It’s Not Dead: An Interview with Diego Russell, WRMC’s ‘Best Solo DJ of the Year’

by on May 26, 2011

Posted in: Uncategorized

Show name: Jammin’ High

Is in it’s: Sixth semester running
Genre: Jazz (one of the proud few on WRMC)
So I set out to see what Diego Russell, who was just awarded the title of WRMC’s Best Solo DJ of the Year, could tell me about his show—the process behind creating it and its history—and that took us a few places, from his childhood sorting through his dad’s CD collection to science fiction to his favorite trumpet players. When I walked into the studio Diego was advertising a fake lima bean festival going on in Middlebury on air, so I pretty much immediately counted on our half hour together being interesting, and it was. This is Jammin’ High:

Discussed: Space Jazz, mail order pop compilations, the vitality of jazz in the modern age, BIO 145, and New Orleans jazz radio, among other things…

Me: Can you tell me a little bit about how you conceptualize or structure the show weekly?
Diego: Every week I’m just constantly gathering music. I’ll be looking around and I’ll find something that is new to me and I’ll just start playing it. I’m a big fan of jazz and blues and funk and hip-hop and I’ll pursue those genres.
One time I had this theme space jazz. There’s a really good artist, Ornette Coleman, who does free jazz and he’s really into space-themed songs. Sun Ra is another great and he has this album called The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. So those two guys got into space jazz. Also Herbie Hancock and his use of electronic music, that type of shit in the 80s, all that compiled into one show to become space-themed.
But I don’t know, last week I was reading science fiction and I came across this opera that was based on a science fiction book by one of my favorite authors, Phillip K. Dick, and so I just started playing opera music, even traditional opera music, on my show. It’s kind of spontaneous what my show’s about for the most part, but I like it to have some kind of theme.
M: So do you see this as a jazz show or more just as your thing?
D: I predominately play jazz. But I don’t think I can call it a jazz show anymore, but I wouldn’t call it any other specific type of music either.
M: It’s pretty rare to hear Jazz on college radio shows. (There’s only one other Jazz show on WRMC). How did you get into the genre?
D: Mostly through my father’s taste in music. A lot of the music I listen to comes from him. He’s a fan of a lot of different kinds of music, but jazz kind of just took me. I’ve been listening to it since early high school and trying to kind of just accumulate as much jazz music as I can. What it means historically to musical development in this country I think is beautiful.
M: Did you start listening to a couple guys and kind of branch out from there? Or did you start listening mostly to the guys your dad listened to? I guess, where did your relationship with jazz start and how did it evolve?
D: I remember listening to Stanley Clark’s album School Days really early on. I remember listening to Billie Cobham’s Spectrum. I’ll play a song from there called “Snoopy’s Search.” That’s one of my earliest memories of weird music. I remember dancing to this when I was maybe eight or six. It has a really funny beginning that I would just freak out at and then it got into this really sick rhythm. The guy who wrote it is a drummer, it’s just awesome. Hearing that on my dad’s stereo system turned up really loud was really cool. [In the studio: fiddling with the aux cable, changing computers, some static, and then…]

M: When did you start discovering music on your own? And how?
D: Being at home alone, I had an older brother. My dad had a really large collection so we would just rove through that and play stuff. But also, I don’t know if you remember this, but there used to be those ads in magazines like ’21 CDs for 1 cent.’ We would get CDs that were poppy and stuff, I remember Alanis Morrisette and Green Day and stuff, but that was more for my brother and that kind of wore off. Really where my music developed was from my dad’s collection.
M: Do you play jazz yourself?
D: I play a little trumpet. I’d love to play a lot, but it’s hard to find time. And I play a little trombone, which I just picked up this year. I love horns and brass music. Recently, as in this semester, I’ve really been listening a lot to this radio station streaming out of New Orleans called WWOZ. Check that out.
M: Has playing horns influenced what music you’ve looked for?
Yeah, I tried to pay attention to more trumpeters, like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, those kind of bop, post-bop guys. Who else is good in that sense? Donald Byrd, Miles Davis, but he’s not just a trumpeter you know. But yeah, listening to trumpet and kind of knowing how it works more so than another instrument that I’ve never touched before definitely makes me want to pursue that sound and understand the goodness of it.
Also, there’s a jazz festival in my town. I live in Cape May, New Jersey, and there’s a jazz festival there every spring and fall. I haven’t been since I left high school, but that was also really, really awesome as a kid, seeing some awesome groups. Like I saw McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson play there.
M: Has the show always been Jammin’ High?
D: No, it’s evolved. I forget what they used to be, man. I had so many.
M: So has the idea for the show changed over the semesters?
D: It’s just what I’ve been listening to. That’s changed a lot or gotten enriched you know. It’s always been around jazz, but I’ve gone off in different areas of it. Latin jazz; to some New Orleans jazz; to jazz from California— cool jazz kind of stuff; jazz that’s influenced by samba— Brazilian stuff. There are so many different types of jazz.
M: What’s your interaction with the Middlebury community like in terms of the show? Do you get calls or people talking to you about the show?
D: I get calls every once in a while from people. The time I got the most calls was when I had a slot like 6-8 and all these people would call and be like, ‘we were listening during dinner and it was awesome.’ There’s this one guy, who I know other DJs have gotten calls from—his name is Peaches, and he suggested some cool music that I listened to. He called every week for seven weeks one semester.
Right now BIO 145 listens to my show. I think they decided to put on the radio one time and I was playing some real funky stuff and the professor liked it a lot and was like we should listen to this all the time.
M: Anything else you want to say?
D: I’d say listen to jazz. It’s still alive. There’s plenty of young artists. To give out one name, one trumpeter who’s awesome: Jeremy Pelt. I saw him in Philly a month or so ago. It’s not dead.
-Interview by Moss Turpan