Steve Braunginn and Strictly Jazz Sounds on WORT-FM: Jazz as a Life Force
Steve Braunginn at home in his home studio
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Steve Braunginn lives and breathes jazz. He listens to it with his breakfast in the morning. And it isn’t hard to imagine him falling to sleep listening to some soft jazz in the evening. It is a real life force for him.
When Braunginn was getting engaged in Madison politics and activism in the 1980s — Braunginn was a local leader in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign — he also brought an educated jazz perspective to WORT-FM with his Strictly Jazz program. But due to economic pressures — it takes money to raise two children — Braunginn went back to teaching and took several jobs culminating in him being the CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.
But due to poor health, Braunginn left his Urban League position and years of burning the candle at both ends. Feeling burned out, Braunginn felt he needed to “get my soul into another dimension.”
Braunginn became a columnist for Isthmus, took up photography and rejoined the WORT family.
“I started out as a substitute for WORT’s jazz shows,” Braunginn said. “Jane Reynolds was basically the person who took my place back in 1986 when I finally left. I started training with WORT-FM again to learn how to do digital radio. When I was with WORT back in the 1980s, it was tape. Well those days were gone and they used CDs for the most part — and not records. And it was all digital. I had to relearn. And they had a new engineering board and I had learn how to use it. I put the wheels back on and I was cooking.”
Braunginn has been an intricate witness and critic on Madison’s jazz scene ever since. He and Jane Reynolds partnered up for the show Strictly Jazz Sounds and were involved in the jazz scene inside and out of the studio.
“The reason why it worked for both of us is that our tastes are very similar,” Braunginn said. “And she is a fantastic pianist. She is an incredible jazz pianist. We’ve been together for 17 years now. Can you believe that? We respect each other. We enjoy each other’s company. We’ve interviewed Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Geri Allen, Sonny Fortune, Hanah Jon Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell and of course Richard Davis. We’ve interviewed so many people. Part of Jane’s Ph.D. dissertation was interviewing Roscoe Mitchell. We’ve done a whole lot together. We’ve gone to conferences together. She presented at a conference at Guelph University in Ontario. I went and I wasn’t supposed to present. I ended up presenting. We met all kinds of folks including top jazz musicians like Anthony Braxton, Amiri Baraka, Charlie Hayden, and Carla Bley.”
It seems that Braunginn has of course listened to anyone who is a part of the Who’s Who in Jazz, but it seems that he has met almost all who have ventured to Madison the past 17 years. Braunginn recounted one session with famed saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
“We stayed up until 1 a.m. at the Overture Center to be with Sonny Rollins after the show,” Braunginn recalled. “We stayed up outside of his dressing room until 1 a.m. when he and his nephew Clifton Anderson were finished planning the show in Japan, which was during the day in Japan. Jane and I have done a lot together.”
In 2010 through the efforts of Howard Landsman, Fabu Carter, Jane Reynolds and others, a Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration was held in Madison. Williams was an important jazz force in her own right in an era when jazz was dominated by men, transcending and contributing to wave after wave of jazz styles. Braunginn was also a part of the celebration.
“I think the Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration was one of the pinnacle events of the last 17 years,” Braunginn said. “Jane and I were just talking about it today. Geri Allen was at the tip of her career when she died at 60-years-old. I cried when I heard she died. Between Jane and me, she will be played at least once per month on the air. It just happens that way because she was so influential in modern jazz. She was incredible. And of course the relationship out of that was Maxine Gordon. Maxine is fun. I got a message from her over Christmas. She’s doing fine.”
And Braunginn met and interviewed some of the big names in jazz now before they became well-known.
"One of them is Terri Lyne Carrington,” Braunginn said. “I spent about 4-5 hours with her when she was here back in 2017 I think. She did a show at the Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall. In the afternoon, she did a special event. I was offstage. People asked questions. She and I talked for a while and then she did a show. She allowed me to photograph the show. And then after the show, Jane and I went back stage and spent time not only with her, but also basically the whole band. And now Terri Lyne Carrington was just named a NEA Jazz Master just the other night. It was a very special event. It was about time although she is only 55-years-old. She is doing some remarkable stuff. She is the director of the Institute on Jazz and Gender at Berklee College of Music. She’s artistic director at the Carr Center in Detroit. And she probably is the most in demand drummer that you are ever going to find. But she is also a producer. She’s a professor at Berklee. The thing is she is one of the few women jazz musicians who was selected as a NEA Jazz Master. And it is about time. Her last album, Waiting Game, was tremendous.”
While jazz was very near and dear to Braunginn’s heart before the pandemic, on some levels, it became his life blood, his connection to the world while he and his wife sheltered in place during the pandemic.
“Jazz has become my life,” Braunginn said. “Jazz music has become my life now. And I think the pandemic did that, staying home, staying focused instead of scattering about. I began to spend a lot more time studying the music in terms of who is in it, who is growing in it, and who is leadership in it.”
And he didn’t let the pandemic slow him down. He created a studio in a spare room at his house and made due so that he could stay on the air.
“WORT in the first few weeks, was pulling stuff out of the archives,” Braunginn recalled. “No one was doing anything from home. And then one of the hosts who does the Thursday Morning show started doing it from home. And he was doing some virtual training. And I was one of the people whom he trained. I jumped into it pretty fast. I said, ‘If we can do this, give me the software and let me figure it out.’ I got into it. I had the hardware, but I didn’t have the software. It’s Adobe Audition. It’s good for podcasts as well and for those who are doing voice overs for books. It’s a very popular software. The thing is you are literally dragging the music to the program. And you are doing your voice piece on another track, so I do it on two tracks. You can do it all on one track, but I think it’s lousy that way. I did that at first and I didn’t like it. I said I needed to figure out how to do two tracks. I did two tracks and it is much, much better. What helped me different than most everyone else is I have the studio-quality microphone. Other folks didn’t. And so the quality of their voice is very different. But if you listen to my show, it sounds like I am in the studio for the most part.”
Next issue: Jazz critic and connoisseur