jazz community of Greater Nippertown – all there to see WCDB’s Bill McCann receive a 2012 Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists Association.

Emcee/drum monster Joe Barna was rightly effusive as he ran down McCann’s contributions to the state of jazz in this area: 27 years worth of Saturday mornings, giving us all four hours of the best jazz around; a major member of the brain trust at A Place for Jazz, which means some of the music we see every fall at the Whisperdome has his fingerprints on it; supporting local jazzers’ own recording efforts – not only by playing their discs, but also by bringing them on his show to talk about their music; and giving other members of the community a say in the music he plays by bringing them on his show as well. (Full disclosure: Bill’s let me play on his show three times, and each time has been one of the highlights of my year!)

It was a great afternoon: The ceremony was bookended by old friends & new friends noshing on chicken wings and pizza and talking about the music they love, and it was followed by the Luca Ciarla Quartet playing a concert in the Van Dyck’s upstairs performance space hosted by Swingtime Jazz Society. But while I was able to shake Bill’s hand and congratulate him for the award, the onslaught of well-wishers made it impossible for me to spend more than a couple of minutes with him… which is why I’m sounding a few minutes with him right now!

Q: How fast has 27 years flown by?

A: It is strange. On the one hand, it seems like it has been a really long time (which it has), while on the other hand it seems like a blink and a blur.

Q: When you first heard the Jazz Journalists Association was going to give you a Jazz Hero award, what was your first reaction?

A: I thought it was cool, but thought that since this year is Tim Coakley’s 25th anniversary doing a jazz show on WAMC-FM – plus his many years service with A Place For Jazz as president – that he would be a more appropriate choice.

Q: You and I both agree with Tom Bellino that this is an amazing area for jazz. I know why I think that; why do you think that?

A: I think it is due to a combination of factors: The Tri-City area, with each city having great arts organizations, clubs and theaters, colleges and universities; organizations like A Place for Jazz, the Swingtime Jazz Society, Planet Arts and Jazz-Latino, Inc.; great jazz shows on a number of radio stations; an abundance of excellent musicians; plus a loyal jazz community.

Q: What brought you to WCDB all those years ago? Was playing jazz the idea all along?

A: My father was a jazz head and my main jazz influence. He was a frequent guest on a two-hour weekly jazz radio program called “Good Old Jazz,” hosted by Steve Possell, on AM91 WRKL in Rockland County. I would often tag along to the taping of the shows and thought it was cool. When I came to college at UAlbany in the Fall of 1982, I found out there was a student-run radio station, and that they had a jazz department. I started listening, and then started hanging out at the station during jazz shows. After a while, it was suggested that maybe I would like to train to be a DJ. The rest is history.

Q: How did it feel to have your kids see not only you getting the award, but seeing you get that standing ovation (from both fans and peers) at the end?

A: It was great.  After I received the award, they told me how proud they were of me.  It was a wonderful moment and extremely gratifying.

Q: In your acceptance speech, you talked about the need to “force-feed” jazz to kids. Is that because it’s an acquired taste, or because there’s so much nowadays that competes with music in a child’s life?

A: I think it is a combination of both. However, the force-feed part is really more like a strong nudge. I think like with many things, children kind of come along for the ride reluctantly, and then find out that they enjoy it. 

Q: How much has the “new media” (web, email, Facebook) helped you connect with your audience?

A: Quite a bit. People have a number of ways to connect with me in real time either through the station’s webpage, email, etc. Initially, a listener could only call in or send a letter. Plus, with the internet and live streaming, people can – and do – listen from all over the country and the world.

Q: A lot of deejays I’ve known would rather have their hands cut off then turn over their show to someone from the outside. You not only do that with musicians, you also do it with members of the public. How long have you been doing it, and what do you (and the show) get out of it?

A: My father would come on my show a couple times a year while he was alive. He would program the whole show and bring the records and CDs. We always had a blast. Over the years, people would comment on how cool it must be to do a radio show, or that they had wanted to do it, and/or that they would love to try it. After a while, it kind of stuck in my brain that maybe I should institute a “guest deejay” segment.

With this in mind, many years ago, in the ’90s, I  invited listeners one summer to put together and submit a show to me for consideration; I chose the summer since the audience thins out with vacations, etc.  Quite a few people submitted two- or four-hour shows. I chose a bunch of them and had the folks come on-air to play the selections and talk about them. It was a lot of fun. My audience got a flavor change and music that I might not otherwise play often, or at all.

I have always had musicians on to promote their music, although it has been far more prevalent with the advent of CDs and beyond. I get a kick out of having fellow jazz heads on the show, as they bring a unique perspective on what they select.

Q: What’s better for you: playing an old favorite, or turning people on to something new that you dig?

A: Jazz, like fine wine, gets better with age. Although a new vintage has its own delights. I think you have to find a balance, although I admit to being firmly rooted in the past. I am not sure that this is good, and I sometimes feel guilty about not being hip to many new jazz artists. I envy folks like yourself who are far more current than I am. That’s why I want to win the lottery, so that I can have a 24-hour-a-day jazz station, with a mixed bag of deejays. 

Q: Is there another 27 years in store for us?

A: I certainly hope so. At least another 27! My show is my weekly therapy. It brings me great joy and peace. I cannot imagine not doing it.

WCDB is a blessing, which owes its existence to the resilience of the students who pushed for many years to morph radio at UAlbany from an AM station (WSUA) to an FM station in 1978, SUNY Central (which holds and provides the license), the University at Albany (which provides the studio space and utilities), and the UAlbany Student Association (which funds the station). If it weren’t for these folks, and the student management at WCDB and their continued support, I would not have a show. I cannot thank them enough.

I also can’t thank my loyal listeners enough. Their continued positive feedback provides me with great energy and motivation to continue what I am doing.

Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz

Bill McCann and emcee Joe Barna
Bill McCann and emcee Joe Barna
Bill McCann and family
Bill McCann and family
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