2019 so far has proven to be quite a “Jazz Eventful” year. In March Ed Roebuck, longtime road manager for the late great NEA jazz master song stylist Nancy Wilson, orchestrated a star studded memorial tribute to the grand dame in Harlem’s famed Aaron Davis Hall CUNY on the campus of City College.
Next was my coverage of NEA master pianist Kenny Barron and NEA master bassist Ron Carter who showcased their wares before jam packed audiences at the Theatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires, Argentina in May.
Now, the day has come that I’ve dreaded for years, someone I grew to love from afar and later become honored to know and work with.
After nearly 40 years on the airwaves, hearing that silky voice in the morning no matter what continent I was in, I now find Rhonda Hamilton’s retirement from WBGO 88.3 FM Newark, NJ. USA the hardest piece to write.
We became aquatinted through a mutual friend and business associate, the late Joyce Edwards. It was July 16, 2011 in the park adjacent to the Harlem River at an event featuring many local artists including saxophonist Patience Higgins and drummer Winard Harper. Joyce said “if you’re going to live in Harlem and be involved in Jazz this is the person to meet” thus introducing Rhonda to me as her best friend “like a sister”.
Rhonda was instrumental in introducing me to Mrs. Billy Taylor that day in the park. Back then we all shared happy times at Jazz events around the city including Jazz Vespers at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. We’d later share a very sad time with the loss of our dear friend Joyce.
Since then we have run into each other at various events around town. One such time was when NEA Jazz Master Pianist Dr. Billy Taylor (a dear friend of Rhonda’s) held court at Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center with a beautiful two set performance in 2012. She was the Mistress of Ceremonies that night. Later, we talked and learned I was in attendance the evening he and NEA Jazz Master Drummer Chico Hamilton we’re interviewed at Harlem’s Jazz Museum then located just off Lexington Avenue at 125th Street.
In 2013 she along with the staff of WBGO were participants in the teen media workshop conducted by Jaris Reed Foundation. Two students were afforded the opportunity to sit in with the staff of the news department, shown the technical operations of engineering and when time came for on air duties Rhonda was right there eager to show the nuances of an on-air -personality.
If Rhonda were not the great radio host she is she could have been an excellent classroom teacher. With the love of what is being done by the group, she now acts as an advisory board member of Jaris Reed Foundation while still handling her many appearances locally in conjunction with the station.
Her final two days on air were reminiscent of her early years as a budding, fresh from a college student on air. She currently holds the title as the longest running Jazz on air personality in the country. Since there is no other station in the world like WBGO, she is easily the most famous among jazz fans around the world as it streams 24 hours everyday on the internet.
For the past few years the Cape-town Jazz Festival in Africa has been her baby as thousands just in the Tri-State (NY,NJ and Philadelphia ) area have attended the event.
The Newport Jazz Festival also is a favorite of her’s to host. Locals flock every year as well as tourists including hundreds that sail yearly to events along the coasts of the word holding festivals of which it is one of a select few.
Cuba also was on her radar of jazz hot spots as she mentioned during her final broadcast having at one time met NEA Jazz Master Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who was instrumental in developing the career of Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, also inducted into the Famed group of National Endowment of the Arts awarded Jazz artists.
Those quarterly fundraising drives where you hear the best lineup of classic Master architects of jazz will be missing one element after July 31st. As of August 1st when you wake up in the morning (or go to bed at night depending on where you are in the world), at 10am “Midday Jazz” won’t have that sweet voice but that of a familiar male. Have no fear, longtime fundraising mate of hers and host of “Jazz After Hours” Brian Delp will as he said “try to handle” filling the shoes of this great jazz lady of the airwaves.
Even though she’s heading to the West Coast,we will talk with Rhonda later after she settles into her new Jazz life “West Coast style” knowing her it may have to be in between rounds on the green or before teeing off.
She will be in great company as one of her dear friends the astounding veteran vocalist,
Carmen Lundy, also a California resident will keep her up to speed, as if she needs help.
This is the first of a two part in depth look at “The Premier” Jazz On air personality in the business… so stay tuned.