Interview with radio host Jim McGrath - well known to the blues community from the Living Blues Playlist

"I would make Blues a bigger part of the radio landscape on commercial radio. Not necessarily Blues Radio but more Blues and Blues related music (Blues-Rock) on the radio to entice listeners to listen and support this kind of music."

Jim McGrath: The Blues Spectrum

Jim McGrath is well known to the Rochester blues community, probably best known for his overnight blues program on WXXI for many years. In addition, Jim has been compiling the Living Blues Playlist that has appeared in Living Blues magazine for the past twenty-five years. Jim was born and raised in Rochester, and started listening to music in the 50's coming to jazz in high school due to a priest that enjoyed jazz and had an after school jazz club.

It was just a listening activity but that coupled with stories of The Pythodd Club and other Jazz venues lead Jim to a lifelong love of the music. But after "liking what he liked" he sat down and tried to figure out what he liked about the music styles, and the common denominator turned out to be the blues. Radio was always another passion listening to WHAM, WBBF, WSAY, WLS, WCFL, WCMF and others in the late night hours during high school thinking this was the coolest job. In the USN Jim got a chance to listen to people like E. Rodney Jones & Wolfman Jack on the border blasters of the California/Mexico border. And in Chicago he listened to such announcers as Larry Lujack, Daddy-o Daley and Dick Biondi. Jim held those and others in high esteem for bringing him the music that he still listens to today. He never worked at a commercial station but has worked at public/NPR stations and college stations which offered greater freedom. It is with that in mind that he is starting to host The Blues Spectrum. It was born in the 70’s at WITR, WXXI AM and Jazz 90.1

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues & jazz culture and what characterize Jim McGrath’s music philosophy?

Just as Duke Ellington said (paraphrasing) “there’s only good music and bad music”. Trust your ears and try to learn so you can back up what you like with knowledge.

How started the thought of radio show The Blues Spectrum and the column of Living Blues Charts?

Blues Spectrum started on a 10 watt college station in the ’70’s and the reason is because there were a ton of things happening in the Blues genre at the time. I thought that music should get some airplay even though the audience was quite limited due to the size of the station. I left that station and in between I talked with Jim O’Neal then editor for Living Blues about starting a chart. It was brought on by the fact that at that college station I couldn’t get releases to play even though big commercial stations got multiple copies of the releases which they ended up selling to second hand stores here in Rochester NY. That’s where I went to get the latest Blues releases since I couldn’t get promos. I thought a chart would help rectify that situation. I had hoped it would show small stations played these releases and deserved support. Thus the Living Blues Radio Chart was born. The Blues Spectrum continued on WXXI AM while I was there stretching from a two hour show on Sundays to a 6 hour show 6 nights a week. Now it is back to Sunday nights for two hours on WGMC FM.

Just as Duke Ellington said (paraphrasing) “there’s only good music and bad music”. Trust your ears and try to learn so you can back up what you like with knowledge.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

I think I have a couple. Serving in the USN back in the ’60’s in Viet Nam was certainly and interesting part. It opened my eyes to the world. And how different things were from my childhood. Also my 17 years at WXXI AM. It was an overnight gig for the most part and I produced a program called City Sounds where we went out to various venues in the area to record Jazz and Blues acts for an hour long show on WXXI AM. We taped everyone from Little Milton to Taj Mahal on the Blues side to Anthony Braxton to Dave Brubeck on the Jazz side of things. It was hard work with very long days but very satisfying. It lasted 10 years with a total of 550 shows.

Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

City Sounds.

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I actually have to dispute this. Jazz accounts for 3% of the total sales in music and Blues is even less here in the US. The audience may be “devoted” but it is shrinking. Even though Blues will never get up (and never has been up) to Lady Gaga sales numbers it isn’t the major mover that it used to be. I don’t know any answer for this decline. I wish I did.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memories make you smile?

Well I have met a lot of folks in Blues. Eddie Shaw & his band back in the 70’s I still remember. It was at a club here in Rochester NY and we remain friendly to this day. I always will remember Little Milton and Johnny Copeland who came to my little 10 Watt when they were in town and did interviews. Both of these gentlemen treated me well even though it was a small station and probably didn’t get them much. Little Milton actually came to my graduation party in the 80’s when I graduated from college evening school. That was quite a thrill for everyone in attendance and he dearly loved Miss Dee’s (my girlfriend) cooking.

"I miss hearing Blues on the radio. It has degenerated to such a point that all the Blues has been eliminated from most radio. I think it has had a direct effect on the popularity of the genre." (Photo: Jim McGrath & Miss Dee) 

Are there any memories from The Pythodd and other Jazz & blues venues which you’d like to share with us?

The high point of the Pythodd Room was back in the 60’s and I was too young to get in. I was raised by strict parents who wouldn’t have let me go even if I had asked. When I came home from boot camp it was the first place I went. There was no music that night but it was a nice experience. Then over the years I got to see folks there but never like the years I was in high school. Then it was a stop on the chitlin’ circuit for Jazz players and hosted everyone from Jimmy Smith to Rashaan Roland Kirk.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between the European and American Blues Charts?

I am not familiar with any European charts so I can’t answer that question. I do see some overseas charts and they are different in a way but they also report local artists so in that respect they try to bolster the artists from their country.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss hearing Blues on the radio. It has degenerated to such a point that all the Blues has been eliminated from most radio. I think it has had a direct effect on the popularity of the genre. Even though commercial radio never really played Blues per se they did program Blues influenced music that led people to the Blues if they wanted. That just doesn’t happen anymore. It is relegated to specialty shows of various length. It’s a lot of work to find Blues on the radio nowadays and most folks don’t or won’t take the time.

Jazz accounts for 3% of the total sales in music and Blues is even less here in the US. The audience may be “devoted” but it is shrinking. Even though Blues will never get up (and never has been up) to Lady Gaga sales numbers it isn’t the major mover that it used to be. (Photo: Jim McGrath & Hubert Sumlin)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would make Blues a bigger part of the radio landscape on commercial radio. Not necessarily Blues Radio but more Blues and Blues related music (Blues-Rock) on the radio to entice listeners to listen and support this kind of music.

What are the lines that connect the Blues with Jazz? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

I do believe that there is “real” Blues but what that is different for everyone. Some only consider stuff recorded before 1960 as real. I think that vocalists make the band real so that limits who I think is “real” to me. So many folks that are good musicians are not good Blues vocalists.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would go back to Chicago IL in 1968. I did live there then but I wasn’t as in tune with music and I would like to go back and see what and who I could see. I guess it would have to be on a Friday or Saturday. If i had two trips I would go back to the late 40’s or early 50’s to see some of the Blues shouters in their heyday.

I do believe that there is “real” Blues but what that is different for everyone. Some only consider stuff recorded before 1960 as real. I think that vocalists make the band real so that limits who I think is “real” to me. So many folks that are good musicians are not good Blues vocalists.

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