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Updated 11:00 AM October 9, 2006
 

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Spotlight: Traditional jazz greats advise popular disc jockey
'every step of the way'

Dr. Arwulf Arwulf already had been hosting the wildly creative "Face the Music" on U-M's student-run WCBN-FM for 12 years when he was hired as an audiovisual technician by the University in 1992.
(Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

"We work long days, sometimes 11 or 12 hours, to screen films and facilitate lectures as well as special presentation events," he says. "I'm happy to be part of a group of people who provide crucial media support for higher education."

Arwulf is known by family and on his University identification by his given name, Theodore Grenier. The name "Arwulf" is northern European in origin. When he was 13 years old, he says, "the name chose me, and I accepted it."

While Arwulf's audiovisual work may be vital to professors and students, for the broader public he is a familiar, thoughtful voice on the FM dial, both at WCBN (88.3) and the National Public Radio affiliate WEMU-FM (89.1). On the latter he hosts the "Sunday Best" traditional jazz show from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Arwulf began listening to WCBN during the 1970s. He loved the wide variety of music the station offered.

"I learned a lot, and I'm still learning," he says. "It's a wonderful, ongoing alternative educational workshop."

This was also when he discovered the artist he identifies as his favorite, Thomas "Fats" Waller.

"His piano came and got me when I was 18," Arwulf says. "I started hanging out at WCBN in 1977 mainly in order to learn how to air Fats Waller records over the radio for the people."

Arwulf began hosting his own WCBN show in 1980, and has broadcast from
7-8 p.m. Thursdays ever since. "Face the Music" embraces experimentation, like playing six records at once or conducting a ruthless search for potential—and often ridiculous—new U.S. national anthems. This requires "a willingness to be rambunctious and outspoken."

"It's beautiful to be part of a radio environment where that's going on," he says. Arwulf has stayed on at WCBN in order to advise, teach and inspire the students who run the radio station.

He began hosting "Sunday Best" on WEMU in 1986.

"I inherited the show's name; I would rather have called it the 'Jazz Therapy Clinic,' which is what it's turned out to be anyway," he says. The show focuses on traditional jazz, ragtime and classic blues.

"Lester Young's ballad playing is a perpetual lesson in humane poetics. Bessie Smith still makes me cry, even when she sings 'There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.' These people never leave; they advise me every step of the way.

"I try to compensate for the fact that radio as a medium has been wasted, squandered and trashed in this country, and that most people are frightfully out of touch with their own cultural heritage," Arwulf says. "Every music is a reflection of its day, even as every music teems with echoes from before and premonitions of what is yet to come.

The 20-year-old show rests easily in its time slot.

"Sunday morning is a great time to be on the radio. Most people aren't dressed yet. Some are still in bed; almost everyone is in a vulnerable state of mind. I'm vulnerable, too," Arwulf says. "People call up smiling, laughing or crying. A woman telephoned after coming home from a funeral to say that the music helped her out in ways that she couldn't explain.

"I want to be honest, sincere, candid and uncontrived. I want to talk over the radio the way I'd talk to someone in person. I want to bring all the spirits of the jazz and blues musicians right into the lives of the listeners. I want to educate, but most of all I want to alleviate suffering and help people make it through another day, another week, another year.

"My favorite thing to hear from a listener is a sincere expression of thanks. Not a compliment for me, but rather a response to music that helped that person to feel better on that day."

A physician who was a loyal listener to Arwulf's WCBN show told his family he wanted to hear the show on his deathbed. "Amazing," Arwulf says, "and humbling."

There is also a creative element at work in his U-M job as an audiovisual technician.

"Occasionally I develop a collaborative interaction with a professor," Arwulf says, "and it feels like we're in cahoots, aiming to surprise the students by showing them what a truly interesting and exciting world this really is." He typically makes sure equipment is properly placed and functioning as it should be, shows slides and film clips and screens full-length movies on VHS, DVD, 16 or 35 mm formats.

Arwulf is married to Lindsay Forbes, and in addition to his other gigs teaches an alternative music appreciation course every summer, writes for the online All Music Guide and is a poet.

On the future of his radio work, Arwulf says, "Thematically, there's no limit to the possibilities for this or any other radio show. Ours is not a boring world. Jazz is a living embodiment of that truth.

"The main thing is to enable other people to find that ecstatic balance between freedom and discipline. We're here to help each other out. All else is vanity: vanitas vanitatum. Love one another—that's why you were given breath."

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