Listen to Myron Bennett open his program "PM"
It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of former WGUC Music Director and classical music host Myron Bennett on Saturday, August 7, 2010. Myron joined WGUC within its first year of operation and was instrumental in building the station’s long legacy of broadcast and classical music excellence. Every afternoon for 30 years, Myron shared his love and knowledge of classical music with his devoted listeners. He also had a deep love for jazz which he too shared on WGUC. We express our deepest sympathies to his family and friends and join in their sorrow.
Several years ago, Myron shared his story with WGUC listeners through wguc.org. He began “If you’re on the air, you do a lot of introducing yourself, because there is always at least one person who never heard you before, who has no idea of who you are. You introduce yourself a lot. So for those of you who might have started listening to WGUC after I retired, I used to say this every weekday afternoon: “Good afternoon! The program is PM, and I’m Myron Bennett.”
And then we’d spend some time together listening to music. Since the 30-plus years I was with WGUC were perhaps the largest part of that story, I wanted to share it with you who listened then, and perhaps this way, be on WGUC one more time.”
In thinking back about his career he also said:
“I may be giving the impression here that I was having a lot of fun, doing things I wanted to do, playing the music I wanted to hear. Well, yes. Of course. But I knew you were there. What I scheduled and played was so that I could share it with you. I still have that habit -- the rare visitor in my apartment is liable to be asked if he/she would like to hear anything. In an earlier chapter I noted the progress of the technologies of radio and recording and music. It was beginning to go faster around this time, and a few years after I began at WGUC we took the fairly large step of broadcasting in stereo. Then in what seems a very short time the Compact Disc came along, and I used my contacts with the Phillips record company to get a Phillips CD player, and WGUC was the first Cincinnati station to broadcast a digital recording on a CD. The technology kept on coming, even faster after I left, it seems to me. And I’m still amazed at the changes we’ve been witness to.”
It was our privilege to have Myron as a friend and colleague. His passion for music and broadcast excellence made WGUC the station it is today. He built WGUC’s foundation and was beloved by his listeners and will be truly missed by all who knew and loved him.
Myron Bennett Looks Back:
Every afternoon for 30 years Myron Bennett shared his love and knowledge of classical music with WGUC listeners, playing a critical role in the station's founding and tradition of excellence. Myron looks back on his life, career and the role music played throughout.
Chapter 1: Who Am I, and Why Am I Here?
Myron Bennett with Oscar Treadwell and friends at a taping of "OT's Jazz Rap."
If you’re on the air, you do a lot of introducing yourself, because there is always at least one person who never heard you before, who has no idea of who you are. You introduce yourself a lot. So for those of you who might have started listening to WGUC after I retired, I used to say this every weekday afternoon: “Good afternoon! The program is PM, and I’m Myron Bennett.”
And then we’d spend some time together listening to music. Since the 30-plus years I was with WGUC were perhaps the largest part of that story, I wanted to share it with you who listened then, and perhaps this way, be on WGUC one more time.
To those who were around back then, it is good to be in touch with you again, and to those who weren’t, I’m asking your indulgence. To those who are wondering why I’m taking a hunk of cyberspace and what makes me think you’d want to read it, I’ll just tell you that I’d like to share with you some thoughts I’ve been having about music -- about what music meant to me throughout my life, and what it is coming to mean to me now. There will be a lot, probably too much, about how my connection to music has fared through the years. If you stick with me to the end of this writing, I hope my thoughts will at least amuse you, or perhaps you’ll find something that relates to your relationship with music.
This piece came about because I reached my 75th birthday in April of this year, and though I’m not a very nostalgic person, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that span of my life so far… and about music.
Chapter 2: How the Music and I Found Each Other
My family moved from time to time, so my childhood was spent in different neighborhoods and different schools. I know the moving van also moved a piano and a pump organ as we went to the next house. I think it would have been a bit too much to call us a “musical family,” but my oldest brother, Emmett, played the flute, my sister Shirley sang, and I recall that she took xylophone lessons. My other brother, Clarence, was another flute player. I have vague recollections of having piano and violin lessons, but I guess they didn’t take.
There was other music in the house; during the day Mother would often have the radio tuned to WOSU, the Ohio State radio station, which played classical music. The family phonograph played all sorts of music. We didn’t call it mono phonograph, because there wasn’t anything other than mono.
One memory I have is of a trip to the record store on Hyde Park Square with Shirley and Clarence (Emmett, being ten years older than Shirley, was doing something else) and I was going to spend my money on a record just for me for the first time. I do remember that I was surprised and disappointed when Shirley chose a record by Vaughan Monroe. I try not to think about whether this was taste or snobbery working. I’m not sure, but I think my choice was a Spike Jones record.
When I was in sixth grade, Christmas brought me a clarinet, but apparently playing in the Withrow Junior High School band in the third-clarinet section did not inspire me. So at another Christmas, there was an oboe under the tree, and there was another move, so I found myself in the Hughes High School band. The band had lots of clarinets, lots of trumpets, lots of drums, lots of trombones and so on. And it had one oboe. Me.
World War II was over, Harry Truman was president, we weren’t yet worried enough about Korea to do something about it, the CIA was created, and Frank Sinatra was selling a lot of records. I took a look at my high school annual from 1951, my senior year. When I got over the shock of seeing what I looked like, I read some of the things that occupied me other than classes. The Latin Club, the Camera Club, Parlators (we debated), Sages, Thespians and of course Band and Orchestra. And the yearly original musical. How fortunate I was to have such possibilities. And it explains why I get a little bit more optimistic when I read in the news that a school or district has found the funds for a bit more art or music, even if it is only extracurricular. There are those who really need this.
Athletes often talk about the high school coaches who did so much for them. I have to mention Rea Brown, who directed the band. He did a lot for me. And though I wasn’t in any of his big choirs, Bob McSpadden was a mentor for me, and that remained true when I had occasion to talk with him about WGUC things in later years. I probably don’t have to tell you that several life-long friendships were born. Two are left.
Chapter 3: Music + Technology = Broadcasting
This was also a period of growth of technology for broadcasting and recording music. I was what is now called an “early adopter” of new technology. Somehow I acquired a portable tape recorder back in the late Forties. It was “portable” in name only. Picture a unit the size of two layers of three bricks, add about five more pounds and you’ll have a good idea of what I toted around. I used it to memorize lines in the plays I acted in.
I think this was also the time that Columbia came out with a new thing, Long Playing Records. And also available was a small turntable/needle unit that you could plug into your existing phonograph. The first LP I bought was a Columbia sampler, which had a movement from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and a movement from Stravinsky’s Petroushka Suite. Pretty modern stuff back then.
When I listened to the radio, I liked Jon Arthur on WSAI in the morning, and Jean Shepherd at night, when he might play a Sinatra song and a Bach cello suite and Bix Beiderbecke and Chopin and the Boyd Raeburn orchestra. This is where I first heard Walton’s Facade, with Edith Sitwell’s readings of her text, and which was never heard again here, I imagine, until I played it on WGUC some several years later.
I entered the University of Cincinnati in the liberal arts program, and played in the UC band. After my first year, I persuaded my parents that I should go to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (this was a few years before the Conservatory and College of Music merged, and were later absorbed by UC, which explains the very long name for the result.) I studied oboe with Marcel Dandois, the first oboist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, who taught me the French way to play the oboe and the French way to make reeds. Not because of politics, it seems that among oboists the French way now has fewer adherents than it did then. Scott Huston was a fairly new addition to the Conservatory faculty then, and his very powerful personality had some effect on me and how I viewed music. Several times in the years after I got to WGUC, I called on him for help on a project and such. Another teacher who reached me was Charles Hamm, who was composing and teaching several music courses, and, I discovered, was also born on April 21st, but five years earlier than my birthday. His career took him to the University of Illinois, to Tulane, and most recently to Dartmouth. He became President of the American Musicology Association, and has written several acclaimed books on all sorts of American music. I knew him mostly as a composer then, and was delighted when he asked me to take the non-singing role in his short opera on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as “The Patient.” I had a one-word spoken line to deliver, “HELP!” and am happy to say it brought down the house.
Somehow we found more things in common than the April 21 birth date. He was 80 on that day, and I see the musicology community is feting that occasion. Letters and phone calls and now
e-mail have been able to keep us in touch with each other as we go on our separate ways and lately it seems that the various slings and arrows that each of us has from living this long have received more attention in our correspondence than I would like. Fairly recently a letter of mine reminding him of parts of our history, and telling him what often goes unspoken in long friendships, that his friendship meant a lot to me, evoked this response (quoted with his permission.)
The job at the Cincinnati Conservatory was my first full-time position, and what made it special -- and what made me determined to continue as a teacher - was the special students I had: you, Ron Byrnside, Ellsworth Snyder, Ward Swingle, Duke Skinner, etc. If I hadn't been so stimulated by all of you, I
might well have given up teaching for something else. So it works both ways, you know. I owe thanks to you, and others, for being such dedicated and involved
Chapter 4: Over Somewhere…in Maryland
A number interrupted my education. My draft number. It may have been the only time that the Navy ever drafted, but I found myself in the navy for the one year, nine months and two days of service that ended when the navy thought it had enough men and women and didn’t really need me and many others who also had their service shortened. I’ll skip basic training and rush through the month or so at the navy’s music school, and get to Bainbridge, Maryland, where I was assigned to a band. Not the Navy Band - that is a collection of marvelous musicians, equal to the Symphony Orchestras around the country. Our job was to provide music on the base for ceremonies, and for recreation. We supplied the Officer’s Club and the Enlisted Men’s Club with music for dancing, and on one occasion put on an original musical about the basic training, which was the main reason for the base. We also did parades all over the nearby Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, and would get down to Baltimore for parades, and once a bit further down the road to The District Of Columbia. The concerts we played in surrounding communities gave me the chance to play the English horn they supplied me with, and so I got to play the English horn solo in the Dvorak New World Symphony. This was the time that I felt closest to being a professional musician.
Oboists become very good at making minor adjustments, and at taking the horn apart and putting it back together when something a bit larger needs to be fixed. That’s why the navy assigned me to Bainbridge. The band’s oboist was retiring, and he was the repairman for the band. So I learned to take apart trumpets and tubas and anything that needed fixing or replacing.
Which explains how after I left the navy, and after some decompressing, I found a job as the instrument repairman for the Willis Music Company in their Fourth Street store.
My radio was almost always tuned to WNOP which had Leo Underhill in the mornings, then an hour of classical at 1 PM with Doug Nunn, followed by Dick Pike’s jazz show. At this point I knew that I was never going to be a professional musician, in spite of my love for music. But I kept playing music on the side, off and on.
Chapter 5: A Side Trip
A small digression here, but it ties in with what is to come. On March 16th, 2008, the Sunday Enquirer had an article on page A24 about the brain and improvising musicians. You’ve probably read in recent years about research, which shows that musicians who have been immersed in music since the very earliest years, which generally means pianists and violinists, have developed the brain in some areas, quite differently than non-musicians. I refer to Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia, about the brain and music, in which he talks of many conditions of the brain related to music; of the man struck by lightning who suddenly becomes a virtuoso, and of the condition amusia, in which a person can no longer hear music as music, but as sound only, and much more. I’ll get back to that because it figures into the story I’m telling you. I’ve been wondering if my limited musicianship would show up in a brain scan.
I haven’t had time enough to ponder how that fits in with some earlier brain research news, that older people, of which I seem to be one, get a bit more daring as they age. More on that later; it is time to introduce the subject of sax.
Which means going back to high school. I loved playing oboe in the band and orchestra, but I liked the sorts of music that aren’t played there, and I was developing an interest in jazz and big bands, so my parents bought me an alto sax. I never took any lessons, other than talking with sax players from time to time. And eventually I was playing in bands for dances around town once in a while. The sax was with me through my time in the Navy, and when I got out I bought a baritone sax. Soon I was playing the baritone on most of the few jobs that came my way. This was not every week or even every month, but I played.
I believe that this was good experience for my future duties at WGUC. I once read that George Szell, who conducted the Cleveland Orchestra for many years, preferred brass and wind players who had some dance band or jazz experience. Beyond that, when you play for dances, you learn to pace the various pieces. You find that if you follow a fast piece that had crowded the dance floor with another fast piece, not many will stay on the floor. And too many slow romantic ballads in a row is not a good idea. Whether I thought about it or not, I do believe it helped me in programming the music on WGUC, which became an important part of my job.
Chapter 6: A Face Made for Radio
I see the story got up to my being with the Willis store. I knew that wasn’t going to be my life’s work, and music would only pay for the small things. I had been told a few times, “You should be on the radio.” I found one person who disagreed with that assertion when I sent an audition tape to a classical commercial station in DC. At that point he was right. The tape came back.
So I took some lessons from Cecil Hale, a name I know some will recognize, who had been a very prominent part of Cincinnati radio. I came to think of him as one of my most important teachers, even though I was only with him for a few months. I’d thought he was going to improve my diction, but he quickly told me that my diction didn’t need work. He then helped me on the way to learning how to be myself when a microphone was in front of me, which was a more intense and difficult process than I had been through before.
When Cecil thought I was ready, I made an audition tape and sent that to several stations. KLUK in Evanston, Wyoming offered a job, and so my used Nash Rambler, my beautiful cat and I drove almost all the way across the country so I could be on radio. After a few moments of instruction of how to use their board and where the teletype was, I found that I was the morning DJ, the News Director, and the Evening DJ. I’m not sure how I did really, but the man who hired me said it was a better first day than he’d expected.
About a year later I went to KICD in Spenser, Iowa. Here I was mostly on the evening shift, which included an hour of classical music and late evening pop music. I persuaded them to let me do an occasional show I called “Music From Left Field.” No, it wasn’t the avant-garde material I sometimes played on WGUC, but things unusual in the Iowa life scheme, such as, oh, shall I say Walton’s Facade? A little over a year later management told me that the man I’d replaced, who had taken a job in Cincinnati, wanted to come back. He had a long history with the station, and I welcomed the opportunity to see where I might go next.
I came back to Cincinnati to live in my family’s house while I looked, and after sending tapes and bios around the country, I had the choice of going to a commercial classical station that was just starting in New Jersey, with their antenna pointed at New York City, or a small public radio station that had begun a few months before, was only on the air after 4:00 PM, and happened to be in my home town. A year later the New Jersey station was playing pop, and I was beginning the journey of the next thirty-plus years at WGUC.
Chapter 7: WGUC Becomes a Career
Myron hard at work...as usual.
Those were heady days for me. I was pleased to be working with radio veterans George Brengle and Carolyn Watts. In a way, we were all learning how to be a classical station as we went along. If you wanted to make a flow-chart, you’d have needed a few different boxes of colored pens to figure out who did what and how much. We experimented and did some foolish things and some marvelous ones. Carolyn had a program interviewing musicians of the CSO to learn about the instruments, and we even once put together a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan works using LP records for the music part, and the dialogue performed by us, with additional retired radio actors of some renown, and my wife, Nancy. Somehow we grew from starting on the air each day at 4 PM to a 24-hour station. I said more than once that I thought I learned more about music from being with WGUC than I had at a music school, but actually I learned different things. But for sure I had access to more music in our library.
I may be giving the impression here that I was having a lot of fun, doing things I wanted to do, playing the music I wanted to hear. Well, yes. Of course. But I knew you were there. What I scheduled and played was so that I could share it with you. I still have that habit -- the rare visitor in my apartment is liable to be asked if he/she would like to hear anything. In an earlier chapter I noted the progress of the technologies of radio and recording and music. It was beginning to go faster around this time, and a few years after I began at WGUC we took the fairly large step of broadcasting in stereo. Then in what seems a very short time the Compact Disc came along, and I used my contacts with the Phillips record company to get a Phillips CD player, and WGUC was the first Cincinnati station to broadcast a digital recording on a CD. The technology kept on coming, even faster after I left, it seems to me. And I’m still amazed at the changes we’ve been witness to.
I didn’t talk about my saxophones on the air. But John Birge had every right to mention his French horn, because he was a professional musician, who had played many times with the CSO when a piece had a larger than usual horn section. John became the “morning man” when Paul Laumann retired. For several years I shared an office with John and other announcers including Peggy Schmidt and Lisa Ledin. We got work done, but we talked a lot too…about music, about announcing music, about radio. Once in a great while I would make a suggestion to John about his work. Sometimes he took the suggestion, and it was good. Sometimes he didn’t, and I finally realized that he made the right choice for himself. I like to think that I had some influence on his remarkable progress, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m proud of him. Oh, yes - I learned a thing or two from him too.
I felt very privileged in those days, as I was able to meet and talk to world-famous musicians both local and visiting. And I got to travel to the conventions of The Music Personnel Conference, as it was called in those days, and meet and converse with music directors and announcers and managers from all around the country, and with the people from the record companies who were very helpful. We’d always schedule the conference to coincide with music festivals all around the country. I served as president of the group for a few years too, a distinction I shared with Evans Mirageas, although he came along several years after my reign.
If you listened to my programs, I think you could tell I was especially interested in 20th century composers, especially living ones. I not only enjoyed talking with them but I learned a lot from George Crumb, George Rochberg and others. I felt extremely lucky when John Cage was invited by UC’s College Conservatory of Music to be composer in residence for two semesters. I interviewed him several times and we talked even when not near a microphone, and exchanged letters from time to time after his residency. I’m especially proud that he called me his friend.
Chapter 8: Observations and a Suggestion
Another thing I learned as a listener to WGUC. When my wife died, I truly understood for myself how necessary it is to have music to turn to in a time of sorrow.
I’m going to mention the Sacks book about the brain and music again. One of the many notable things he writes of is the case of a British musician who had lost all memory, save the most recent fifteen or twenty seconds. Yet when his family put him near a piano, he played as if nothing had changed, but didn’t know he had done so. He even rehearsed and directed a choral concert, but didn’t know anything about it later. Another case mentioned is a composer with a similar brain problem, but who still composed original music. I’m not yet up to a chapter that I’m looking forward to, but that brings up the slings and arrows I mentioned some time ago.
Never ask someone my age about our health. We’ll bend your ear as long as you let us. I’ll try to be quick about it, and I’m not complaining, just mentioning things that are relevant. I’ll only briefly mention my prostate cancer in 1995, because it was caught very early and taken care of, but this gives me the opportunity to tell all the men who haven’t yet been tested, do it.
Well, now I’ve read the chapter I was wondering about: “Music and Parkinson’s Disease.” I was diagnosed with that condition four years ago, and I think I’m still in the early stages. I look fairly normal, so I’m told, and any tremor I have is reduced by medicine. Dr. Sacks in the Parkinson’s chapter mainly recounts what he’s already written of before, about the effect hearing rhythmic music had on patients who normally could not move their legs to walk, and nothing that I was hoping to find there. So it goes. The dramatic moment of seeing those patients move has been shown in some movies you might have seen. The effect is not fiction, though.
The growth of Music Therapy for many other diseases and conditions owes much to those unfrozen walkers. There are many symptoms that we Parkinsonians display, but no two people have identical problems. I’ll just mention that I use a cane for balance, and I do have symptoms that show sometimes, and the times between dosages of the L-Dopa based medicines when my brain slows down are getting longer. Other minor symptoms, which seem major at times, include lessening of the senses of taste and smell. So food doesn’t taste as interesting as it once did. (But now I can eat cooked carrots, which I used to hate.) It has progressed far enough that I no longer drive a car. That, combined with the arthritis I haven’t told you about, restricts my ability to get from here to anywhere these days.
Until a couple of months ago, except on rare days my voice had lost the bottom octave. I found a speech therapist, and a friend tells me my old voice is mostly intact (if I remember to do my vocal exercises.) I think Parkinson’s has something to do with the fact that I react much more viscerally to music than I had before. I will move my body to the music. Those who have known me in the past will find this curious. This extends to TV watching. I find my head jerking around if there is a fight scene, and when there is a long pass in football, or a tackle. “That’s not ME,” I say. But I guess that now, it is me.
Chapter 9: Playing the Hand I’m Dealt
Let’s talk about sax again.
After I retired, I did play oboe and English horn in a community orchestra (and played the Dvorak New World Symphony again) and had a very few dance band jobs. The generations that used that sort of music was thinning out, and jobs were few and far between, even for the real pros among us. And eventually the instruments I had acquired and loved over the years wound up being donated, or sold, or if I couldn’t stand to say goodbye, rested in the closet. And that was where my saxes lived for about fifteen years.
I still listened to music on the radio and the recordings I have and would buy from time to time. But I’d been feeling gradually a need to be more in touch with the music, to literally touch music physically. I guess it was about two years ago that it became an urge to get out my baritone sax and see if it could still play, and if I could still play. I opened the case, and could tell it showed its time of neglect. But when I had it assembled, and put the reed to my lips and blew, I was astonished at how good it sounded. To me, at least.
A scene that you might have come across recently in a theater or movieplex nearby came to my mind as I was playing my first few notes, and I sang gently, quietly, sincerely: These are my friends, see how they glisten. And I could not resist, At last, my arm is complete again!
I’ve not yet heard of any blood being shed when my less than sharpened playing has reached the ears of passersby, but I try to play quietly. But I play. Now I want to play more. I want to hold on to music as closely and as long as is possible, and although some who’ve heard me play might doubt that was music they heard. I’ll go on as long as I can.
This is a good time to be alive when you’re falling a bit more in love with music. There are still CDs, there is the radio, there is the Internet (and isn’t the NPR music site a treasure!) And there is HD Radio™, which I’ve used for the jazz when WGUC-HD started, and now that WGUC is using it to carry the classical side I listen there a bit more these days. But I still feel the need to touch music myself, by blowing through a reed and plastic and metal and to be a part of music, bad technique and all.
I soon enough found the losses in my technique, and if I really wanted to play the saxes, I had to have some work done on them. It took a while to find who was best to work on these vintage horns, but now I have them, and I play them, and it is good. Probably the neighbors and the passersby on my busy street don’t think it is good - my technique still needs work, but I’m getting there.
But I want to do more with music, and I find myself thinking of how to combine music and my condition. There are quite a few groups for Parkinson’s people, such as the monthly general meeting, some exercise groups, some game groups. At the time I’m writing this I’m trying to find a way to realize an idea I had recently come up with, to find a time and place for some of us Parkinsonians to gather and just listen to music together.
If something works out, maybe WGUC will let me put a bit about that on their site.
Chapter 10: Some Final Thoughts
Myron with staff and friends at his retirement party.
I’ve finished the Sacks book, and there is so much in there I want to share with you, but I know you’d learn more if you just read it, so I won’t try to condense such a rich book. He shows that a lot of the conditions he covers are traceable to some part of the brain. But music itself can’t be mapped, at least not yet. But I will keep trying to find out what music is, trying to play it alone or with others, and hoping I can keep in intimate touch with it even as my condition persists.
I’m a bit disappointed. I’m not finding how to write what I had envisioned as I wrote this. I threw in childhood, and learning, known and unknown musical friends, the writings of Oliver Sacks, and sax and violins, and changes for the better or worse, and I expected the clouds to open up to a majestic sky filled with musicians of all sorts playing all sorts of lost chords, and I’d be able to use words like “effulgent.”
I think I came close to being able to do that (without the cinematic flourish.) And as I look back and tear out some things and change others I also find things I wanted to touch on, but this would be a horrible example of excess, more than it already is.
So with regrets of leaving unmentioned friends and teachers and mentors just as important as those whose effects are celebrated here, of not being able to read your faces as you read this, and with regards to those at WGUC who I’ve worked with and those who came after, and with thanks
To WGUC for letting me into their space on the web, I’m glad I could share this with you.
© Cincinnati Public Radio