top of page

Rusty Hassan

Rusty Hassan is a WPFW radio host and Georgetown University professor whose life has revolved around jazz since the late 1950s. When the jazz radio outlet WDCU was sold to C-SPAN Radio, Hassan was the first of the former WDCU programmers to land a show at WPFW, the sole jazz radio station in the nation’s capital region at the time. He currently airs Late Night Jazz on WPFW (89.3 FM), serving an eclectic selection stemming from his broad tastes. Hassan is a living archive of facts, opinions, and anecdotes about music and culture. He imparts his wisdom on younger generations, having taught jazz history courses at Georgetown University and American University. Involved in the DC jazz scene for decades, he has met titans such as John Coltrane and witnessed the evolution of the arts throughout DC’s history.

I. Birth

Spectator Magazine: As a general framework, we’d like to start with the roots of jazz, then get to how the music came to DC and expanded abroad. So, how did influences coalesce from around the world and lead to the birth of jazz in America?

Rusty Hassan: Sure, well. Jazz is actually a uniquely American art form. However, it has very egregious roots. It was rooted in the African presence in America, and that presence was brought about by slavery. One of the things you can see in terms of the creation of the music is African retentions. If you listen to certain African pieces of music, you can see things like rhythmic patterns. In North America, the slaves and the descendants of slaves did not replicate their instruments. You can see that replication occur in the Caribbean, South America — particularly Brazil. But in North America, the Africans in America used hands, voice, acapella singing in the church- and then using European instruments.

SM: How did these African influences arrive in America?

RH: The creation of this music that we know and understand centers around New Orleans. So New Orleans not only has descendants of slaves, but even before the Civil War, the slaves themselves would hang out in a place called Congo Square, where they would make music. In New Orleans itself, you had a multicultural society. You had not only the African American descendants of slaves, but you also had this other mixed society called the Creoles and Colors. You had Italians. You had other ethnic groups that were partial to living in New Orleans, and you had a very strong Caribbean culture. You had the other cultures that kind of had some control over Louisiana: Spain and France.

SM: So the scene was a melting pot, a hotspot?

"You have a multicultural, uniquely American art form occurring."

RH: Absolutely! Those cultures were all part of the mix that occurred there. African American rhythmic programs with pianos and ensembles would play work songs, blues, and ragtime - the precursor music to jazz. With the element of improvisation, this new music was created prior to the turn of the 19th to 20th century. And so you have a multicultural, uniquely American art form occurring. Interestingly enough, with all of the African American roots in this music, the first recording that had the term “jazz” in it — the group that had jazz in its name — was the original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all white group that recorded in New York in February of 1917.

SM: How was jazz received by greater American culture?

RH: Jazz created a craze so popular that the 1920’s was called the Jazz Age. If you look at the early years of this music, the onset of jazz and the reaction to the onset of jazz by broader white society is similar to the reaction that rap and hip hop generated in the 80s and 90s. The establishment had a strong reaction towards it. So the music, with its multicultural roots, becomes very popular and ultimately becomes a world music, so that by the 1970s you have someone like Joe Zawinul, who's an Austrian pianist, working with Cannonball Adderley writing pieces like country blues or country preacher, then becoming co-leader of a group called Weather Report.

II. D.C.

SM: What were some of the major jazz influences on the early jazz scene in D.C.?

RH: Oh, Washington D.C. has always been a center of music, and of course it's the birthplace of Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington growing up in Washington was playing a music that, by the time he was playing professionally, the term “jazz” was coming to form. But it's also rooted in a very sophisticated dance music that comes out of ragtime. And Ellington is leading dance bands here in the district. And Duke Ellington at Armstrong High School becomes a painter as well as taking music classes. And he is so good at art that he could’ve been an artist for advertising, that type of thing he was very much involved with. And you can see the influence that it had on his compositions; he used what he would call “tonal colors,” and they would translate into titles, and into the oral pictures he would be creating, like “Warm Valley,” things like that. So, he gets pretty well academically grounded, he then leads his bands, and he goes ultimately to New York in the 1920’s. And even in the 20’s, in terms of egregious situations, he makes the most of it. He leads a band in a club called The Cotton Club. And there’s multiple ironies in The Cotton Club: it’s a mob-owned club in Harlem catering to white audiences.

SM: Is “cotton” a slave reference?

RH: Yeah. Cotton Club to the old South, you know. And what he does at the Cotton Club is, for playing music, he creates one aspect of his compositions that is called the “jungle sound.” So he’s creating a certain sound to cater to the audience. It’s not replicating African music. He’s using, incorporating some of the devices that the New Orleans musicians used: the mutes, the growls, creating the sound and using musicians from New Orleans in his band, like Rubber Miley and people like that.

SM: It seems like he was using the horns to create a primal sound.

"The aspect of improvisation is so important. The fact that musicians who are working together are also competing to show one another, trying to demonstrate the virtuosity of their performance."

RH: Right, for the audiences, and the ambience. And that becomes one aspect of his compositions. And so he also gains nationwide visibility, because in the 1920’s, there’s also this transformation in broader society with the automobiles and the radio. Radio is now bringing music from The Cotton Club to the whole nation. So Duke Ellington, in leading this jazz dance band, is getting recognition throughout the country. In the early 30s he writes a song that would define the era of the 1930s, the Swing Era, the song “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” (Laughs) And so Ellington, coming out of Washington, has nurtured an environment that also has a strong musical community here. It’s the first of the Ragtime type of ensembles that evolve into jazz performances. And the community of jazz musicians in D.C. continues: You’ve got, at Armstrong High School, a sax player by the name of Charlie Rouse who works with Thelonious Monk in the 1950’s and 60’s. Buck Hill, a saxophonist who just passed away, who, rather than choosing to live on the road, stayed here in D.C. But any other saxophonist coming through D.C would want to challenge Buck, you know. There’s a very competitive environment. One of the things I didn’t mention in terms of this music is that there’s a creativity within the performance. And the aspect of improvisation is so important. The fact that musicians who are working together are also competing to show one another, trying to demonstrate the virtuosity of their performance. You know, creating the music, taking a composition and reformulating it in your improvisation. So it’s very competitive music.

SM: So D.C has a varied history.

RH: Another person who’s really important for the D.C scene is this pianist who, as a vocalist, was just marvelous. There was actually a school of music for high school students connected to Howard University that Shirley Horn went to. She was such an incredible performer, when Miles Davis heard a recording that she did, he said “I want you to open for me at the Village Vanguard.” So Shirley Horn, in the early 60s, performed for a New York audience because one of the big stars of the year, Miles Davis, wanted to introduce her to the world. But she decided, in raising a daughter, she didn’t want to live on the road, so she stayed in D.C and performed at local clubs. And ultimately she was discovered by a major label, and by the time her daughter was grown up, she also became more famous worldwide because of her great singing and her great pianistic ability. And yet, she never moved away from D.C., even as she became famous.

SM: Are there any other noteworthy musicians you’d like to mention?

RH: In 1987 when my show was dropped from AMU I went right away to WDCU. The fascinating experience about that was, the same weekend that I started at WDCU, another programmer, someone far more famous than me, a guy named Felix Grant, started at WDCU. Felix Grant was doing a jazz show on a commercial AM station from around 1954 well into the 80s, called the Album Sound. He introduced Brazilian music to the world. He was there with the confluence of the jazz samba album, and he’d already been to Brazil. I’ve got a friendship with him, with Felix Grant.

SM: Can you tell that story about him and Charlie Byrd?

RH: Well, here’s an example of the international connections of the music from Washington DC. In the early 60s, the state department would give grants for tours. One example would be, in 1957, William Armstrong was supposed to do a tour of the Soviet Union, at the same time that governor Orval Faubus was calling out the national guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School, in Little Rock. And Armstrong canceled, saying “How can I go to Russia with this happening at home?” Anyway, there was a bassist from New York, who moved here in 1950 by the name of Keter Betts. He’s on the first recording that introduces the Bossa Nova to a broader audience, the jazz-samba album that had “Desafinado” with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd.

SM: Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz brought Bossa Nova to America, correct?

RH: Right, right. During a State Department-sponsored tour to Brazil in 1961, Charlie, Keter Betts, and Buddy Deppenschmidt had their interest really sparked by the music they heard there. Brazilian composers were blending jazz with samba rhythms, and his group was eager to record the music when they returned to the States. Charlie played the recordings he brought back for Stan Getz, who liked what he heard and convinced Creed Taylor at his label, Verve, to make a record. When a New York session didn’t pan out, they decided to do it in D.C. at the Jewish Community Center at Sixteenth and Q streets, where Charlie and his group performed regularly. But there was a bus stop right outside the recital hall and it was too noisy. All Souls Unitarian Church, further up Sixteenth Street, had a hall with no traffic noise.

Jazz Samba was recorded in DC at All Souls Unitarian Church on February 13, 1962, with Stan Getz on tenor, Charlie Byrd on guitar, his brother Gene on second guitar, Keter Betts on bass, and Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach on drums and percussion. The album was released in April and “Desafinado” became a massive hit. It introduced Bossa Nova to American listeners.

SM: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.

RH: You’ve heard that! O.K., well, Keter Betts is from this neighborhood. And then, for many years, he was the bassist with Ella Fitzgerald. So the D.C scene has always been rich.

SM: What was the first club that you’re aware of historically in DC?

RH: Ah, well that’s interesting because we haven’t talked about the Howard Theatre. The Howard Theatre opened up around 1910 and was really a prominent music location for jazz artists in the Swing Era when Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong were playing there. When I came to DC I brought my then small collection of albums with me and went to clubs, and I discovered a place called Bohemian Caverns, which is at 11 E-Street. It had a recent resurgence for about 10 or 15 years, but is unfortunately again closed.

SM: When did Crystal Caverns open?

RH: It opened, I think, in 1926, and it was the Crystal Caverns until the early fifties before the name changed back to Bohemian. One show I caught with one of my college roommates was Ramsey Lewis.It was an incredible show, with very rhythmic blues tunes. There was a vocal tune that was very popular at that time performed by Ramsey Lewis and his trio. That was released as the record that following summer, so I can hear myself clapping on the record! There was an interesting character by the name of Tony Taylor, African American man who was the co-owner of the Caverns when it formed a community organization called Let Them Play. It was about jazz education and getting kids involved in music. So even though Tony Taylor had long passed away, his legacy continued on through the Caverns and Let Them Play.

SM: You’ve been a programmer for decades, so would you say that there was ever a high point in DC’s jazz history? Is there a time that could be called a “golden age”?

RH: You know, it’s hard to say. You talk to musicians and they’d say “yeah,” probably before I was born. It was that type of thing, it was perspective. Like the 70’s was not supposed to be a great age for jazz, but for DC it was great! That is, in terms of clubs that were around and performing through the 80’s. Right now, the scene is good. You have coming up the DC Jazz Festival in June. You have great programs at the Kennedy Center. You have music performed at Strathmore. Strathmore has a great program in the mansion with the artists in residence, with young musicians coming through there and performing at the mansion itself and doing the programming up at the Amp.

SM: Where do you see the music heading to?

"There is always sort of a cutting edge, there’s an avant garde."

RH: It will continue to be performed, you know. It’ll continue and it’ll have more experimental things going on with it, as any art form. There is always sort of a cutting edge, there’s an avant garde.


III. Hassan

SM: How did you get into jazz? Do you remember when and why you first fell in love with it?

RH: It was the seventh grade, and I was really big into World War Two planes (Laughs). I was making a model airplane on a New Year’s Day afternoon and somebody played this Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. The concert was in 1938, but the recording didn’t come out until the 1950’s. So this New Year’s afternoon this radio announcer played the whole concert, and that was my introduction: Count Basie, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, because Benny Goodman had guest artists performing in the concert.

SM: And you were hooked immediately?

RH: So I was drawn to that, that was my first album. I discovered Charlie Parker. I went to a Jesuit high school and there were a couple of us who were really into jazz, and I had a good friend and we’d foray into New York City, where there were jazz festivals.

SM: So you went along with the growth of jazz.

RH: Yeah, bringing these artists in to talk on my show was really quite an experience.

SM: Looking back at your career as a programmer, do you have any special highlights or memories? A couple key ones?

RH: Oh jeez. I guess, having the opportunity to meet my heroes. Having the opportunity to meet all these great artists. And some of the key moments, to me, weren’t so much in the radio studio with an artist. About ten years ago, I was asked to introduce McCoy Tyner at the DC Jazz Festival; it was outdoors at the Sylvan Theater. And I’m onstage saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I first heard McCoy Tyner when he was playing with John Coltrane,” just this kind of personalized introduction to his performance. About two weeks later at the radio station, I get a homemade cardboard envelope the size of a CD, with just ‘McCoy Tyner’ written in the return address part of it. And I’m saying, “What is this?” So I go home with it, I put it on and hear my voice introducing McCoy Tyner. He sent me the recording of the concert.

SM: Nice!

RH: I mean, how nice is that? And the other thing that really touched me was some years ago, WPFW had a benefit performance giving awards at the Convention Center, and one of the honorees was Sonny Rollins. I’ve met Sonny a lot over the years; for him to know who I am, you know, to see me come in and say, “Hey Rusty, how you doin’?” Oh God, Sonny’s awesome. So they asked me to be one of the co-presenters of these awards. And we gave the award to Rollins, and backstage I gave him one of my cards with my address on it. Well, a week or two later, I get a letter in the mail, and I open it up and it’s on yellow legal paper: “Dear My Man Rusty, thank you for your wonderful introduction,” and it’s a whole page about how he felt about receiving this award, and how he felt a little bit uncomfortable about what he had to say and stuff. A letter from Sonny Rollins! You know, things that I will always treasure. I’ve been really blessed.

IV. Jazz at Large

SM: In essence, what are the differences between listening to live music and recorded music?

"I saw John Coltrane, and that was so intense that when he walked by me I couldn’t say anything."

RH: You can interact. You can see what the musician is doing, you know in terms of reaction to the audience. And to be right there, to have a visual… I saw John Coltrane, and that was so intense that when he walked by me I couldn’t say anything. You know, I was tongue tied. But just having seen him and knowing musicians that play with him was really thrilling to me.

SM: Which year was it with Coltrane?

RH: It was 1965.

SM: When was A Love Supreme?

RH: He recorded in ‘64 but it was released in ‘65. So this was around the time of A Love Supreme.

SM: That’s my uncle’s favorite record.

RH: Oh absolutely, oh yeah! At the time I was listening to Live at the Birdland, and on it John Coltrane has this piece called “Alabama,” and it was recorded right after the bombing that killed four young girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. It's a moving, provocative piece of music. It was just incredible and that was the album that I had of Coltrane's before I discovered A Love Supreme, which is his masterpiece.

SM: Who would you say are the greatest jazz improvisers that you’ve heard?

RH: Oh, lord. I mean, you start out with Louis Armstrong, who sets the standard for improvisation in the 1920s. I mean, he’s the one who really makes jazz a soloist art form. And here’s this guy with a gravelly voice who becomes one of the most influential singers of the 20th century. People like Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra - they’re all saying, “I listen to Louis Armstrong.” Major, major person, both within improvisation and American pop culture. Charlie Parker: incredible improviser, brilliant. And yet, he’s there with another improviser who also becomes a major entertainer: Dizzy Gillespie. And Dizzy Gillespie carries on, making jazz not only in an improvisational art form, but he also wants to entertain. I’ll never forget — my daughter was home from Princeton in the early 90’s, and I took her and her boyfriend to hear Dizzy Gillespie at Blues Alley. And between a set, Dizzy’s telling jokes. And I’m groaning, ‘cause I’d heard them a gazillion times, but they laughed; he was funny, you know. So he liked not only being an improviser, which was a big part of it, but being a performer, which was a big aspect of it. So you get all the great improvisers. John Coltrane just was masterful with the different phases of his career. It’s a range of people. I could talk for hours in terms of musicians.

SM: You’ve met a lot of musicians. Do their playing styles ever manifest in their personalities?

RH: Woah, that's a good question. Yes and no. I think the obvious one that doesn’t would be Stan Getz. Beautiful player, but could be very difficult — you know, awful. Chet Baker played beautiful trumpet but was an awful junky who would steal, exploit and abuse people. On the flip side, some of the most volatile personalities can play so beautiful. You know, Charles Mingus always had anger issues and stuff like that. And he was one I've had a couple of conversations with also. It was a real treasure talking with him. Coltrane had this very serene personality, but played with this intensity that was just mind boggling. That's a fascinating question. It probably does demonstrate your personality in some ways.

SM: If you were going to introduce jazz to a new listener who has never heard it before, what would you start them with?

RH: What I do, and I do this all the time, I take something that is really familiar — I have a piano trio recording by someone who has passed away years ago — he was Filipino, Bobby Enriquez. And he does a version of “Pink Panther.” And it’s a song everybody knows. And I follow it up with another version of “Pink Panther” by a guitarist that nobody knows of, he lives in Virginia, his name is Royce Campbell. I ask, “What do you hear?” You know, how is this different from the version of“Pink Panther” you heard before? With the piano trio, it’s all a focus on improvisation. And in Royce’s version the guitar is the focus where he has a piano trio accompanying him, and the pianist on that just comps.

SM: Showing different variations of the same song.

RH: Yeah. I’ll ask “What do you hear? Describe it for me.” So I flip; rather than me tell you, you tell me what you hear. That’s generally how I’ll introduce the music.

SM: So as a semi-conclusory question, do you think you could boil down the essence of jazz into a short two or three sentences?

RH: No. (Laughs)

SM: (Laughs) Yeah. I guess it’s impossible.

"The whole term ‘jazz’ has had a troubled history."

RH: Jazz is an integral part of culture, and it’s ironic because I’ve accepted the term. I recently had an interview at the University of the District of Columbia with A.B. Spellman, who is an African American who was part of the beat poetry scene in New York in the 50s. I asked him, “What about the term ‘jazz’?” And he said, “Well, I have to accept it as part of our culture.” It’s become so ingrained— not exactly tilting at windmills to say I’m going to use the term ‘jazz’; a lot of musicians don’t care for it. The whole term ‘jazz’ has had a troubled history. Duke Ellington didn’t care for it. He would say, “I’m playing Negro music,” or, “I’m playing music, it’s either good music or bad music.” A lot of other artists through today are really dealing with the whole concept of the term ‘jazz.’ Duke was trying to be more inclusive, calling it ‘Black American Music,’ or ‘BAM.’ (Laughs) I don’t think ‘BAM’ took off to replicate jazz, you know. A friend of mine, Gary Bartz, an incredible jazz master, doesn’t like the term, doesn’t like to use it. But he’s categorized — he’s always going to be categorized— as a great jazz musician. So, you know, it’s gonna be with us; the word itself. Even though all the mythology about the creation of this word seems to be BS, that it has no African roots evidently, people who study etymology found that there was even a baseball connection to it before it was used for music. So who knows? It’s a term now. It’s integral to the music and will always be a part of it.

SM: What are your recent thoughts on “jazz?”

RH: I’ve been thinking about all the aspects of the music and all the artists who have contributed to the art. I’ve been teaching classes on this music for 30 years now. I find that what I’m teaching would be more appropriate at a middle school or high school level, in terms of doing something about listening to music and how important it is to American culture, dealing with issues like race and racism, how the music developed.

SM: Yeah, you mentioned the Birmingham, Alabama case earlier.

RH: Yeah, absolutely. What artists have done has been reflective of it. This goes back to a song that was written for a musical back in the 1920s that Louis Armstrong turned into another issue: “What Did I Do to be so Black and Blue.” Dealing with issues of color and race. So I teach this college level class, yet it should be taught in middle and high school. We are dealing with this education issue where there’s a lack of emphasis on the arts. It’s all STEM, and not focusing on what culture is, and the songs that shape it. I was an English major at Georgetown, I took a lot of History courses that made me an educated person. It wasn’t so career oriented. I had a wonderful career as a union representative. So it's really weird — the union is such dire straights right now, jazz sales are down — so I guess I picked two fascinating career choices. (Laughs)

SM: You mentioned that there isn’t enough focus on culture and the arts in education. Would you like to see some jazz classes offered, or theory courses?

RH: Absolutely. In high school and in middle school. Something to incorporate into the program. It doesn’t have to be jazz per se, but be a part of the broader study of culture in society.

SM: Introduce it to kids at an earlier age.

RH: Oh, absolutely. The arts are going through a lot of struggles right now. I’m just really thrilled that you are doing this, in terms of what you’re doing for the magazine, focusing on culture. It’s a whole ‘nother aspect of American society and the world, and I’m really looking forward to reading it when it’s published.

—Rusty Hassan for Spectator Magazine, 20__

bottom of page