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Stay Tuned

When I was a kid, summer Saturday nights were family nights. My father would put a chuck roast on the grill. Mama stayed in the kitchen to make the rest of supper, while my younger sister and brother settled down in the Florida room to watch TV.

I stayed outside with my father, where we sat on webbed lawn chairs and listened to the radio while the coals burned down and he drank beer. One time, when I was about 7, he let me have a sip. I didn't like it, and the memory of its bitterness kept me from drinking any alcohol at all through high school.

Nowadays, I'm much older than my father was then. I've enjoyed my share of adventurous nightlife, including various chemical lubricants. I'm a single man, so I do try to stay active.

But some Saturday nights I want nothing more than to stay at home by myself, turn on the radio, make a nice dinner, and let the tranquility of my own private space restore my mind from the tensions of the previous week.

It isn't exactly solitary. As it did in childhood, the radio fills the silence and keeps me company.

I begin by listening to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on WUSF-89.7 FM. Keillor's low voice reminds me of my father at his most affable. He was a storyteller too, full of dry humor, and his own enjoyment of Keillor fueled mine.

I keep the radio tuned to WUSF all evening. "This American Life," at 8 p.m., has some interesting segments, but often its host, Ira Glass, is too self-consciously precious for me. Things get better again at 9, when pianist Marian McPartland, who seems almost as old and sprightly as jazz itself, interviews another musician and the two of them play together.

But the best show comes on at 10. Vic Hall, another old timer, shares his voluminous record collection on The Sound of Jazz until 1 a.m. Hall's tastes run roughly from the late 1930s to the mid-1960s, from the birth of swing through bebop and cool to the advent of free jazz and fusion. Lately, it seems, almost every one of Vic's shows has included a tribute to some musician who died recently. These are people, after all, who came of age around World War II, and their death rate is rising steeply.

To many ears, including mine, the music of this era is the high point of jazz. It is both melodic and harmonically inventive. And it is driven by an insistent pulse that doesn't mow you down but won't let you ignore it either. Hall plays the music, talks about the musicians, and in doing so, re-creates a time and a world. In the stillness of a summer evening, he keeps death at bay.

I sit on a lawn chair and listen.

"Vic Hall is the best reason to stay home on a Saturday night," I blurted once to someone taking my telephone pledge during one of WUSF's fund drives.

It's true, although if my father were still alive, he'd probably deserve some credit, too.—Jim Harper

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