Jay Bruder Interview 07/26/2021
I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
Jay Bruder is a music researcher and writer. In addition to a weekly radio show on post-WWII music for BluegrassCountry.org, Jay works on research for reissues. His newest project comes out later this year: a deeply researched box set titled R&B in DC 1940-1960 - Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and more…*
Can you please briefly describe the release for those that may not be familiar with it?
R&B in D.C. 1940-1960 is a look at Washington, D.C.’s contribution to the rise of rhythm & blues from the Swing band era of the early 1940s to the dawn of Soul in the early 1960s. The goal was to provide a comprehensive overview of artists, record companies and recordings with strong ties to the Washington area. The set is a standard Bear Family 12x12-inch box with an illustrated 352-page book and 16 CDs containing 472 audio tracks in rough chronological order. The stars of the set are the artists who were not celebrated outside of the Washington area.
Tell me a bit about the research that went into putting it all together.
The research happened over decades. Oldies D.J.s started to interview local artists in the 1970s. I recorded and saved each interview I heard. In the late 1970s I got out to meet the artists and did my own interviews. The music trade magazines, Cash Box and Billboard, along with the specialist discographies allowed me to build a chronology of record releases. That helped to ground the interviews with firm dates. I canvassed and indexed the local newspapers from the 1940s and 1950s. This allowed me to add detail to biographies and to set everything in the larger context of life in segregated Washington. All the while I was learning about the music and trading interviews and photos with other collectors. Keeping all this physical and digital information organized and accessible remains a challenge.
How did you come to be so interested in this type of music?
During my high school years in the early 1970s I didn’t much like what was being played on Top 40 radio. This was about the time of Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling,” and the beginning of the 1950s revival on the Oldies format radio stations. I found that type of music more interesting. I quickly realized that Washington had a rich history, yet it was not being documented in the way that others were documenting New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. That sparked both my interest in discovering this old music, and in documenting the history. Once I started meeting the artists, who were so gracious and welcoming, I was committed to getting their stories down on paper.
Have you done much writing like this before?
I did a handful of R&B fanzine articles for Blues & Rhythm in England and American Music Magazine in Sweden. Bruce Bastin asked me to do album notes for his Krazy Kat label in England. However, I had never attempted a project of this scale.
Tell me a bit about your writing process.
Richard Weize of Bear Family first suggested this project in May 2014 at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections conference in Chapel Hill. The first challenge was figuring out how to organize all this material in print. The Bear Family Sun Blues Box by Hank Davis, Colin Escott, and Martin Hawkins was the outline that seemed to work best because after some introductory essays it split out the biographies from the song notes. This approach allowed me to set the scene and then write coherent biographies on the artists whose songs appeared on multiple CDs.
The scale of the project rapidly became overwhelming, so I broke it down into small units and tackled them one at a time. One of the organizational tricks was figuring out a computer file system which placed all the research clippings, audio, transcribed interviews, and photographs in one place along with the current draft of the biography and the track notes. This allowed me to easily find them—even if I hadn’t looked for them in months. Research items for each topic went in one sub-folder and computer files of clippings were named so that they would automatically sort in chronological order. The biographies and song notes were generally written in one pass so that I could avoid redundant text.
Once I had a draft section done it went to the volunteer editorial chain. Dan Kochakian took the first review of my usage and facts. Colin Escott reviewed sections for accuracy and added context. John Broven did another full review. He challenged my unfounded assertions, corrected my flawed memory, pointed out my inconsistent spelling, and added details about the artists, songs, and the record trade. Finally, Dick Lillard added hard-to-find regional sales chart information and shared his local perspective on songs and performers. Their input was invaluable.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned while researching this music?
The most interesting thing I uncovered was learning how the African-American community in segregated Washington came together to help these artists when they were starting out. The support started in the public schools and the churches, and continued with the civic groups, newspapers, and radio stations. All of them promoted local music and sponsored variety shows and talent contests which gave these young performers their first public performance opportunities.
What’s next for you?
I am still producing my weekly radio show on post-WWII music for BluegrassCountry.org. Friends have started discussing a parallel project for country music in D.C. (this would be a group effort). Finally, I have been asked to do more articles for Blues & Rhythm, in England.
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