Radio legend, jazz lover and gentleman Leigh Kamman passed away last Friday at 92.
Leigh was a rare individual in many ways, but particularly in the world of radio where the microphone amplifies the voice and also inflates the perceptions of listeners about the qualifications of the person doing the talking. The medium itself adds authority whether you deserve it or not. If you’re just smart enough to walk around the outside edges of a topic, many listeners will assume you know everything inside. Careers have been built on this.
Leigh Kamman was the real deal. With him, you got a radio host who actually knew what he was talking about. When it came to jazz, he was a true devotee, and his primary interest was in sharing the art and uplifting the performers. I can’t recall hearing Leigh say a negative word about anyone except himself. I think about that when I read music reviews where critics use their pedestals to bash performers who don’t live up to their expectations.
As a radio host, I admired Leigh for his ability to set a scene and transport a listener to someplace new. He did the most essential thing when enveloped you in his world. As the Jazz Image theme music – Django’s Castle – began each Saturday night, I waited with great anticipation for the moment when the music would fade and he’d step in with that voice to take us to an unexpected location. “Hanging upside down over the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth” was my all-time favorite. Just hearing the music by Gerry Mulligan’s band takes me back there – you can listen and fill in with your own Leigh Kamman memory.
I know several people who worked directly with Leigh on his MPR program, The Jazz Image. Each one was grateful for the experience, none more than Tom Wilmeth, who wrote this fine profile for the Jazz Times.
One of my favorite quotes is this one, where Tom captures Leigh’s inherent modesty:
Leigh consistently kept the focus on the music, and never on himself. He had spoken to Duke Ellington on numerous occasions, first as a 17-year-old fan at a train station! But he wouldn’t think of dropping this fascinating nugget into a conversation in order to impress. I had worked with Leigh close to three years before I heard him mention, in passing, about speaking with Charlie Parker. I froze at the tape deck with reel in hand. I asked him to expand a bit, but he drifted away to another subject.
When you know a lot about something you can use that information to intimidate others who are less knowledgable. I have seen smart people who are also enthusiasts of one sort or another wield volumes of minutiae to demonstrate that no matter how big a fan someone else might be, they are a MUCH, MUCH BIGGER fan. I guess there must be a good feeling that comes out of that, but I doubt that it lasts long.
Leigh Kamman was a distance runner – he had lived the life and had the history and the raw material to be that guy who made you feel inadequate and dumb, but he was principled and like a superhero, he used his immense power only for good – opening minds, gaining converts and spreading his love for the art form of jazz.
In what area are you an enthusiast?