NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of longtime New York radio personality Jonathan Schwartz.
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Jonathan Schwartz is on the air and on the case, trying to find out information about the song “Lullaby of Birdland.” So he calls the song's composer, George Shearing, to find out who wrote the lyrics.
"That's a very pleasant recording, isn’t it, the King Singers with Shearing himself?,” Schwartz tells his listeners. “I just called Shearing and got him on the phone to ask him who wrote the words. ÎA guy named George David Weiss,’ said Shearing."
Schwartz says he makes this type of call about once a month during his radio show. The idea that at any moment he could call a musician to get a little nugget of information about an old favorite song is one reason why Jonathan Schwartz has been on New York radio for more than 35 years. That voice doesn't hurt either.
Schwartz can be heard Saturday and Sunday on New York's public radio station, WNYC, and during the week on XM Satellite Radio.
“I had a piece of luck, I would say the biggest piece of luck someone can have, and that is to find at an early age what you want to do with the rest of your life,” says Schwartz. “I wanted to speak into a microphone and talk about everything and play everything. There is no preparation - I just sit down and do the show. [What makes for a good show?] Honesty in the presentation, a lack of radio guck, and a lack of cliche."
Schwartz's musical education, and the knowledge that a good song is much more than a random collection of words and music, started early, at home.
“Sure, I'm the son of a composer, and a famous one who wrote ÎDancing in the Dark’ and ÎThat's Entertainment’ and “You and the Night and the Music,’” says Schwartz.
His father was Arthur Schwartz. He understandably plays a major role in Jonathan Schwartz's new book, "All In Good Time," a memoir filled with stories of growing up surrounded by some of the most famous names in music - Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern - and his relationship with his father.
"It was an experience learning more about him,” he says. “I thought deeply and I assumed honestly about his life and about what kind of a man he really was, not necessarily the Arthur Schwartz that he wanted to present to the world."
As a child, Schwartz created his own radio station by using a device called the electronic babysitter.
“As a young man I was basically alone,” he says. “I didn't have any siblings, and my parents were away and my mother was sick, and I began an imaginary radio program and played my father's music on it."
The station could be heard on radios throughout his Manhattan apartment building. He played music and broadcast the sports and the news, even his own mother's death.
"It was a news story that involved the building, and I felt that, because I also knew that I wouldn't be broadcasting for a while, it needed to be addressed," he says.
Schwartz writes about many difficult personal times: His devotion to his late mother; hatred for his stepmother; thoughts of suicide in the 1960’s, and a weekend stay at the psychiatric ward of New York Hospital.
“I was evaluated as un-psychotic and put on another floor from which I was able physically to flee," he says. “But I felt helpless, so I sought out help. Good for me."
In the 70’s, Schwartz sought treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Clinic. He completed the program, but says he still drinks about 30 percent of what he did back then.
“Any alcoholic will tell you it's all encompassing,” he says. “Just in the course of the last half hour I've thought, ÎThis evening I might have a drink at about 6:15 rather than 6:00 today, because I want it to coincide with Peter Jennings going on television.’"
If Jonathan Schwartz is not talking about music, there's a good chance he's talking baseball and his beloved Boston Red Sox. The romance with the Red Sox began on a trip to Boston during the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals/Red Sox World Series.
“They also had a star who didn't have a roommate, the only guy who didn't have a roommate on the road, Ted Williams, and I had no roommate - I'm an only child - and I know that I identified with that," he says.
But it was another remarkable performer with whom Schwartz would be linked throughout his career.
“He was a marvelous man, he really was,” he says. “[He was] tough as nails and hit below the belt a lot, but he was just extraordinary."
Schwartz first met Frank Sinatra through a mutual friend in Paris in 1962.
“I lost it and I just said, ÎWhy are there two versions of ÎTo Love and To Be Loved’ out right now?’” he says. “And he kind of looked for a second and I said, ÎYou know, the one with the high B-flat and then the one that is 37 seconds longer that was released initially as a single, but then they took it back.’ He just walked away from me.”
Through the years, there were meetings in social situations as Schwartz became known as an expert in Sinatra's music. But when he criticized part of the Sinatra album “Trilogy” on the air, the Chairman of the Board called Schwartz, and he was not happy.
“I was kind of amused and dumbfounded and a little hurt that he would turn this kind of moronic volcano on me, who had done this for him and loved him and played his music and knew his music like nobody else," he says. “[Was it hard to play him after the screaming phone call?] No. I separate the music entirely, no problem at all. Music is this and he's this. It's simply this is this music, then there is this guy who has no bearing on me, really. This is the way he behaves and this is what he is in life, but it's not on those records.”
Many New Yorkers first heard Schwartz in the late 60’s on WNEW-FM. He was there at the advent of rock radio, a Sinatra guy in a Sgt. Peppers world.
“I found a new vocabulary, when the vocabulary became available,” he says. “It was going to be my job to perpetuate the lives of these recordings and distribute the information on the radio, so I had to know that vocabulary as well as I knew the others. My father's songs, in all their melodic beauty and their literate lyric, were being replaced by more simplistic expressions of love: ÎI want to hold your hand,’ ÎI can't get no satisfaction.’ Well, that’s absolutely right.”
Schwartz eventually wedded the free-form, conversational style of FM with the music he truly loved on WNEW-AM.
“The music had never really been presented this way, Sinatra, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole,” he says. “I thought, why not take what we're doing on FM, because I'm the only guy really qualified to do it because I'm the only one who could cross over with it."
You’ll hear an eclectic juxtaposition of songs on Schwartz's show, from Count Basie or Nat King Cole to James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. He says he constantly listens to new CD's that will, in his words "move the story forward."
But Schwartz is not optimistic about where the music, and the culture, is going.
"We're in deep trouble at the moment, but it goes in cycles,” he says. “It's a moronic inferno out there.”
But inside his small Midtown Manhattan office, the moronic inferno is blocked out by pictures of his family and musicians who created the music Schwartz has played for millions through the years, while sitting, as he always wanted, behind a microphone, in a studio, alone.
“If you notice what I do, it's essentially solitudinous," he says. “A writer is a writer, and a radio announcer, the kind of guy I am, I do the program alone. I rest my case."
- Budd Mishkin