Music: The last radio show

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2007 - 1:40 PM

Minnesota's Voice of Jazz for more than six decades, Leigh Kamman, signs off tonight on "The Jazz Image."

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Leigh Kamman

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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The scene: downtown St. Paul. The smartly appointed third floor of Minnesota Public Radio, teeming with blond woodwork and muted earth tones. Dinnertime is approaching.

Like smoke seeping under a door, Leigh Kamman quietly enters the radio studio with his supper in a rolled-up brown bag and his notes in a thick briefcase. He's already left a stack of CDs with his producer.

Peering through oversized aviator eyeglasses, Kamman, 85, seems casually businesslike, his usual demeanor, even though he full well knows he is in the homestretch, taping one of his last programs of "The Jazz Image," his weekly show that has been broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio since 1973.

The final show of Minnesota's Voice of Jazz Radio will be heard tonight. It was recorded Sunday at the Dakota Jazz Club in front of a full house. And never has Kamman -- a fixture at the Dakota and in every Twin Cities jazz spot since he began his broadcasting career in high school in 1939 -- seemed more, well, uncomfortable.

Pacing about in his familiar turtleneck and corduroy blazer, Kamman seemed uncharacteristically adrift. "What's going on here?" he asked when singer Debbie Duncan summoned him to the stage.

Instincts took over and Kamman soon did what he does best, take charge at the microphone: "Before you leave, Debbie, I want to go back in your career a moment. Detroit. I'm thinking of two high schools, one of which you went to and the other was a fountain of jazz."

On a recent night at MPR, the Twin Cities' ever-bubbling fountain of jazz shared thoughts on retirement, a planned book project and his legacy. As is his style on the radio, Kamman rambled off on many side trips, dropping names famous and obscure, but eventually returned to the main point. His memory for names, places and dates remains as sharp as the visual memory with which he paints scenes with words over the airwaves.

On how it feels to be in the home stretch of his show

"Sort of pulled and indecisive. I do have an objective behind this. I haven't had many vacations. I'm going to take some time off."

On making the decision to retire from radio

"Erik Nycklemoe [MPR's director of radio] and Sarah Lutman [senior VP of content and media] and I were sitting, having lunch one day in the early summer, and they asked me how much longer I wanted to continue. I said, 'Well, Sept. 2 is coming up and I'll be tracking 85. I'll think about it.'

"I thought, 'I'm rusting, and it's time to see if I can knock out some of the rust and keep my mind clear and do this other project.'"

On his immediate plans

He wants to resume work on an educational book project he conceived in 1973. The topic is the history of American jazz broadcasting, from the 1920s to the present day.

The book will not include the countless interviews he's done over the years -- from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Karrin Allyson and 15-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly. That, he says, would be a different book.

"I hope if I recharge my batteries properly, I will complete this [book], for whatever it's worth."

He added: "I'll welcome the rest. But I'm sure I will miss [the radio]. I do hope I can do occasional guest spots where I hit the dinner circuit and do some talks, and I have some ideas in mind based on that jazz history. And maybe contribute to the school scene."

On his radio style

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