David Lewis, the host of the ‘Straight Ahead’ radio show on Solar Radio – also available as a podcast – is interviewed by Laura G Thorne(*)
LondonJazz News: You host a radio programme on Solar Radio called ‘Straight-Ahead’. How did that come about, and how did the 606 get involved?
David Lewis: Straight Ahead was the first show I ever presented on Solar Radio almost six years ago now. A British sax player and good friend of mine, Mike Parlett, who lives & works in LA, was over in London and presenting his show from our studio. I met up with him, sat in on his show and that was that! Basically, he and Tony Monson (one of the bosses) left at midnight saying “looks like you know what you are doing” and just asked me to lock up when I left!
The association with The 606 came about after a few meetings with Steve Rubie a few years back. It’s been a perfect synergy. I highlight artists that are playing (or streaming) that week from The Club and then play a mixture of current new releases, classic Blue Note numbers and ALWAYS a Buddy Rich track whose band I simply adore.
LJN: The terms ‘straight-ahead’, modern jazz and mainstream jazz are often used when describing jazz, but they can mean different things to different people. How do you define those terms?
DL: Good question as we all like a ’term, phrase or hook’. I think it helps us to identify what we may listen to. For me, at least, Straight Ahead is 50’s and 60’s swinging bebop and post bebop jazz. Often times a four or five piece band and always with loads of melody & swing. Modern jazz I think has taken its lead from free jazz and can be a more extreme listen – a less melodic sound placing more emphasis on rhythm and freedom to improvise. Mainstream suggests to me the most commercially acceptable side of jazz appealing to as broader listener base as possible. It certainly has its place in the world of jazz though.
LJN: What first sparked your interest in jazz music, and what were the records you listened to most often in your ‘formative years’?
DL: That’s an easy one! My dad – simple as that. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad playing Ted Heath & Kenton records. I remember vividly every Saturday him taking me to Uxbridge and religiously going to a record store, flicking through the vinyl and buying an album or two every week. Then, we’d go home and listen. As I got a little older he took me to see Buddy Rich three times (which is why I now play a number every week). Until he was drafted into the RAF, my dad was a pro sax man running his own bands, but then raising a family took priority and his musical dreams were, sadly put to one side. I have never been talented enough to be a player, but that gene has been passed straight to my daughter who has just graduated with an honours degree as a sax player and plays my dad’s old Selmer.
LJN: And have your listening habits changed or stayed the same?
DL: My listening habits have changed greatly and over the last year in particular. I make a point of exposing myself to new artists. I was guilty of playing what I knew and liked. Being more open minded has helped the show and also both broadened and widened my enjoyment of jazz. I am loving the work of many of the newer names such as Binker Golding, Deschanel Gordon and Camilla George. Our future is in their hands. That said I still love listening to the established names Vasilis Xenopoulos, Nigel Price, Jo Harrop, Sara Dowling, Paul Edis & Quentin Collins for example.
LJN: How did you get into radio broadcasting?
DL: I have always loved radio. Solar started out in ’85 as a land-based London pirate. It catered for black & minority music that could not be heard anywhere else. When I first came across it, it was a revelation. The problem was they broadcast from south London and trying to pick it up where I lived with my folks was nigh on impossible. I grew up listening to Robbie Vincent, Tony Blackburn and Pete Young. They got me hooked on the ’sound’ of radio. I love that it is a theatre of sound. Your imagination is free to run wild not being held down by images. I did some hospital radio, some try-outs for some of the new stations back in the 90’s and then got the gig with Solar. Quality output is critical to me. I have now built my own broadcast quality studio.
LJN: How is a good jazz radio programme put together? Should it have a thread or be a string of surprises …or what?
DL: I like jazz shows that have a journey which builds but which are not too formatted. With our show, it works well as we focus on the artists playing with us at The Club and of late, on our guest of the week. I don’t think fixed features work so well in a jazz show as the sounds I play can vary so much. I like to feel free to express what I have been enjoying. I listen to A LOT of music each week and try to bring that to the show. Hopefully, if I am enjoying it, the passion will come over and be infectious.
LJN: You’ve interviewed some of the most talented musicians on the UK scene for Straight Ahead, including Tim Garland, Jason Rebello, Georgina Jackson, Clark Tracey, Mornington Lockett, Georgia Mancio… What in your opinion makes for a great interview?
Wow, that is a tough question. The series of interviews started last March as we were thrown into lockdown. The artists had no platform and I wanted to help keep their presence on the scene. I knew I could catch up with them too as they would not be gigging! For my part, research is imperative. So, I have crib notes to help me along the way, but they are never scripted. We always end up just having a natter. I like to endeavour to makes guests feel at ease. We conduct the interviews out over video so that we can actually see one another and interact. . I like to bring some depth to the interview. Oddly, not being a musician helps: I ask questions that I think many listeners would want to ask. Also, no ego is an important part of a good interview, the interviews are designed to make the guests shine.
LJN: What are you looking forward to in 2021?
DL: New challenges and plenty more guests! Once a month, Jo Harrop and I co-host the show, and that will certainly remain. It’s a great energy working with a musician on the show and she brings along music that I would never normally listen to or play such as Joni Mitchell. I love what The 606 stands for; it is a club about musicians and we try to convey that on the show. The interviews seem to be popular, so I think they will continue a while longer yet. I’ll be listening to plenty of new jazz that is sent to me and bringing that to the show. I’ve loads of energy for Straight Ahead. It matters passionately to me; I love jazz and the talent of the musicians. Sofa Sessions or that kind of an idea is a possibility too.
(*) Laura Thorne is the Marketing Manager of the 606 Club
David Lewis’ radio show “Straight Ahead” is hosted in association with the 606 Club in Chelsea. Airing on Solar Radio Wednesday from midnight to 2am Thursday, it’s also available as a podcast on Apple, Spotify, Mixcloud and other podcast providers.