February 23, 2009

Harrison Ridley, Jr. - Thank You

Thank you for being the teacher, historian and man that you were.

Harrison Ridley, Jr. passed away last Thursday after battling a stroke. I would make it a point the last several months, to tune into 90.1 FM WRTI, to catch his show "The Historical Approach of the Positive Music" on Sunday evenings. Because I guess of overall busy-ness, my commitment to listening in recent years had waned. I longed to hear what on-air musical lessons Harrison had planned on this week's show. However each week, I would tune in and I'd hear guest host, Bob Craig. He would just say he was sitting in for Harrison. I tried to hang in there, but it just wasn't the same. I was assured in my mind, that Harrison would be returning to the microphone soon, unaware of his serious medical condition. "I'll check back next week" I thought. However the return never happened.

To say that this man was just a DJ that played jazz music would be an injustice to his legacy to the Jazz community around the world. Harrison was a gentle giant of a man that started my quest to delve into the music called Jazz.

I first met Harrison, when I did a sports report on WRTI on Sunday evenings in the 80's. As a neophyte in the industry, I was much too concerned with making sure my sports reports were listenable and accurate, that I never was fully aware of the significance of the music that was being played at the station. You know, it's just jazz, nobody listens to jazz. I can't say I really remember the first time I met Mr. Ridley. He was just the next on-air host to come into the studio at WRTI, a radio station that Temple University owned and largely ignored unlike today. It was a station with student run news and sports departments, that had little interaction and some conflict between the community based volunteer music staff that played mostly jazz music.

But I remember Harrison Ridley as a soft spoken, kind, and gentle man with a quick smile, whose largeness would fill the room and at first glance make him seem intimidating. I just remember him arriving at the studio, in an unassuming manner for a large man, wearing a dashiki and loaded down with vinyl records in these canvas bags. A quick hello and he would go off to the main broadcast studio and I would write my copy and record sound bites for my five minute sports cast in the news studio.

It wasn't until I graduated from Temple University, that I really began to tune into Harrison Ridley, or really understand what he was doing each Sunday evening. The world of Jazz was opened up to me by a master teacher. Harrison never really called it Jazz music. He called it positive music. And unlike so many Jazz preservationist, Harrison never talked about Jazz in terms of the music being unreachable for folks. This was history. Our history and I wanted to learn it. So I tuned in on Sunday evenings from 8-12. How little I knew about Jazz...

I knew Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But then I would learn more deeply about Coltrane, Bird, Monk, Dizzy, Duke and Basie. Some Sundays, Harrison would put on 33's or 78's with Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet and I learned about New Orleans style Jazz from the 1920's and 1930's. And I would learn even more about Jazz music origins in Kansas City, Chicago, and New York City... Every week there would be a different theme, a new chapter, more lessons from rare recordings of Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Billy Strayhorn, Charlie Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Joe Jones and 'Philly' Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, Wayne Shorter, Johnny Hartman, David "Fathead" Newman, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Jack McDuff, Bootsie Barnes, Mickey Roker and more and more and more... By the time the film Mo' Better Blues was released, I was fully engrossed into this genre of music. When Gangstarr released "A Jazz Thing" from the movie soundtrack, I knew everybody he was rappin' about. I must have listened to Harrison's show at least 10 years straight. I never missed a show.

The last time I saw Harrison was at an Odunde festival in Philly, (it was more than 10 years ago). I found out then that he worked as a custodian for the school system. He recognized a family member I was with, whose paths had crossed previously at a school he had worked at and then he said he remembered me from WRTI. (Wow!, in the whole scheme of things, my little 5 minute sports report a few years earlier, couldn't compare to what he was doing on the air in my mind.) What did I take from that exchange? You can imagine alot. ...Greatness is all around us and it's inside everyone of us... what you do for a living is not as important as how you treat people... Your job does not define who you are as a person. He was a great and humble man.

To say he will be missed, is an understatement.

Thank you Harrison Alexander Ridley, Jr.

Yes, indeedy...

Harrison Ridley's record collection was said to contain over 8,500 LPs; 3,000 78s; 200 45s; 300 CDs; 6,000 books on Afro-American history and music. I read that Duke Ellington would contact Harrison to check up on information about himself. Harrison taught Jazz History courses at both Temple University and Villanova University and touched the lives of countless people. He worked as a consultant for the Library of Congress and received an Honorary Doctorate degree from Villanova in May 2008.

More information about Harrison Ridley, Jr. WRTI, Wikipedia, All About Jazz. I'll be tuning into Harrison's former colleague at WRTI and good friend, Reggie Bryant, this afternoon from 1-4 on 900 AM WURD Radio from my computer. I hope to re-live my memories...

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