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Disappearing Act

An appreciation of Peter Solomon, the former jazz voice of local public radio, who is moving to Maryland.

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For the past 22 years, Peter Solomon has been the jazz voice of local public radio. For two and then three hours every night, his show featured long, chronologically varied expanses of improvised music. In the infrequent pauses, he identified the pieces and provided polished, concise context chipped from a mountain of historical knowledge. His departure for another NPR affiliate in Salisbury, Maryland, marks the end of an era that, while quietly self-effacing, deserves notice.

My first clear memory of the off-air Solomon was in the old Bogart’s back room, then a venerable performance space, since renamed several times. He joined me at a small table where I was sketching out ideas for a business proposal in a pocket notebook. Then he suggested we try to remember the names of trombonists who appeared on early Blue Note jazz records. I was first bemused and then impressed when he took the notebook and filled page after page with names of great and obscure artists.

Solomon started out as a trombonist, gaining admission to the premier jazz program at University of North Texas. As more a band than a solo vehicle, his instrument opened a window into the entire history of the form. “I loved the early years, how much personality those early trombone players had. I could identify many with a single note. Once modern jazz came around, everybody sounded like J.J. Johnson. As jazz has moved to the schools, there is even more sameness. The occasional person transcends, but it’s rare.”

Solomon was not among the transcendent.

“I dropped out of the jazz program at the end of my second year,” he recalls. “I hated the improv classes. Not because there was anything wrong with them, it was me. I couldn’t remember a tune to save my life. I can remember every musician that played on every session, but I can’t remember what comes after the b-flat 7th chord in the 4th bar.”

He started working at the school radio station, earned a bachelor of arts, and immediately landed his first job at a small-market, southeast Kansas affiliate.

When the Richmond job opened, Solomon applied.

“I opened an atlas and saw the river, the mountains and the ocean nearby, and a few hundred thousand people,” he says. “The job description said, ‘cultural opportunities abound.’ With the vibrant art and music scene, Richmond has so much going for it.”

Playing trombone opened many doors. “I am not an outgoing person, but with music you make friends quickly,” Solomon explains. “The first person who took me around was singer Mary Elizabeth Ayling, who performs as Emme St. James. I surrounded myself with people who were better than me, sitting in with Roger Carroll, Johnny Hott, Debo Dabney. I audited saxophonist Skip Gailes’ VCU improvising class and had a regular gig with Alan Parker at Crossroads. I used to joke we scared away the lunch crowd.”

But for the most part, his life was centered on the radio. He did features on local artists, interviewed national acts like Branford Marsalis and Christian McBride when they came to the Modlin Center. When Story Corps came to town, he learned the fine art of reducing a 45-minute unstructured conversation down to an un-narrated, three-minute piece. And when the National Folk Festival came to town, he pioneered the local coverage, creating content to bridge the gaps between live performances.

“Nobody goes to college thinking ‘I am going to go into jazz radio,’” Solomon says.

His well-honed skills have deep roots. When he was 16 years old and just getting into jazz, his mentor was the Charleston, South Carilina, radio host Larry Morrissey. “My dad would drive me 60 miles so I could bring my records, introduce them on-air. I got my approach from him.”

“It’s not about me – it’s about the music. There is never any reason to go on for more than 90 seconds. I don’t target the jazz enthusiast. They can go to their record collection to hear something abstract and challenging like Sun Ra. My job is holding the layperson’s attention.”

Solomon may be gone from nightly broadcasts, but by getting out of the way to let the music shine through, it’s been a disappearing act all along.

Peter McElhinney is the jazz critic for Style Weekly and a contributing arts and culture writer.