June 13, 2024


Website about Jazz and Blues

Michael Bourne: classic songs handpicked by his colleagues: Videos, Photo

For more than 35 years, Michael Bourne has been a beloved and absolutely original presence on the air at WBGO — as the host of Singers Unlimited and Blues Break, and as a raconteur with boundless insights on this music we all love.

Michael celebrates his 75th birthday this Saturday. And he’s retiring as a WBGO employee — a circumstance that can’t help but ring bittersweet, though you can be sure that he will continue to crop up, in a volunteer capacity, as a member of our family. And speaking of family: we thought it would only be appropriate for a few of his WBGO colleagues to curate this Take Five, featuring songs they associate with Michael.

We’ll be celebrating the remarkable legacy of Michael Bourne all month long — stay tuned for more details! And if you’d like to share a favorite Bourne story, leave a comment on one of WBGO’s social media accounts:

Dave Brubeck, “Strange Meadow Lark”

Maybe it’s Michael’s theater background and passion for the stage that make him such a good storyteller. I had the honor of sitting with him during several fund drives, and I was able to hear so many of his great stories when we were both on and off the air. One story that told me a lot about the man was about the first song he played on the radio, Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadow Lark.” The melody is based on the call of the meadowlark, a bird which could be heard near Brubeck’s childhood home. Michael beamed when he talked about how this tune turned him into a jazz fan for life, and how one of his greatest life experiences was going to Brubeck’s home in Connecticut to interview the iconic pianist and composer. The fact that he carried this song and that memory with him all these years told me how the music and Michael’s life journey really are intertwined, not separate — connected by the heart.

Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightning”

For years, Michael Bourne conducted an annual blues poll, and Howlin’ Wolf regularly placed among the favorites. It’s no mystery why Wolf struck a chord with Dr. Bourne, a former boy soprano and trained thespian. Howlin’ Wolf’s magnetic presence, guttural, booming voice and hypnotizing falsetto will literally stop you in your tracks. Check out the steady vamping groove of “Smokestack Lightning,” conjuring images of a chugging and streaming locomotive coming straight for your soul.

George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, “His Master’s Choice”

Michael Bourne’s stories are as hip as the music he’s shared on WBGO for almost four decades. Once, I asked him where he found freedom in the music, and MB shared a story about being in Zug, Switzerland with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. Gruntz told Michael that the best place to photograph the band was from the middle. Bourne said: “The freedom I felt inside that band reached deep inside.” Feel that freedom with The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band doing “His Master’s Choice,” written by Franco Ambrosetti for Gruntz’s 75th birthday, performed at a festival in Lucerne in 2010.

Donald Byrd, “Cristo Redentor”

From 1995 to 2004, I hosted Sunday Morning Harmony, the show that preceded Singers Unlimited. For most of those years I would spend his first hour or two talking to Michael about everything, music and otherwise. It was during these sessions that Michael dubbed me “Queen of Hang.” And he regaled me with stories about his life and travels — including going to Brazil, where we laid eyes on the famous statue Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain, the song’s inspiration. Just as it is a symbol of peace, the tune reflects Donald Byrd’s choice to write “spiritual-like” pieces for that recording. Upon my arrival in Brazil, I experienced similar emotions that Michael had felt: it was magic. Michael is the epitome of virtue and love — a man of peace whom I cherish and respect.

Charles Earland, “More Today Than Yesterday”

When I think of Michael Bourne, I think of his gruff approach, both on the airwaves and off. One of my earliest experiences with him was in WBGO’s music library. I was sourcing music for my show that day and he walked up to me and, out of the blue, said: “It’s pronounced ‘Finest’ (Phineas) Newborn.” All I could do was thank him — all the while I was jumping on the inside at the realization that Michael Bourne had listened to my show! The song that I associate with Michael is “More Today Than Yesterday,” by Charles “The Mighty Burner” Earland. Not only has this been a staple on the Blues Break, but it also reminds me that I know a little more today than yesterday (thanks to Mr. Bourne’s unique way of administering unsolicited advice).

Michael Bourne, Dave Brubeck and Brian Delp

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