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Hassan And Martin: Top of the Dial

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006; C01

Their radio audiences know their voices. The measured baritone of Rusty Hassan, the scholarly host of "Jazz & More." The crisp rhythms of Von Martin, who distributes the sounds and news of "Caribbeana."

For more than three decades, both Hassan and Martin have introduced novices to bebop and calypso, and along the way engaged the hard-core fans. Tonight the two radio hosts are being saluted at the 21st annual Mayor's Arts Awards for their steadfast entertainment and instruction of local audiences.

"As I drive around listening to the radio, I was struck by their integrity over the years," says Tony Gittens, the executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. "Von's commitment to the music and the community, he is their voice. And Rusty has been unwavering. When the music gets trendy, he doesn't bother with that. He talks about the history, the sidemen."

Martin, 62, says the award is another acknowledgment of Washington's patchwork of cultures and tastes. "Washington, D.C., is not simply a local town but a global village. You can live here and call it home and yet you are living away from home," says Martin, a native of Trinidad who has resided here since 1967. His "Caribbeana" is heard Saturday nights on WPFW-FM.

Hassan, 60, says his jazz program has been a constant presence even though it is often hard to define Washington's jazz audience. "You have a large African American audience for the music here because of the population. But it is also a music that wouldn't survive in the clubs unless there was a white audience. But it is mostly an aging audience, but I also help pull in the younger audience through my classes," says Hassan. "Jazz & More" is part of WPFW's Tuesday lineup, and Hassan has taught at American University, Georgetown University and Trinity University.

In their way the men are cultural librarians, but ones with examples as well as knowledge at their fingertips.

After earning a degree in computer science from the old Federal City College, Martin joined the team at WHUR-FM and then moved to the fledging WPFW before it went on the air. Since 1977 he has been on the air every Saturday. "I think the show has changed in terms of its diversity. It just doesn't significantly appeal to a Caribbean audience. My goal is to educate, entertain and enlighten," says Martin. During the week he is a broadcaster at the Organization of American States.

One feature that has broadened Martin's audience is taking a familiar American song and showing how several Caribbean musicians have interpreted the melody -- say, "Amazing Grace" or "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." "The Americans will say that is our song. But it is done in a Caribbean flavor. It will show the American influence on the Caribbean," he says. "Mostly I have stayed traditional. I haven't gone much into dancehall or hip-hop."

Another signature of Martin's show is the news segments and interviews, voices and events from the region that are scarcely mentioned in the American media. "I want to give [the audience] news about what is going on at home. Some things that are important there are very critical to their lives and families here," says Martin. Gittens agrees and is a fan of the news briefs. "Even if you are not from Trinidad, it is fascinating to find out what is important to the community," he says.

Hassan has peppered his shows on WAMU-FM, the old WDCU-FM and now WPFW with interviews and stories. He has interviewed Max Roach, Sun Ra, Lionel Hampton, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Woody Herman and Count Basie, among many others. And that's pretty heady for someone who stumbled into radio. But he didn't stumble into jazz. "I was born on the day Charlie Parker recorded 'Now's the Time' and 'Koko.' I found that out when I was a teen and getting into Charlie Parker," says Hassan.

He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and attended Georgetown University, where he earned a degree in English literature. One day in his junior year he was having a beer in Teehan's, a well-known campus hangout, when a guy walked by with some jazz records under his arm. The man said he was looking for a replacement host for his show on the university station. Hassan took up the challenge and kept on going and spinning.

The jazz audience, as shows and clubs disappeared and reappeared, has had its peaks and valleys, says Hassan, who for 27 years has been the national representative for the American Federation of Government Employees. "You can see a huge turnout for James Moody and then the next week there are only a couple of people in the clubs," Hassan says, adding that the scene is improving.

As his audiences change, Hassan says he has altered his own tastes. "In the '60s and '70s I was into the avant-garde. But I learned to program for a broader audience. I have learned to play cutting-edge artists. Yet through the teaching I have gained an appreciation for Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton," says Hassan.

With the Mighty Sparrow and Dizzy Gillespie, the two have provided a "soundtrack" for the city, says Gittens.

Source: The Washington Post Company


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