Janis Lane-Ewart, host of The Collective Eye
on KFAI radio
Born and raised in a rhythm and blues-oriented household in Chicago, Janis Lane-Ewart came to her passion for jazz as a young college student and went on to work in arts administration with a jazz focus. She studied Political Science at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago with intentions of pursuing a law career, but life took some turns and she has no regrets about her career in promoting and supporting artists. Janis moved to Minneapolis in 1989 to work for Arts Midwest, a regional organization that provided funding and technical assistance to artists and organizations. She has had a jazz program on KFAI since she came to Minneapolis, and in 2001, she began a new career direction as the General Manager of the KFAI radio station.
Check out some playlists
from The Collective Eye
|Janis in Studio 4 at KFAI|
June 27, 2002
How Janis discovered jazz
Janis got into jazz, “as many women do,” when she met a man who was interested in jazz and they went to jazz concerts. She later met Douglas Ewart, who became her husband, and through Douglas, she began to volunteer at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, (AACM) which was founded in 1965 for the purpose of presenting original compositions to live audiences and to train young people on the techniques of improvisational music.
The jazz artists who first caught Janis's ear were John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders.
: I would go to the library and study a particular song [by Sanders] called ‘The Creator has a master plan, peace and happiness for all the land, the Creator has a master plan.’ And I’d listen to that over and over, probably about three hours straight while I studied. That exploration then led me to listen more to people like Benny Maupin, a lot more Coltrane, Nancy Wilson ... throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s [Wilson] worked with artists like Cannonball Adderly, Ramsey Lewis, Ray Bryant, and made some fabulous recordings.
Where were the jazz hot spots in Chicago where you first started going to jazz concerts?
: There’s a place called the Jazz Showcase, and before it was called A Happy Medium, there’s a place called the Back Room, this is all in a neighborhood called Rush Street, which is on the north side of Chicago, an area known for its clubs where there’s live music and lots of bars ... there was also good jazz at a place called the Palmer House, and certainly many, many clubs on the south side of Chicago had jazz, but at that time, I was not going to those places, I was still a little young in terms of my listening ears for jazz, and in age. It was an older crowd, more seasoned jazz people.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the south side had numerous jazz spots, and a lot of that dried up with the advent of the University of Chicago taking over a massive amount of land on the mid-southern part of Chicago, and with there being a consolidation of the union. There used to be two musicians’ unions in Chicago, a black union and a white union. There was a collapsing of the two for a lot of political reasons and that then meant that many of the clubs starting using white musicians even though it might be on the south side, and lot of the places that were really geared towards black musicians closed. Anyway, some of the places that survived and are still thriving are places like the Apartment Lounge, which is considered the home of jazz legend Vaughn Freeman, there used to be a place called the Pumpkin Room, that’s closed, there’s a place called the Other Place, there’s also the Velvet Lounge, just to give you a sampling of the places that are still there and that I’d recommend anyone who’s traveling to Chicago to make sure that those are on their list.
Some of the world’s greatest jazz players came from and are still living in Chicago ... Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Donagan spent some time and lived in Chicago, Dinah Washington had a major portion of her career in Chicago, her career blossomed there.
When would you say your young ears matured?
: It changed in 1977, when I went to a concert of the AACM, the first artist that I encountered was Douglas Ewart and he had a quintet. What was challenging for me was that there were no drums, probably three reed instruments, piano, bass, that was it. It was in a bookstore in Evanston, and the music was so engaging that when the break came, I was somewhat tempted to leave, because I didn’t understand what was being played. However I was also very intrigued about what could they possibly do in the second half that would be different from the first half, and so I felt compelled to stay. And that opened up a whole new listening realm for me, where after that, my next experience was going to see a solo concert of an artist by the name of Joseph Jarman. This was incredibly mind-extending, one individual with costuming, theatrical elements, and probably five different kinds of saxophones played for ninety minutes, I didn’t know what to do, I literally didn’t know how to respond, I didn’t know if I liked it or not, I described to a girlfriend of mine that I was just kind of freaked out.
But for all that, I have to remind myself, I went back again because it was fascinating, and it touched my soul, I couldn’t describe it, but I knew I wanted to hear more of it. And each time I went to another concert, it was always something different. I never saw the same group twice, I never heard the same song twice, now I’d been to see people like McCoy Tyner, other mainstream artists, Ahmad Jamal, where they would play what we call standard tunes, and if you saw them in Chicago, or Ohio, or Detroit, or any city, you might hear them do the same song, certainly a little differently, but they have a set repertoire, when I went to see the AACM, I never heard the same song twice in probably three or four years.
Were the AACM artists the “new jazz” artists of the Coltrane era?
: No. Some of them began their professional careers at the same time that John Coltrane was alive, and they were certainly influenced by his style and sound of music, however they were different in that they insisted on constantly creating something original. My sense of it is that at least eighty percent of it was improvised. The way of conveying a composition wasn’t always necessarily on the written page, there would be cues, there would be hand signals, or some other forms that are considered non-traditional notation, but I think the best way to describe it now that I’ve had twenty-plus years’ experience in listening to that music is that they were having a highly evolved conversation among themselves.
|Janis in Studio 4 at KFAI|
June 27, 2002
Her radio show The Collective Eye
Janis began her first radio DJ experience in Minneapolis when she moved here in 1989. When her friend Willard Jenkins moved to Washington, D.C., Janis took over his KFAI jazz show, (called Open Sky) his apartment, his job as Senior Program Director at Arts Midwest, and even, for a brief time, his cat!
What do you want The Collective Eye to say?
: I want it to say that there are so many excellent musicians that you have to tune in every week to hear something from someone else that you don’t know. And that you will be reminded of the masters, but more often than not, I hope to be the collective eye of the community in terms of sound and new sounds.
Who is your audience?
: I don’t know. I know the three or four or five people that call me, but I can’t say that I really know who my audience is. I’m sometimes surprised when I’m out somewhere, I think this has happened to me three or four times, and someone says to me ‘I heard your voice, are you that lady on Thursday nights?’ and I say, ‘Oh, yes I am!’ and I feel good about that. It’s a hard thing to have a show at night when people are at home chillin.’ And the two or three people that do call to say they like what they hear, or to ask a question, I’m always enthralled by them. I would hope that if I were not on the air that people would call and find out why not, however, I recognize that I am providing a service and when that service is no longer needed then I should be doing something else.
Where did you come up with the name for your show?
: Originally, I have to give credit where credit is due, and the same thing will come back to you. That’s a Sun Ra quote. I credit the person in Chicago who had a film society in the late ‘70s, and the name of that group was the Collective Eye. I was not a part of that group, but when I was searching for a name and trying to give the sense that I’m wanting to represent the community, that suggested it to me, after I mulled it over for a while, I thought ‘yes, that’s what I’m attempting to do.’
How do you prepare your show?
: I don’t make the same kinds of extensive preparations that I know some of my colleagues do. I don’t sit down three days ahead and make a playlist. I think about what kind of instrumentation I think I want to hear that night that I want to share with others, or what new recordings are out on a particular label, or what feeling do I want to convey? Sometimes I plan two weeks ahead, for example in August I’m wanting to do a month-long tribute to Abby Lincoln.
And my fascination and love of her music comes from the opportunity of having met her a couple of times, and recognizing that she was not afforded any affirmation of her skills when she was young and upcoming in music, because it was a man’s world. And she took a lot of hard knocks, she was married to Max Roach, and they had a wonderful creative collaboration, but he was also physically abusive and she was not allowed to be out front in the group, she never got her due, she was quite good, she’s always been quite good. She took a long hiatus, and then when she came back she really seemed not only to have found her voice, but found how to fight her way through the system, and get her music out. In August, which is her birth month, I will do a month long tribute to her genius.
Most often than not, on Thursday at about six or seven o’clock I start thinking about what is it that I can share with my listeners tonight. I have a music collection at home, and sometimes I use the [KFAI] music library too.
Where do you hear about new music?
: I read and subscribe to Down Beat
, the Jazz Times
, sometimes The Wire
, and then I have friends in the music business, so I try to ask them if they have something new or try to make sure they send me whatever’s new, and I spend a lot of time in the Electric Fetus, going through the bins. It’s excellent, superb- it’s the best for jazz.
Some of Janis’s favorite resident jazz artists and venues
Who are your favorite local jazz musicians?
: One of the things that I’ve continued to try to do in politicizing the importance of the artists that live in a particular city is to not call them local ... In Chicago, there’s a major festival that happens every year, and I was on the committee that was responsible for choosing these artists. And it hit me that when the artist is considered local, they are paid far less than artists who come from somewhere else. Now the shame in all of that is that they are no less artistically qualified than the artists from somewhere else ... the word local was often a nail in the coffin. So I have tried to inform people that I am now, for probably twelve or more years, refusing to call anyone a local artist. I call people resident artists.
Who are your favorite resident jazz artists?
: Donald Washington on reeds, Carei Thomas, piano, Anthony Cox, bass, Irv Williams, saxophone, Gene Adams, trumpet and flugelhorn, Faye Washington, flute, Kevin Washington, drums ... The Washington family is quite a family to be reckoned with musically, they’re from Detroit ... Jeffrey Bailey, bass, Gao Hong, pipa, John Devine, saxophone, Jane Anfinson, violin, Chico Perez, master percussionist.
More often than not you can find their names listed when they have gigs, but Kevin and Jeff are in an ensemble called A Moveable Feast ... Carei Thomas is in Ancestor Energy, which also includes the wonderful poet Louis Alemayehu.
Publications with jazz listings
Janis’s take on the Twin Cities jazz scene
The club scene is certainly not what I’m used to from Chicago ... I would say that there are periods when there is an abundance of jazz music to be heard in the Twin Cities, certainly at the beginning of the fall season when the Walker and the Northrop announce their new seasons, it’d be a good time to visit, because there’s likely to be good music, however, it is hit and miss. And I would particularly tell someone call ahead or check a web site before you come to Minneapolis just to hear jazz. You’re more likely to plan a trip and come here and see a different kind of performing art and it would be great, but not likely to necessarily be jazz. Any weekend you can go out and see dance, theatre, the city is very good for that.
-- Main.chri2397 - 23 Jun 2009