Harry Redl called to say Mort Fega died.
Exploring the radio dial late at night was in some way like visiting distant places. It didn’t matter that I might pick up a religious station from West Virginia hawking prayer hankies or an alien deejay playing the same damn songs you heard every day. It was a way of connecting with places other then where I was, and other than where I was was where I wanted to be.
By the time I was in high school content mattered. I was losing interest. Then one night Miles Davis’ ghostly muted trumpet seeped out of my portable Phillips. Faint, distant, fading in and out, but unmistakeably jazz of the purest kind. And then the deejay naming the tune and every player. The same voice went on to talk about Abe’s Garage or Vinny’s Pizza, as though they were every bit as relevant to me as Miles with Jimmy Cobb on drums. They weren’t, of course, but why break the mood?
This was Mort Fega and his show, Jazz Unlimited, ran from midnight to six a.m. I stayed up as long as I could but eventually fell asleep. I memorized the station’s spot on the dial and was back the following night, and many, many nights after, determined not to miss a single note. I guess most nights I might have made it to about four a.m. or so.
It wasn’t just the music. There were other shows, good and bad, scattered through the week, mostly on CBC – French CBC in particular. And there were records. I subscribed to Down Beat Magazine so I’d learn the names of all the great musicians and I’d buy two or three LP’s a month, or more if I could manage it. It wasn’t just that. Mort Fega became a personal friend, or a hip uncle, who guided me into jazz as not only a musical genre but a spirit, a language, a feeling, an outlook, all steeped in humour and a deep awareness of the sound of a life richer than I’d known.
In forty years I never heard anyone to compare. Every deejay got it wrong after that. Too self-consciously hip, too stupid, deejay academy graduates with the voice and the canned patter. I’ve known deejays over the years and told every one of them, “you had to hear Mort Fega.” I can still hear him when I tune in to memories of Jazz Unlimited.
By 1996 it was possible to search all the phonebooks in America from the computer. I searched regularly for old friends, names from various pasts. Once in a while I’d strike gold. I found a Mort Fega in Florida and wrote a letter, taking a chance it was my man. It was. We began a correspondence, starting with letters and moving to email when one of Mort’s sons set him up with a Mac. He was gracious, generous, informative, and nicer than I’d dare hope. Hip as ever. More hip.
I said I’d give anything to hear tapes of his old shows, if such existed. They don’t. But he sent a few tapes of shows he was currently hosting on a West Palm Beach radio station. I asked about Lord Buckley, genius of the jazz monologue and a good friend of his. He sent tapes. I asked about the label he owned, Focus Records. He sent CD reissues of some. Bob Dorough, for example.
He told me about a friend of his in West Vancouver. You have to meet, he said. This was Harry Redl. Another fascinating connection to an artist whose work had set fire to my imagination in my early life.
Mort died January 21, 2005. He was 83.
Grant, from Altadena, wrote on May 17, 2008:
He was always pretty cool.
Bob, from Westport, wrote on September 15, 2008:
Having grown up a radio maniac, listening to Mort, Erwin Frankel, Symphony Sid and Art Ford, etc., it was only natural that I became a dj. After many years of all sorts of formats, and being a jazz drummer as well as a dj, I found myself at Stamford Connecticut’s WJAZ. I did middays for about 8 years, had good ratings and managed to combine my radio and music knowledge into a really viable show. I got to know Mort and would meet him in Florida while visiting my folks. I also spent time with another great dj, China Valles. After I left JAZ, I heard my replacement, a perfectly charming lady, mispronounce more names and titles than I care to remember. The station wound playing oldies. Now it’s 20 years later and listeners still remember me from that great jazz radio mecca, WJAZ. It was the best radio gig I ever had.
Phil, from Salem, CT wrote on January 29, 2009:
I used to listen to Mort on WWUH, the Univ. of Hartford’s radio station in the mid 70s. ‘Focus On Jazz’ was his show’s name. I was just coming to jazz via the electric excursions of Miles Davis. Mort showed me the great range of what jazz had to offer. He set a great mood on his show, better described in Brian’s blog.
I ended up taking a history of jazz class, taught by Mort, at Manchester (CT) Community College (still have the text books and exams). I remember him showing us how strings can be used in jazz without becoming an icky sweetener (Claus Ogerman – Gate of Dreams). I am also grateful that he prodded me to go see Keith Jarrett (with his Scandinavian Quartet) when Jarrett played in the area. It was my first jazz concert and I was totally blown away by the trip that the band took me on. I was sold on jazz then and there.
30+ years on and I’m still a jazz fan. I do a midnight jazz show on a local college radio station. All the while I still feel Mort’s presence looking over my shoulder. A great guy.