Tim Coakley is of sound mind, when it comes to jazz music.
The 74-year-old Schenectady resident has been hosting “The Tim Coakley Jazz Show” on WAMC for 25 years now. When people are not listening to Coakley on the radio — his show airs every Saturday from 11 p.m. until midnight — they might be listening to him play the drums. Coakley is part of Skip Parsons’ Riverboat Jazz Band when the group plays the Fountain Restaurant in Albany the second weekend of each month.
Coakley also is president of A Place for Jazz, which has sponsored live performances at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady on Wendell Avenue since 1987.
Coakley, who began working at the Schenectady Gazette as a copy editor in 1978 and still checks grammar and writes headlines on a part-time basis, started in academics. He taught public speaking at Utica College from 1963 until 1968 and was also involved with the college’s student activities council. He later became assistant dean of students and in 1974 left Utica for Schenectady.
Coakley hit high notes from his life around jazz during a question-and-answer session.
Q: How deep are your jazz roots? How did you get hooked?
A: When I was a kid, we didn’t have television yet and listened to the radio a lot. My father used to listen to this one jazz program on Sunday afternoon, it was a live broadcast from a club in New York called Nick’s and they had a Dixieland band that he liked to listen to.
I was just hanging around the house one Sunday afternoon and he had the radio on. I started to listen to it and got to like it, so I started to listen every Sunday for this program, this Dixieland program. I was 10 or 12. This was even before the era of long-playing records. I started to save up a little money and see if I could find any Dixieland records at the music store, so I started to buy a few of those things.
Q: Why do you think people appreciate jazz?
A: I like it because of the rhythm of it, in the respect that it has a swing to it, which is a word that jazz musicians use all the time. It means different things to different people. For a time, it was the popular music of the country. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, big band era especially, people would go out to dance to the big bands. . . . Most of the players we know of, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, worked with big bands before they started forming small groups. So yeah, it has a rhythmic pulse to it, it’s melodic.
Q: What was it like to be a jazz fan during the rock ’n’ roll 1960s?
A: I found myself, especially when I was at Utica College, almost having to insist we have a jazz concert every year. We were booking bands like Chicago Transit Authority, Mountain — Felix Pappalardi and those guys — The Turtles, Harper’s Bazaar. I said, “How about some jazz in here somewhere?” So I would push for the jazz concerts.
Q: Did you get any?
A: Oh yeah, we had some at Utica College. We had some of the great jazz musicians come. Stan Getz came and played for us, we had the Buddy Rich band in a big theater downtown. I forget all the different players we had.
Q: Who do you like, and why?
A: I started out listening to Dixieland, and I still like that. I play drums with Skip Parsons’ Riverboat Jazz Band once a month at the Fountain [Restaurant in Albany]. I really like those old-time tunes from the early 1900s. Also, when I was in high school, I got hooked on Benny Goodman, the swing music of that era, of the ’30s, and started listening to a lot of that. From there, by the time I got to college, it was the ’50s and the ’60s and there was a lot of jazz associated with campuses. Dave Brubeck used to come to colleges; Gerry Mulligan’s band was popular. It was kind of an in thing at the time among college students and college professors.
Q: “The Jazz Show” is 25 years old this year. How has that evolved?
A: We started in 1987. The first few months of the show, I was doing it with Byron Nilsson. We were co-hosts. Byron was working at the Gazette at that time, and he had a lot of other interests. He was writing for a computer magazine, he was acting — he’s an Equity actor — so he just stopped doing it after a while.
Q: What do you like most about the show?
A: The fact that I can play music that I like, that I can play some stuff that’s not heard on other jazz stations. For example, being alive in the 2000s, I am able to do a centennial show for a lot of musicians who were born in the early part of the 20th century. Someone born in 1912, I can play a centennial tribute to him this year, and then next year all the guys who were born in 1913. You’re not going to hear some of that music anymore on the radio, so that’s great.
Q: Any dislikes?
A: Well, let’s see. I don’t like real long tracks, I very seldom play a long track on my radio show. Real long solos, they don’t always hold your interest. Some musicians can do that, like [John] Coltrane. He used to play ferociously long solos, and you can sit down in your living room with a glass of wine or with a bunch of people and put it on, but you’re not going to put it on the radio. You’re dealing with listeners’ attention spans out there, a lot of different levels of listeners.
Q: Isn’t this a great time for people who like jazz and other forms of music, with the popularity of satellite radio and other new technology?
A: I have a friend, Pete Jacobs, he has a new car with that satellite radio and he’s plugged into that all the time. When we go out to get a cup of coffee or something, there it is, it’s right there. Plus the fact that you can record so many things on these little flash drives and play them through your car system. I know a guy who has one of those iPods, he’s got enough music on that iPod that he could drive across the country in his car and never repeat the same song.
Q: How do you see the state of jazz right now?
A: Well, it’s so widely varied now. Jazz has come to mean almost anything. If you look at the lineup at the Freihofer Jazz Festival [held every summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center], they have people on there that don’t ring a bell as being jazz players, vocalists, groups. They’re marginal, some of them.
The younger players are all exploring world music from different countries. You have people from every country in the world just about, playing jazz that is influenced by the music of their countries, or people who are studying Indian music or West African music and trying to work those kinds of music into what they call their jazz interpretation. Some of them are using hip-hop. This guy Robert Glasper, who just played at the Egg, he incorporates hip-hop music into his music.
Q: Is this all OK?
A: I wonder about it myself. It takes me a while to adapt to that, listening to it. We were talking to Dick Hyman, the great pianist we had here last month, about rap music and some people said they didn’t like it and he said, “Well, I don’t think of it as music, but it’s important because it’s words and it’s rhythm.” He had a broad-minded approach to it, which I was surprised to hear from a guy who plays mostly what I think of as traditional jazz.
It’s widespread. You look in jazz magazines and there are reviews of all these different albums, people I’ve never heard of before. It’s becoming very hard to keep up.
Q: You can find jazz shows on many different local station. I once asked Bill McCann, who hosts “The Saturday Morning Edition of Jazz” on UAlbany’s WCDB, if he thought this area could support a full-time radio station. What do you think?
A: He wants to buy one! I told him, “Well, I’m your man if you get one.” I would love to do that, a 24-hour jazz station. It would have to be someone with some money to spend, someone who would be willing to be essentially a patron. Dick Hyman talked about that when he was talking about some of these jazz festivals and jazz record companies, the people who run them have the money to invest in them and are willing to invest the money.
Q: When did you begin playing the drums?
A: I started in college. There was a fellow who had a set of drums that had been made in World War II, and in World War II a lot of commodities were restricted and rationed, so the rim of the drum was made of wood and instead of metal nuts to tighten it, they had wooden dowels. The whole drum set was made of wood, and the heads were made of calfskin. When I started teaching, I bought myself a set of drums.
Q: Seems like drummers are always in the background, people come to hear guitarists, bass players, keyboardists. Does the drummer miss some recognition?
A: That’s probably true, because a lot of drummers, especially in the early days, their role was to be in the background. They were like a lineman in football, they’d block the way for the halfback to gain 20 yards. Some of the great drummers never took drum solos at all ... well, after Gene Krupa, drummers liked to play drum solos a little bit.
Q: Do you mind being out of the limelight?
A:I enjoy playing with the band. That’s the thing a lot of drummers don’t do. You’ve got to listen to the music that’s being played and be part of it and sometimes you get the chance to knock out a little something or other that contributes to the thing. Other times, you’re just keeping the time but you’re also making the time move forward, swinging. That’s what I call swinging.