Peter Solomon made his way over to his station’s studio/control room not long ago. The business news program “Marketplace” was just coming through on the monitors…it’s a half hour before Solomon’s show begins…something about vacancies on the federal reserve. We pass the library. Fifteen or twenty thousand CDs, and five thousand of them are jazz.
Jazz With Peter Solomon will move to new Richmond FM frequencies on June 1, but stay in the customary 7-10 p.m. weeknights time slot. It’s part of a reorganization that will send talk shows in one direction — the existing WCVE — and the music programming in another: 93.1 and 107.3 on the FM dial.
Solomon, 45, arrived here at Richmond’s public radio outlet in January, 1999. Only 26 then, he already had long experience in jazz programming and with the music itself. He’s a trombonist, though modest about his skills. He has been presiding as a jazz radio deejay since high school in Statesboro, Georgia.
Early on, he had begun soaking up the music, and the lore. “I loved finding out about musicians I’d never heard of,” he told me. “There’s so much to learn about! So I’d spend hours in the library.” And his dad bought him a trombone for a dollar, so he learned to play transcribed solos of bands from the ’20s and ’30s.
Solomon studied jazz at the renowned University of North Texas program in the early ’90s and deejayed a jazz show there, three nights a week, eventually becoming the station’s operations director. In 1996, he initiated a public-radio jazz program in Kansas.
As we talked, I thought I’d drop the name of the most obscure trombonist I could think of — Grachan Moncur III — just to see how far Solomon’s mind-files extend. “I met him,” he said, during a summer internship in New York. Then he gave me a barrelful of biographical details about Moncur.
He dismisses that kind of comprehensive knowledge as “obsessiveness,” but it’s sharper than that. He’s engaged with the people, and the sounds, rather than having just a detailed command of data. During that New York summer, for example, he lived in a dorm near Washington Square. “I would take whatever money I could save up and go to the jazz clubs. I had grown up listening to them and to see them walking around, these people who had just been names on records, it was really awesome.” Here in Richmond, he has produced sound-features on local musicians, such as Quatro na Bossa’s Kevin Harding.
Solomon’s taste in jazz programming runs from the ’20s — brisk dips into the history and development of the music — and on into ’60s hard bop and its more recent progeny. “I do a fairly conservative-sounding program, mostly acoustic,” he told me. “I don’t do a lot of boundary-pushing things.”
His playlist: “subjective, what I think on a given day. I tend to play older material, and older styles of jazz mixed in. I’m always going to play something from the swing era or even earlier at least once a night. I think of jazz as a continuum. The first jazz recordings were made in 1917 — a hundred years ago!”
Solomon tends to draw most heavily from the late 50s and early 60s — small-group bebop like Horace Silver, the Jazz Messengers, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan. “And then I use new material mixed in with that,” he said. “I think most radio jazz programs are exclusively new material. I use it a little more sparingly.” He leans away from highly electrified jazz, doesn’t play much fusion. “Not because it’s good or bad — it’s that I’ve created a sound I’m going for. I try to play local stuff if it makes sense for my show, and at times I’ll be flexible.”
It’s gotten cheaper to make records now, Solomon explained. The technology has gotten to the point where basically anybody can record. “So there’s a glut of product on the market, and there’s fewer and fewer places for them to put their product on the market. I get more than I can possibly listen to, which is a shame.” He hears from five or ten promoters a week. “I have to say no a lot,” he told me. “You just have to be honest with them.”
Cable and satellite jazz programs can run heavily to schmoozy commentary, ambling conversation behind the mic. Solomon seems to like conversation as much as anyone, but that’s a style he does not embrace for his program. On the air, “I try to be mindful of how much I’m talking,” he said. “One of the most important things is who are you talking to: usually casual listeners, not jazz aficionados. So my comments are not too much in depth — 30 or 60 seconds.”
He doesn’t work out his playlist much in advance. Rather, it evolves as he is on the air. Is it fair to call that improvisation? “I guess so,” he said.