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Another Saturday Night

A night in the life of WDUQ's big-band gents

At 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, the studio at 90.5 WDUQ-FM is a diving submarine. Dale Abraham logs on to multiple computers and digital recording systems. Mike Plaskett flips through records, tossing picks out to form a makeshift play list. Ken Crawford swings microphones around, looking for the one with the right reach and height. No klaxons clang, no water pours in, but there's an air of immediacy tempered only by a fatalistic sigh. In the center of it, Len Hendry sits calmly, the veteran captain at the control board.

This is the way Saturdays have been for the better part of 25 years at the Duquesne University offices of jazz-and-NPR station WDUQ. But it could just as easily be the first time each of these four men have snuck into the studio. Plaskett and Abraham chide each other like college buddies on a road trip; Hendry and Crawford tip their heads forward in smiling repose to the music, as though they hadn't heard it for decades. From 6 p.m., when Hendry's Let's Dance program begins, until midnight, when the others' Rhythm Sweet & Hot ends, the station's 21st-century equipment is used to pump the swing, big band, and jazz of the early-20th century out to the surrounding counties. No programming, no play-listing, and no supervision -- it's not radio as we know it in 2004. But with a steadily increasing listenership thanks to syndication, the Web and word of mouth, these sounds of the past feel like the radio of the future.

[[5:30 p.m.]]

For what must be well over the thousandth time, Len Hendry leans over the turntable and lowers the stylus in the well-worn groove of "Make Believe Ballroom" by Charlie Barnet & the Modernaires, cues the record to the song's beginning and checks it twice. The first melodic strains of "Make Believe Ballroom" kick in, urging you to roll away the carpet, just as the theme song has done for 28 years of Let's Dance.

Hendry pushes against the control board and launches his rolling chair across WDUQ's studio floor to the neat corner his records and CDs inhabit. Hendry's flypaper yellow, slightly tight short-sleeve dress shirt and brown Dickies match the weathered, duct-taped record box he's drafted into CD duty. He opens the new laptop-computer suitcase next to it and, in an affront to technology, reveals a stack of worn LP's like Peggy Lee's If You Go and George Siravo's Seductive Strings. He stacks the records in order next to the turntables; with home-burnt CDs similarly pre-prepared, by 5:45 p.m. Hendry is ready for an entire three-hour show. Affixed to the front of each album is a Post-It note reminding Hendry which song he'll play from each record, and helping him keep from repeating a song. But these notes, naming only a song title, beg the question: We know Len played "Here's That Rainy Day" by Peggy Lee before, but was it last week? Last year? 1987?

On July 4, 1976, as Pittsburgh and the rest of the country set disco aside for a moment to bask in Bicentennial fever, trumpet player and swing-music enthusiast Len Hendry took over his friend Bob King's big-band program at WDUQ-FM. And 28 years later, he hasn't once looked back.

"I've done the same show on the same station for 28 years," says Hendry, in his distinctive, slightly warbly voice. "Not many people in Pittsburgh can say that, not even your Billy Cardille's. I enjoy working for this station, because they don't tell me what to play. They just say, ‘Here's 35,000 watts, now go do your thing!' That's the ultimate compliment."

[[6:24 p.m.]]

Peggy Lee is singing "Say It Isn't So."

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, Hendry sings along, a smile on his face, rolling across the floor and cueing up his next record, raising his hands to mentally balance himself, and patting them down self-sure on the mixing board once everything's ready.

He is a portrait of serenity -- the studio, less so. A computer monitor displays a host of options for required station-identification and public-service announcements; one CD player is "acting up again," skipping tracks, resulting in Hendry's announced Robert Goulet ("for the ladies") producing Sammy Davis Jr. (not so much). And then the phone. Always the low, pinging cry of the studio phone.

Before 6 o'clock, Hendry had said, "Once the show starts, there won't be much time for talk -- things really heat up around here." It might've been a joke on the sweet smoothness of Hendry's show, but it wasn't. For the WDUQ phone line rings almost constantly, with Hendry answering whimsically, depending on how ready his next transition is, or, it seems, how much he's personally enjoying a song.

"Hello, Bob! Yes, I got your records, and it's much appreciated as usual. So, how d'ya feel about slots down where you are …" "My good buddy Jack just called to tell us that the Frankie Carroll Group is down at the Palisades tonight …" When Hendry plays Johnny Long's "White Star of Sigma Nu," a new caller is ecstatic: Long's theme song is also his old fraternity anthem, not heard in decades.

Like everything, Hendry takes his job as house organ of the dance-band music community in stride, unfazed if he's missing information for his weekly "Dance Scene" event-listings roundup, if the CD player transforms Goulet to Davis, or if the papers from his playlist sheet brush against the turntable arm and skip a record on-air.

"I never trained," says Hendry of his initial radio experience. "I never had anyone show me anything. Wasn't nervous about it at all -- I didn't even know to be nervous!"

"As a kid, 11 or 12 years old, I used to sit around the street corners with a bunch of other kids and a portable radio," says Hendry. "I loved big band, and decided I wanted to be a musician, so I got my mother to buy me a trumpet at 13. By 15, around 1942, I was making $4 a night playing dances for the kids in Bellevue, Avalon and Emsworth, and combo jobs [at clubs] down on Federal Street," on his native North Side.

These were the war years, and while just about every bar, club or function that needed music required a live band, musicians to fill the ranks -- like workers in every field -- were in short supply.

"I was working at the Heinz plant -- I was a big kid, and told them I was 18. Everybody [still playing music] was either too young or too old [for the Army]. There weren't many musicians around, so you only had to be able to read a chart and play halfway decent -- you didn't have to be Harry James!"

For Hendry, as a 15-year-old musician and plant worker, the big break came in the form of long-time Pittsburgh bandleader Carl Arter. The musician manpower shortage broke down not just age barriers, but racial ones too: When Arter needed two trumpet players for his all-black band, he ended up poaching from the high school, including a young, white and nervous Hendry, who spent a hectic 1942 playing nightly at predominantly black clubs around Pittsburgh.

"I learned more in those two or three months than in the next two or three years," says Hendry. "I was very nervous, but one of the guys kept telling me, every night, ‘Len, get your white ass up there and solo!' Well, I finally did, and they shined that blue spotlight on me, and I did it, I soloed. And from that day on I wasn't ever nervous again. Not as a musician, not to deejay, nothing."

[[8:28 p.m.]]

By 8:30, Len Hendry is visibly tired. "I'll be happy to get out of here at 9," he says, counting up records, planning his final half-hour. "Most of my audience is between 6 and 8 -- by then, people are going out to the dances, to the movies, whatever."

As Hendry is powering down, Dale Abraham is powering up. In cut-off shorts, sleeveless T-shirt and sandals, the 41-year-old Abraham cuts a vastly different figure from Hendry: He flickers with purpose and intent. But despite the difference in years -- and caffeinated attitude -- Abraham and Hendry share an important trait.

"Len," says Abraham, "do you have the original Artie Shaw ‘Lady Be Good' with you tonight?" Hendry scours his records and CDs, to no avail, while Abraham ping-pongs between on-air studio and production studio, where he is preparing for Rhythm Sweet & Hot, the 9 p.m. show that follows Hendry, on which Abraham serves as engineer and production manager.

Hendry is longingly discussing his upcoming week -- hosting the Monday night American Legion dance near his White Oak home, as he's done for 18 years, and maybe a trip with his wife to their lakeside cottage -- with what seems like increasing disinterest in the radio show. But when the on-air light flips on, so too flips a switch in Hendry, and that 12-year-old street-corner fan awakens.

"My name is Len Hendry, and you're at the Let's Dance bandstand! We do this every Saturday night for three hours here on WDUQ. OK, gals, as I promised you earlier, here's one from Robert Goulet -- you gals sure love that Robert Goulet, don't ya?"

This year, Len Hendry is 77 years old.

"I'll quit when I get a heart attack and they pull me out of that chair," says Hendry, laughing. "It's part of my life -- like most performers, you get used to audiences, get used to getting up there and performing, and now that I don't play myself anymore, if I wasn't to do the show, what would I do?

"Without this show, I'd just be another 77-year-old senior. But with this show, I'm a somebody."

[[8:58 p.m.]]

As Len Hendry ends his set with Henry Mancini, the beehive-like atmosphere of Rhythm Sweet & Hot's three-man team has overtaken the WDUQ studio. Ken Crawford enters, Dale Abraham scurries to the computer and, just as Abraham kicks the show's Duke Ellington theme song into the CD player, Mike Plaskett giddily turns to the sax-wielding, surreal stuffed rabbit under his arm.

"So, Benny Bunny, are you ready to go on?" asks Plaskett. "I know I'm ready."

The machinery of routine is apparent in Rhythm, Sweet & Hot's production: Plaskett brushes each record before placing it on the turntable, while Abraham jams homemade CDs into the player for Crawford, who sits godfather-like on the far side of the studio's mixing board, nodding in approval at Abraham's cues. It's too chaotic to be "professional," but too mechanized, too honed, to be "amateur." After 22 years at WDUQ for Crawford and Plaskett, with Abraham on board for the last six, the show not only goes out over WDUQ every Saturday night, but is broadcast on 39 stations worldwide in syndication -- from Puerto Rico to Australia -- and is listened to regularly over the Internet by fans as far away as Russia and Argentina.

[[9:41 p.m.]]

Mike Plaskett is on the air, dedicating a song to his mother -- not just any song, a Guy Lombardo song. There's a special place in Heaven for sons like that. Not every mother's son is on the radio; fewer still care to play the big Canadian.

"Mother's stock of stories is not huge," jokes Plaskett later on, "and at the drop of a hat, with any cue at all, she'll tell you how she sang ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight' on the radio in 1937. She's an ongoing Southern belle, an absolute pistol -- and a huge inspiration to me."

To Plaskett, these stories are manna, be it his mother on late-'30s radio, his father's hard-living profession as a New Orleans jazz musician, or less personal tales of Billie Holiday and Bunny Berigan, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. Rhythm Sweet & Hot may be just a once-weekly excursion into the music of the past, a garden path from his day job as membership director at WDUQ. But to Plaskett, at 59 ostensibly on the edge of baby boomer-dom, that world of the '20s, '30s and '40s is more than history. It sometimes seems just as relevant as the present.

"It's not that I'm unhappy in these times," says Plaskett. "But by rights, I shouldn't be experiencing the nostalgia I feel for things in the '30s and '40s. I don't believe in reincarnation, but I feel a very strange connection for things that happened in, say, 1937 -- it doesn't feel foreign to me, it feels right. And I'm not about to begin to explain that."

As a 3-year-old, Plaskett recalls being stood on the bar his father played at in New Orleans, where Plaskett was born, and made to sing for the patrons. His father was a hot-jazz multi-instrumentalist originally from Canton, Ohio, who was stationed in New Orleans after returning from Europe in World War II -- Plaskett's mother met him playing at the Famous Door club in Bourbon Street. Plaskett himself fondly recalls his first time on the radio -- at age 5, on a children's story-hour show -- and how, even at that age, he was more interested in what the engineers were doing than the host. Since then, it's been a lifetime of proselytizing about big band and swing, Bing Crosby Hawaiian records and the return of the Hawaiian shirt, and the artistry of Glenn Miller.

"All my friends liked rock 'n' roll, and I did my best to tell 'em that Artie Shaw was better," says Plaskett, "but nobody understood. There are certain sounds you can hear and identify as Dixieland, or as swing, but it's one thing to do that and another to hear Lester Young or Bunny Berigan doing extraordinary solos, and realizing there's a whole world there that you didn't know about."

[[10:58 p.m.]]

"We're the only people in the galaxy licensed to play Dixieland on the radio," says Plaskett, while Wingy Manone and Nappy Lamare belt out "At the Jazz Band Ball" in the background. "Well, there might be someone on Arcturus, where the Philistines haven't caught up with 'em yet. But if anyone else in Pittsburgh played this tune on the radio, they'd be fired within 16 bars."

Mike Plaskett sees Dixieland, hot swing, even some of the more treacly sweet big-band music of the era, in a different light than those who think of this music as mere nostalgia. It's an evaluation that he brought to the oft-misunderstood Glenn Miller when Plaskett selected the music and wrote liner notes for BMG/Bluebird's Glenn Miller: America's Bandleader, and it's part of his mission with Rhythm Sweet & Hot.

"I think that the kind of music we do is being recognized more and more as an art-music," says Plaskett. "And I think that stations that are really interested in the fine arts are starting to understand that the kind of jazz and pops that we offer is a relatively unsung brand of music. There was a time when our kind of program was a staple on public radio; there was an old fart that played big-band jazz. And I marvel that in this day and age we still have the ability to do what we do, and do it for an appreciative, growing audience.

"I know what treasure we have here [at WDUQ]. The music is absolutely sublime, and for those who listen with a listener's ear, it's got native appeal. Our stock and trade is so wonderful. All we need to do is get someone to listen, and it clicks."

[[11:36 p.m.]]

"Gee it's all / fine and dandy / sugar candy / when I've got you." On "Fine and Dandy," Donna, Yvonne, Luise and Alyce King sing the kind of jaunty, tight-knit, Andrews Sisters harmonies that would make even a teenager wax nostalgic for -- ironically -- the War era. For Ken Crawford, it's like going home.

"Oh, the state of the world these days," he says. "When I was a kid, everything was so peaceful. Until World War II broke out, that is. That was a different story."

If Mike Plaskett is WDUQ's Saturday night swing evangelist, then Crawford is its oracle, quiet and staid. Even upon talking to Crawford one might not at first realize the treasure that he is. His photographic memory for record information -- from session dates to background players' names -- is renowned. And his collection of swing and big-band records, which have been borrowed by major record companies as source material since the 1960s, is unparalleled.

"People out there listen to Ken, and they think of him as this guy who spins these records," says Abraham. "But I see him as my only possible connection to these people -- he's had dinner with Jimmy Rushing, Mr. Five-By-Five from Count Basie's band; he's the only person I can ask, ‘So, how much did Billie Holiday drink when you two went out?'"

Ken Crawford was a record-collecting child prodigy. He claims that he was building his swing collection by 1927 -- no mean feat, as he was only born, in the Regent Square/Swissvale area, in 1925.

"I was about 2 when I became attached to records," says Crawford. "I couldn't read, of course, but my granddad had a bunch of records, and I'd put my own little marks on every record he had. So if he said, ‘Play Benny Goodman's so-and-so,' I'd pick it out, stand on the high chair, and put it on the hi-fi."

Although Crawford purchased just about everything that came out through the years, a few types of specialist discs particularly piqued his interest at an opportune time for collecting. Right out of high school, Crawford was drafted into Patton's army and sent to Europe for World War II. (It's a subject he approaches with typical matter-of-factness: "We went through France, but it had already been liberated by that point. Of course, I did fight in the Battle of the Bulge -- had two or three guys get shot standing right next to me, but somehow I guess I made it through.") Before making his way home, Crawford emptied space in his duffel bag and brought back a number of V-Discs, the army-only records given out monthly to soldiers in the field. "I've still got 'em," says Crawford, "and I've gotten a lot more since then -- probably about 300."

From an early age, Crawford was fascinated with "transcription" records: big 16-inch discs recorded exclusively for radio airplay and leased to stations the way that film reels are circulated to cinemas. At over 5,000 records, Crawford has, "Oh, probably the biggest transcription collection in the world, I'd imagine.

"I was 10 years old and heard these on the radio, and I tried to buy them -- which you couldn't, of course. I was really pissed off about that, so, of course, now I had to have them."

Since even at the time of their creation these were exceedingly rare, the result is that there are many recordings -- some by names as big as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington -- of which Crawford's copy is the only one in existence.

[[11:39 p.m.]]

Mike Plaskett is bopping his pointing fingers to trumpeter Bunny Berigan's solo on "Pied Piper."

"Astonishing," he says on-air. "He's so melodic, and yet so out-of-left-field -- you listen to this guy and say, ‘Just how could anyone even think of playing those notes?'"

By the time Mike Plaskett moved to Pittsburgh in 1966, he owned re-release compilations of famed artists such as Billie Holiday that had been culled largely from Crawford's collection of unique source material. But it was the more obscure Berigan who brought the two together.

"One block from the apartment I moved into in Mount Lebanon was Gardner's Records," says Plaskett. "I went in and this imposing, statuesque blonde comes up to me and asks if I need help -- ‘Do you have any Bunny Berigan records?' Her jaw dropped -- ‘I have all the Bunny Berigan records.' That was Glenda Abdoo who, it turned out, was the jazz maven of Pittsburgh -- in the '30s, she ran off to follow Cab Calloway's band, and she was personal friends with Billie Holiday. And her boyfriend was Ken Crawford.

"Here I was, from New Orleans, loved jazz all my life, and I walk into Pittsburgh and immediately meet these people who're on a first-name basis with these musicians."

Crawford and Abdoo, who later married, and Plaskett and his first wife quickly became close friends. In the early '80s, Plaskett was doing a big-band show on a Millvale radio station. When the opportunity to move to the larger WQED-FM came up, it was good timing: Abdoo's health was failing, Plaskett's home life was rocky, and the chance for Ken and Mike to escape into a radio show sounded good. A year later, when WQED went to an all-classical format, Rhythm Sweet & Hot moved to WDUQ, where it's been ever since.

"I'm 79 now," says Crawford. "Seventy-seven years, that's a long time to collect records -- to do anything! I'm not gonna do it forever, but I've always appreciated it more than anything, except maybe a hot date."

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