A Guided Tour… Through Jazz and Blues
by: John Stanton
Charley Walters wants me to listen to the guitar solo on “Eight Miles High,” by the Byrds. Then he wants me to listen to a Charlie Parker tune called “India” off his live album “Impressions.” He wants me to notice how the rock solo was taken directly from the jazz.
And so I do. And there it is.
“I vaguely remember hearing something like jazz when I was 15 or so,” Walters said. “I was crazy about the British bands and some of them had begun experimenting with jazz lines. The Byrds, which was an American band, were doing it.”
There is the echo of Coltrane’s tenor sax in Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar solo. You can hear the essence of those nights in New York’s Village Vanguard, when the kings of jazz held court. There is the song that marked the beginning of psychedelic rock. There is a moment where you can see musical influences unfolding.
“It’s a quote from the solo in ‘Impressions,’ but I didn’t realize it at the time,” Walters said. “I just knew the Byrds were going on and on about who Coltrane was and I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about.”
It is just a little music story. It may not seem like much to you. Unless you happen to have once been the kind of kid who haunted used record stores, flipping through bins of music and studying the album covers and liner notes, as if they might reveal some greater awakening.
If you are that person, if the connections that run like a current throughout all music fuel your appreciation of it, you might be Walters’ audience for his weekly radio show, “Island Blue Notes.”
The show can be heard Sunday morning from 7-9 on 89.5, WNCK-FM, and again on Sunday evening from 9-11, on 97.7, WACK-FM. Podcasts of the show can be found on nantucketnpr.org.
It is a show about jazz and blues and the way music is connected across the decades. On a simpler level, it can just be a couple of hours to hear your favorites as well as a chance to walk down new avenues where the music is played.
“Everybody knows of Coltrane, or Miles Davis, or Muddy Waters, or Paul Butterfield,” Walters said. “But I’m assuming whoever tunes into the show has more than a passing interest in jazz or blues and if they hear something by someone they’re not familiar with, they’re going to be open to it.”
It is, of course, exactly what you would expect to hear from the former owner of a record store. Musicall was a classic basement record store, where you could put everyday life on hold and wander through bins marked Rock, or Jazz, or Country, or Folk, or Classical, in the hope of finding something you had heard on the radio but did not yet own, or of discovering something you didn’t know your favorite artist had made.
Walters worked at the place when it was called Nantucket Sound. He bought it in 1982, and eventually closed it down in 2006, a business casualty of the Internet.
“When I had the store and somebody came in and asked about some music they really didn’t know about and seemed almost embarrassed, I’d always say if you know what you like that’s all you really need to know,” he said, adding that owning and operating a record store was a combination of the joy of the music and the business decisions that face all retail merchants.
In the fading years of the 1970s, before he stepped behind the counter at the record store, Walters reviewed albums for Rolling Stone magazine and the weekly alternative newspaper, the Boston Phoenix.
These days music reviews have mostly lost their significance, since everybody with a laptop computer and an opinion can now see his review in print, on sites like Amazon. Musical insights and writing skill are not always a part of that world. It wasn’t always that way. Jon Landau, writing in Rolling Stone, or Lester Bangs, writing in Creem, wrote insightful, sometimes over-the-top reviews that helped define rock and roll.
Walters’ first review was of Aerosmith’s second album, “Get Your Wings.” He wrote 75 reviews over five years. He wrote a book about the band Fleetwood Mac.
Whatever music we drift to as adults, the sound of our teenage years tends to stay lodged someplace deep inside us. The first music Walters remembers hearing on the radio was Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog.” That was in 1956. The first record he ever bought was Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” That was in 1961, at the A&P.
“It’s hard to get that music out of your system once you grow up with it,” he said about rock and roll. “It gets imprinted on your brain. I love Coltrane. ‘Coltrane Plays the Blues’ is one of my favorite albums. There is a piano player named Herbie Nichols, who nobody’s ever heard of. I play him on the show a lot and I love his stuff. But if you said pick 10 albums, seven or eight would be rock.”
Jazz first caught his attention as a college student, at Boston University.
“I had a roommate who was a fan of avant garde jazz and he had a big allowance,” Walters said. “I was hearing all sorts of weird stuff at that point and some of it I liked and some I didn’t like and some has grown on me since then and some hasn’t. But I was hearing jazz. And from there it kind of snowballed. You wouldn’t hear jazz on the radio, but I’d borrow records from friends or be curious enough to buy one.”
Blues and jazz often play like the soundtrack to the American century. Recently-freed slaves used the instruments military marching bands had left behind after the end of the Civil War to make their own music, to create jazz. Trumpets, tubas, trombones and other brass instruments became the starting point. You can hear it in the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Walters likes to follow the line from there to big band music, to bebop, to the moment Miles Davis went electric.
“The thing about jazz is that there’s jazz, and there’s jazz, and there’s jazz,” he said. “If somebody tells me they like all kinds of jazz, I’m going to think they really haven’t listened to much jazz or they’re making it up. You can go on and on. You can draw the lines and connect the dots and see what came from what. There’s something out there for everybody.”
Blues are the music’s earthier cousin. It is music that is also drenched in history, but somehow it is more personal. It is also the wellspring from which rock and roll emerged.
“The personality of the players comes through more,” Walters said. “I think there’s more pressure on a blues musician to put their own personal stamp on a song that maybe has been recorded 30 times, by 30 different guys.”
Blues musicians, he said, are more likely to want to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan or the next Paul Butterfield, than they are to try to reinvent the genre.
“There is a guy named Otis Taylor who I really like a lot,” Walters said. “He’ll have a violin or a trumpet instead of a guitar on a song. It’s still blues, but he knows he can use different instruments. The guy who wants to imitate a Muddy Waters song from 50 years ago? A lot of those guys do a really good job, but 50 years from now are they going to be remembered?”
The best way to listen to “Island Blue Notes” is to tune in for the music, but be open to the never-ending interpretation musicians bring to that music. Walters often starts down the interweaving road of the blues with Robert Johnson, the Mississippi bluesman who legend says sold his soul to the devil in return for mastery of the music. His songs, among them “Cross Road Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” are blues standards. He recorded most of his music between 1937 and 1938.
“I played a Robert Johnson version of a song last week, and an electric blues version of it, and a (jazz singer) Casandra Wilson version of it, and every one of them sounds very different,” Walters said. “Or here’s a Paul Butterfield version of a song and here is the history of it.”
Take the blues tune “Sitting on Top of the World,” played over the years by everybody from Howlin’ Wolf to Doc Watson to Cream.
“The other week I played the Grateful Dead version, but it was originally done by a jug band in the 1930s,” Walters said. “Everything sounds different but it’s the same song. That happens a lot.”
The music you hear each week comes out of a personal collection that represents the last 50 years of Walters collecting music. The show began in 2014, and he has made 152 shows over that time. Very rarely do you hear a repeat.
It takes about 10 hours to put together each week’s show, although only 20 minutes or so are spent actually in the radio station’s studio. Forget the image in your head of a disc jockey with a pile of records or CDs, selecting tunes on the fly and talking into a big microphone in between records. Everything is done in advance.
Walters makes a list of the music he will play on the show. He keeps extensive notes, preferring index cards and a notebook to a computer.
“I can tell you what track I played by Herbie Nichols and what album it was from and when I played that album before or after that, and that takes some doing to put all that together,” he said.
Then he burns the music on to two blank CDs, and writes the script.
“When I am writing the script, first I want to say who’s playing on it, when it was recorded, what album it is from, but also who produced it,” he said.
“There are a few producers whose names show up all the time. And where it was recorded – not all blues was recorded in Chicago, not all jazz was recorded in New York City. The last show I played some blues that were recorded in Somerville.”
When he does go to the studio, it is to run through and record the script. Then everything is handed over to Chris Reiser, the station’s producer, who puts it into its final form.
“I try to play things people are going to like, but also try to throw in stuff they’ve probably never heard before,” Walters said. “I want to challenge them but not freak them out and make them want to turn the channel. There will be some different stuff, from different names, but
I’m not going to play 15 minutes of free jazz.” For Walters, the music has always been full of dots to be connected, a sort of musical lineage woven through the chord changes. The true magic, of course, is when it becomes the soundtrack to our lives.
“When you really get into music there’s always
a radio station going on in your head,” he said. “I’m playing tennis and there’s a song going through my head that I listened to last night on my iPhone, which is the new transistor radio for me. You don’t get it out of your head and you don’t want to get it out of your head.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His work appears regularly in Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.