In The Radio Studio With Jonathan Schwartz
An Alchemist's 36-Year Seminar
The New York Times, Sept. 5, 2003
by Samuel G. Freedman

Down the venerable blocks of West 57th Street I walked, past the Art Students League and the Osborne Apartments and Carnegie Hall, oblivious to all their architecture and history. To put it literally, I was bound on this serene Sunday morning for the Steinway building with its marble and brass, but truly I was searching for a location without substance or address, a Manhattan of my mind.

For decades the voices and music of radio have conjured the city for me, erected a virtual metropolis in the imaginative place inside my head. It mattered little that I grew up within 50 miles of Times Square, visiting relatives in four boroughs, or that I have spent nearly 15 years as a resident. No place I ate or strolled or worked was any more real than the place radio evoked.

As a paperboy in the late 1960's I trod my suburban rounds with a transisto radio tuned to Cousin Brucie counting down the Top 20 on WABC. I lay in my darkened bedroom listening to Jean Shepherd's stories of Midwest steel mills and Automat denizens on WOR. My father taught me to drive as Marty Glickman rasped about Tucker Frederickson pounding for "a coupla, three, four five yards" on the Giants' Yankee Stadium turf. In adulthood I discovered Mike Feder on WBAI with his tales of welfare casework or tormented girlfriends, novellas for the ears.

No voice, no show has stayed with me more steadily, though, than that of Jonathan Schwartz. Thirty-six years since he started on New York radio, 28 since I found his evening show on WNEW-FM, he was still serenading me, Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 4 p.m. on the New York public-radio station WNYC-FM (93.9). The Sunday show is also carried nationally on the XM Satellite Radio, a subscription service for which Mr. Schwartz also programs and plays host on a popular-song channel called "Frank's Place."

Family life rarely permitted me more than patches of listening, but any bit-- a Stacey Kent torch song, an interview with John Lahr and of course Sinatra-- rooted me. I thought of his show as Whitman's "Mannahatta," an ode.

Yet I found myself jittery and anxious and expectant just now, preparing to meet him and sit in on the day's aural alchemy. I remembered that scene in "American Graffiti," when several teenagers, so uncertain of the future, drive to the desert studio to seek the wisdom of their favorite disc jockey, Wolfman Jack (and to see for themselves just how lupine he actually is). Radio establishes an intimacy of no other medium or art form, a sense each listener is alone conversing with the host. To see what is meant to be heard is to risk having illusion rendered ordinary. You pierce the veil at your own peril.

Up in XM's offices on the fifth floor of the Steinway building, Jonathan Schwartz was unpacking a few bagels from a tote bag and preparing the first set of the day. For a daytime show with a nocturnal spirit, the setting was suitably lonely, an expanse of desks and carrels uninhabited on this summer weekend and Mr. Schwartz manning the studio controls himself, headphones and reading glasses snugly in place.

Around a semicircular console from his swivel chair were arrayed eight piles and 23 cartons of CD's, perhaps 20 recordings in each. Mel Torme in this lot, Ella Fitzgerald in that, Tony Bennett, Mandy Patinkin, but also Bob Dylan and Cream and the McGarrigle Sisters: here was the eclecticism that added up to a sensibility.

On the studio carpet rested a knee-high cabinet devoted to nothing except Frank Sinatra. "Every note and then some," Mr. Schwartz told me. "Unreleased notes." The wall's few adornments, talismanic, featured most strikingly a rare photo of Sinatra and Fitzgerald together, Zeus and Hera in one man's Olympus.

At precisely noon Mr. Schwartz allowed five seconds of silence, then played exactly 1 minute 15 seconds of a lilting woman's voice, wordless and yet evocative, over an acoustic guitar. I knew that trademark, that curtain raiser. I had heard it when I first tuned in to Jonathan Schwartz, at 6:10 p.m. on some weekday in the summer of 1975, driving to the night shift at a New Jersey newspaper. As it played now, I asked him, "Is that Astrud Gilberto?" He replied: "I've never said. It is a secret. And it shall remain one."

By then he was cueing Eva Cassidy's CD "American Tune," and after a song he told the audience that it had been released posthumously. Which, in turn, led into a riff on J. D. Salinger and the rumored trove of manuscripts in his desk. "That could make him," Mr. Schwartz said, his voice urgent and amused all at once, "the most influential writer of the 21st century."

A producer named Buddy Ladd worked with Mr. Schwartz. They had first met, by voice at least, in 1981, when Mr. Schwartz was nearing the end of a WNEW-AM show devoted to every Richard Rodgers song recorded by Sinatra. Seven minutes before his midnight sign off, "filled with self-satisfaction," Mr. Schwartz picked up phone call. Mr. Ladd said, "Don't forget 'Glad to Be Unhappy.' "

Only after 18 more years of "telephonic collaborations," as Mr. Schwartz called them, did the two men meet and the partnership become formal. On this day, as on many others, Mr. Ladd backstopped Mr. Schwartz's musical memory, reminding him of Nancy Wilson's "Over the Weekend" for a set of songs about disastrous weekends.

He also handled the stream of e-mail messages, many from similarly encyclopedic listeners. At one point, for instance, Mr. Schwartz played what he believed to be the first two recordings of "I've Got the World on a String," made by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong on the same day in 1933. Soon Mr. Ladd was forwarding an e-mail note from a listener citing earlier versions by Claude Hopkins and Cab Calloway.

I had never been able to count myself among the experts in Schwartziana. Back when I started listening, much as I savored his excursions into Joni Mitchell or Jimi Hendrix, Sinatra was the part of Mr. Schwartz I didn't get. I remember when an editor on my college newspaper, hearing I was heading to a record store, asked me to pick up a Sinatra album he had ordered. Terrified of seeming uncool, I carried it back to the office under my purchase of Jethro Tull. The years, needless to say, have ripened my judgment somewhat. Still, my appreciation for cabaret song and show music had grown only gradually and never into the full-blown passions I've long held for jazz and blues.

The tragedy of most contemporary radio, though, is that it aims only to amen its audience's existing interests, to pander. In the studio on this day, as in my car or living room on innumerable others, I listened to learn, to stretch, to be exposed. Just lately Mr. Schwartz had introduced me to favorite vocalists of his own like Tierney Sutton and Nancy Lamott.

I listened for something more ineffable than a particular artist or song. I listened for the city in my head, constructed not only of the music Mr. Schwartz chose but the cunning way he chose it, the stories he told of greenmarkets or bookstores. I listened for the sort of contrarian integrity that had him, eac year on Super Bowl Sunday, play excerpts from long-ago baseball broadcasts. For me all that added up to a manner: urbane without being effete, smart without being smug, nimble in dancing from genre to genre, curious, intense.

If you assiduously follow the radio business, as I do, and disdain the commercial dial as a wasteland ruled by consultants and conglomerates, then you realize Mr. Schwartz's attributes constitute a recipe for vulnerability. He is not the only alumnus of WNEW-FM's golden age to have found refuge in public radio; his former comrades Pete Fornatale and Vin Scelsa have back-to-back shows each Saturday night on WFUV-FM, 90.7, in New York. In the for-profit arena I can just hope that a subscription service like XM or its competitor Sirius ultimately becomes for commercial radio what HBO is to commercial TV, a profitable niche of intelligence and risk, a microclimate.

In a luminous memoir being published in March, "All In Good Time," Mr. Schwartz traces his ardor for popular song to his father, Arthur Schwartz, the composer of classics like "Dancing in the Dark" and "Something to Remember You By." Jonathan Schwartz began his radio career in his family's apartment on 94th and Lexington, when he did shows with a record player and a contraption called the Electronic Baby-Sitter, which broadcast sound onto the 600 AM frequency within a few hundred feet.

He called the station WKCS, after the initials of his mother, Katherin Carrington Schwartz, and his 12-year-old's taste for Jo Stafford and Nat Cole anticipated his adult aesthetic. His later influences included Jean Shepherd and William B. Williams of WNEW-AM.

To my ears Mr. Schwartz's current show seemed a worthy successor to them all. As the four hours of this Sunday deliciously dwindled, Mr. Schwartz improvised a set based on the same key, sliding from Miles Davis's version of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" to Crosby, Stills and Nash doing "Lady of the Island" to Tom Wopat assaying Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night."

At one point he played Diana Krall singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" from a live album recorded last year in the Olympia Theater in Paris, and later in the show he put on Sinatra doing "Night and Day" in the same hall 40 years earlier. Mr. Schwartz's misadventures during the recent blackout -- losing his car keys in a garbage can, shredding a tire driving back from the Hamptons -- put him in mind of a particularly loopy novelty song from the 1940's, "Mairzy Doats." He played no less than three versions.

The moment that explained all the moments, at least to me, came when he played the sequence of weekend songs, culminating in Stephen Sondheim's brilliantly dyspeptic "A Weekend in the Country." "I loathe the country," Mr. Schwartz said, returning to the microphone. "I'm a city boy. Half of me is cement. I hate the country. Don't go there, don't ask. I'll go to 93rd and West End. That's O.K. I'll go to the movies at 68th and Broadway. I'll ride my bike down Second Avenue. But the country? Never." And before long Jonathan Schwartz sent out the strains of "Autumn in New York," as if for my brain alone.

As if by Wizardry

Jonathan Schwartz can be heard from noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday on WNYC-FM, New York, 93.9 and on, the station's Web site. On Sundays he can be heard from noon to 4 p.m. on WNYC-FM but not on the Web site. The Sunday show is also broadcast nationally on Channel 73, "Frank's Place," of the XM Satellite Radio subscription service.

In addition, Mr. Schwartz has a show from 3 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays on Channel 73 of XM Satellite Radio.

Back to top


Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Culture Articles