You will have to imagine the anticipation.
It’s a Saturday morning in May 2008, and as usual The Music Show is live in the studio.
I’m used to talking to famous musicians, but this morning he’s one of the great jazz musicians of all time.
Sonny Rollins has performed with Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach.
His tunes, some of which have become standards, include Oleo and The Bridge, the latter named after New York’s Williamsburg Bridge on which Rollins trained so as not to disturb his neighbors.
At 77, Rollins arrives in Australia, he is currently in Japan and soon he will be on the phone with our studio.
Don’t forget to ask him questions on the Williamsburg Bridge, I told myself.
In fact, before the interview, we’re playing The Bridge, so I’m unlikely to forget that.
At the end of the track, I hear my producer, Penny Lomax, in my headphones.
“There he is,” she said.
I reach out, turn on my mic, then say to Sonny Rollins, “Welcome to the Music Show, Mr. Williams.”
“Mr. Rollins, it’s me,” Sonny said, laughing good-naturedly.
It’s strange how, after 26 years of presenting, it’s the embarrassing moments that come to mind first.
I have an almost inexhaustible reserve.
The Music Show goes back further than me.
It was invented 30 years ago by two producers, Maureen Cooney and Penny Lomax.
Before that, each state had its own Saturday morning program, almost exclusively devoted to classical music and more of a parochial nature, with long lists of dates and times of performances in a particular concert hall, community center or church. .
In 1991, it was felt that, in accordance with the renaming of the network to Radio National, the program itself should be national.
But that wasn’t the only change.
Besides classical music in all its forms (from medieval song to baroque opera, from romantic symphonies to avant-garde string quartets), there was now jazz, pop, musical theater, traditional music and what was once called “world music”. .
The latter was, in fact, traditional music made by people of color.
I have always hated the term for its vagueness and am happy to see that it is increasingly seen as offensive.
Christopher Lawrence was the first presenter of The Music Show until ABC Classic debauchery in 1994, after which Julie Steiner sat behind the microphone for nine months.
I took over in February 1995.
The name lists would be boring, but I should try to mention a few highlights.
Guests who give demonstrations are always appreciated by us and our listeners.
We have spoken to so many Indian musicians over the years who have brought their instruments into the studio – sitar and sarod, santoor and sarangi, tabla and mridangam.
And there have been even more singer-songwriters, from Megan Washington to Randy Newman, who have sat down at the piano to show us how they write their songs.
A personal favorite was Cy Coleman, composer of Witchcraft and Big Spender.
The Music Show has traveled to many festivals, showing live stages, indoors and out; cellars, caves, tents, a fancy Sydney restaurant and a small table on the main street of Winton in West Central Queensland, where we celebrated the centenary of “Waltzing Matilda”.
But times are changing, and with the ABC’s purse strings tightening, we haven’t released much lately.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, another two-week jaunt to New Orleans, yet in April 2000, we were there, recording great material (and eating great food).
During my own travels, I have collected interviews across the United States, northern and southern Europe, and China, often visiting musicians in their homes.
Another personal favorite was to sit down with 84-year-old Marni Nixon in New York City.
The classically trained soprano had sung for Stravinsky and Bernstein, but she had also provided the voices of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
I was greeted on the trains by Pete Seeger, Mose Allison and the great English countertenor James Bowman; chatted with jazz singer Cleo Laine in the ruins of Rochester Castle in Kent (she was about to perform there); sitting by a Finnish lake with Daevid Allen, founder of Soft Machine and leader of Gong; invaded Imelda Staunton’s dressing room on Broadway, just before her first cabaret concert of the night; drove through the English snow to meet Bob Copper, paterfamilias of the Copper Family; and visited Soul Queen Irma Thomas at her New Orleans club, where on some nights she didn’t just sing, but also cook the food.
We spoke to some great jazz musicians, besides “Mr. Williams”.
Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Geri Allen, Chick Corea, and the Marsalis brothers were all thoughtful talkers (in fact Ornette was more of a monologue); Betty Carter and Blossom Dearie both scolded me, and Sheila Jordan, very nicely, didn’t.
Some other legends: Kiri Te Kanawa, Yehudi Mehuhin, Baaba Maal, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, Victoria de los Angeles, Renee Fleming, Boy George, Annie Lennox, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Wu Man, Bryn Terfel, Lou Reed, Tori Amos, Angelique Kidjo, Roger Daltrey, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Sedaka, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass, kd lang, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Laurie Anderson, Joan Armatrading, Solomon Burke. . . sorry, i said there wouldn’t be a list.
We talked about music with musicologists and critics (Lawrence Kramer, Susan McClary, Alex Ross); writers (Margaret Atwood, Les Murray, Peter Porter, Nick Hornby – his novel, High Fidelity was perfect fodder); filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Bruce Beresford, Mike Leigh); directors (Francesca Zambello, Neil Armfield); actors and comedians (Lenny Henry, Eric Idle, John Cleese); historians (Simon Schama, Christopher Clark); the philosopher Roger Scruton; painter David Hockney; and a voodoo priestess called Bloody Mary.
She overheated and stomped before the interview began, the Backsliders, who had been on the same show before and stayed in the audience, returned to save the day.
And I only met one guest: Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the only blues violist in history, who was monosyllabic and intensely surly – at least he was that afternoon.
If people don’t want to give interviews, they shouldn’t be willing to do them.
Radio National, for those who don’t know, is a producers’ medium, and producers are specialists in their field.
Mine is a part-time job, only two days a week, so it’s The Music Show’s two full-time producers who plan the shows, pick the music and the guests, and usually tell me what to do.
For the first 26 years, those producers were its inventors, Maureen and Penny.
Maureen left ABC at the end of 2016, but Penny is staying, at least a few more weeks.
Along the way, many more have worked on the series as well, sometimes for quite long periods of time during periods of parental leave.
It would be offensive to single out anyone, but I have to mention current producer Ellie Parnell, who, luckily, has now been two years and a bit into a long career on the show.
I have learned so much from all of these producers and continue to do so.
Often – very often, maybe even most of the time – when you hear a relevant question come out of my lips, it was actually suggested by Penny or Ellie.
However, the producers are not responsible for what I say on air.
The Music Show isn’t scripted, so sometimes I say pretty dumb things.
Recently, I managed to mutilate my own name.
This is the price of spontaneity and “Mr Williams” is just the tip of the iceberg.
Listen to The Music Show’s 30th anniversary program and learn about how music and culture have changed over the past three decades.