Ted Unseth's Tribute To Leigh Kamman

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Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame

 

Leigh Kamman
Inducted 2003

Over more than sixty years in broadcasting, Leigh Kamman has become synonymous with jazz and with broadcast excellence.

He interviewed stars like Duke Ellington for his school paper, and while still a teenager hosted a late-night jazz show at WMIN Minneapolis/Saint Paul. In 1942 he moved to WEBC Duluth, hosting “Symphony in Riffs” from The Flame nightclub. He joined the US Army during World War II and produced and hosted shows for KOA Denver and Armed Forces Radio. After the war he returned to the Twin Cities, producing “We Call It Jazz” concerts and hosting “The Swing Club” on WLOL. He moved to WOV New York in 1950, broadcasting live from the Palm Café near the Apollo Theater, and interviewing all the biggest names in jazz. He came back to WLOL in 1956, and later joined KSTP, where he premiered Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Mack the Knife” on his program “Image: The ‘60s.” Since 1973, he has hosted THE JAZZ IMAGE™ on Minnesota Public Radio. Known for his poetic, scene-setting style and for his vast knowledge and sincere love of the music, he is an outstanding broadcaster and a tireless champion of America’s original art form.

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I first met Leigh Kamman at the Longhorn Saloon, downtown Minneapolis (it was on the second floor; the first floor was a steakhouse, as I recall) in 1973.  My Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra (WCJO) was holding forth there every Sunday night (we did 35 Sundays in a row); and we got some good press in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from Will Jones, a popular columnist at the time.  I think that prompted Leigh to come down (actually ‘up’) and check us out.

That particular evening, the place was quite packed (it wasn’t always so) and I remember taking a break by the entryway door and Leigh and his wife entered and he introduced himself.  I’d listened to his Saturday night “Jazz Image” show many times and really liked it, so I was pleased to meet him.  Yes, he introduced himself; but he also introduced, as any gentleman would, his wife.  The thing is, he was recently re-married and there were lots of people around and loud chatter and… he gave his first wife’s name by mistake.  “Um, Leigh; that’s not my name.” 

Any other man and I would have probably thought, “What a jerk.”  But Leigh was definitely a true gentleman in every sense of the word--it was an honest mistake.

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Six years later, in 1979, the WCJO is doing its (first; there was more than one) Swan Song Concert at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul.  And Leigh is doing a Live! broadcast for KSJN-FM. 
It was a truly memorable concert: the place was packed; the audience response enthusiastic and I had both Bob Crea and Eddie Berger, at one point, doing an unforgettable Sax Battle.  Top it off with the irreplaceable ambience of the old Prom Ballroom.
The audio Link below is as the evening is finally concluded.  You can hear me in the badckground thanking everyone for their support.  Then Leigh begins his commentary... 

[ Note on audio clips/links: Some are fairly long and take a while to load; so it's best to right-click on the link, choose "open in a new window", let that start loading, then minimize that = return here. ]

Leigh_Ted CJO_Prom_1979

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Nine years later, the scene is this:

I’d lost a great manager, David Louis Rodgers, to a debilitating car crash late 1979 and entered into a Partnership the next year. Four years later, my ‘partners’ leveraged me out of the WCJO organization (biggest business mistake of my career—allowing partners to outvote me). I renamed my project the American Classic Jazz Orchestra, but couldn’t compete with the ‘old’ name (which had a lot of clout back then), so I assembled what I called “my concession to the recession”--a Septet version that still retained Brass and Woodwinds and thus was still uniquely authentic. It was originally monikered “De Stijlistics”, but few people could pronounce it or catch the double entendre, so I renamed it the American Classic Jazz Ensemble.

In 1988, I had a special concert booked for the Hennepin Arts Center in Minneapolis and Leigh was to interview me onstage before the actual performance.  And he was also going to do a discussion segment with the legendary Jazz promoter and author, John Hammond (see picture below of Ted and Mr. Hammond backstage).

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And my Special Musical Guest was the ultimate Stride Piano and Jazz expert, Butch Thompson. This was the first time we were to have worked together and the afternoon before the concert, Leigh called Butch and did a phone interview re: the evening's event.

The link below is a snippet from that conversation…

Leigh_Butch_re Ted_1988

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In 1993, I produced my ACJO 20th Anniversary Concerts at Bandana Square in St. Paul.  This was the second time I was able to feature Butch Thompson on Piano (absolutely terrific), but this time with the full ensemble.  And I had top local talent in every chair on the bandstand.  Plus, Shirley Witherspoon as featured Female Vocalist; and… 91-year-old Benny Waters: legendary Alto Sax man who’d been in Europe for 40 years, but had recently returned to the US (at one point, he said about the US: “With all its faults, I love you still.”). 

I don’t have tape of Leigh from those evenings, but in 2006 I’d moved back to Minneapolis from Washington, DC and Leigh was gracious enough to give me lots of airtime on his Saturday night “Jazz Image” show.  It was a phone interview (he called me at my home from the studio) interspersed with selections from the CD I’d created featuring the best recordings from the 20th Anniversary events.  His show was four hours long and he called me 4 times at ~ the :30 time (9:30, 10:30, etc.).  We talked a bit, he’d play a track, then we’d talk some more.  The rest of the time was a potpourri of other material.   I recorded the pertinent segments and thus have four ‘tracks’, but they’re quite long and I debated editing them further, but decided to post them 'as is'. 

The four segments range from 12-16 minutes long.  They may take some time to load, so see note below:

[ Note on audio clips/links: Some are fairly long and take a while to laod; so it's best to right-click on the link, choose "open in a new window", let that start loading, then minimize that = return here. ]

01_Leigh - Ted_Jazz Image_2006

02_Leigh - Ted_Jazz Image_2006

03_Leigh - Ted_Jazz Image_2006

04_Leigh - Ted_Jazz Image_2006

 
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Three years later, in 2009, I'd revised the 20th Anniversary CD (added more tracks) and sent Leigh a copy.  The phone message below is the last I heard from Leigh. 
Leigh Kamman was, from the git-go, a true believer in what I've been trying to do all these years; and his comments are valued most highly.
 
 

Leigh Phone Message_2009

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The following are a few photos from Leigh's career.  I have no idea what all he has in his Audio Archives, but I do know for a fact that he has an interview with Charlie Parker (!).  I'm sure there's much more; and, as I understand it, Leigh is working on a book.  I certainly wish him all the best.  Because he was one of The Best. 
 

Young, handsome Leigh
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Diahann Carroll and Leigh
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Leigh and Gene Krupa
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Leigh and Stan Kenton
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Leigh and Dizzy Gillespie
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As I said to Leigh in the phone interview of 2006, "I remember a WCCO late-night radio host named Franklin Hobbs.  He called his show Hobbs' House and I have fondest memories as a kid of listening to his show on the car radio  and gazing at the stars as the folks would be driving back from somewhere.  You remind me of Franklin Hobbs and have had the same effect on a Saturday night: You have a great radio voice like Hobbs, but you also have an Imagination that no one else has.  Some thought you rambled on too much, but I loved the way you painted pictues and took us on imaginary rides into the past."
 
Leigh Kamman, thank you for so many Golden Moments. 
 
Ted Unseth
2012