On some of the weekend nights before he’d begin broadcasting “The Jazz Image,” Minnesota Public Radio broadcaster Leigh Kamman would pull out a worn-out box and hand his radio board operator an old reel-to-reel tape.
Sometimes it was when a jazz legend had died, and Kamman wanted to make part of the show a tribute to the artist. And almost always, Kamman would do more than just spin a few songs — he could play recordings of his own interviews with some of the biggest names in music. He’d talked to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Stan Kenton. He had a tape of a lengthy interview with Duke Ellington, recorded as the two rode around in the back of Ellington’s limousine.
Kamman, who died Friday in Edina at age 92, never made music of his own. But in a six-decade career that began with a teenage Kamman snagging an interview with Ellington in St. Paul and ended with a 34-year run on MPR, the broadcaster became a jazz icon in his own right.
“For not being a musician I think that Leigh was probably the most respected and the most revered of anybody in the jazz field, not just here but around the world,” said Kenny Horst, who owned the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul, a jazz hot spot. “Everybody knew who he was.”
Kamman got his first radio hosting gig while he was still in high school, a late-night jazz show he called “Studio Party Wham.” That work led to a job in Duluth, and later, an assignment after he joined the Army during World War II: hosting jazz programs on Armed Forces Radio.
In the 1950s, Kamman left Minnesota for New York. He married a singer, Patty McGovern, had two daughters and continued to snag interviews with jazz greats. One of his daughters, Katherine Vye, said her father counted many performers among his friends.
“He had a very calming demeanor, a lovely voice and a tremendous ability to reach out to the people,” she said.
After he returned to the Twin Cities in the mid-1950s, Kamman worked for several stations before launching “The Jazz Image” on MPR in 1973. On that program, broadcast in the overnight hours on weekends, Kamman wouldn’t just play songs and interviews. He’d always work hard to set the scene, letting listeners imagine themselves in a far different place.
“The technique,” he told a Star Tribune reporter in 2002, “is to take people on a journey, to use imagery and pace with the music to suggest a time and place so they can picture it, or remember it.”
Steve Tibbetts, a St. Paul musician who worked as Kamman’s board operator in the early years of the show, said he’s not sure exactly how Kamman managed to get so many interested in the music he loved. But he said the impact of Kamman’s work was clear.
“I honestly never was the biggest jazz fan in the world, but after two or three years of that, at some moments at 3:30 in the morning, I’d think: this is the only music,’ ” he said.
Kamman’s family is planning a private memorial service, with a larger celebration for the jazz community to be held at a later date.