By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Shrewsbury resident John Cantor rises before dawn every Saturday. He grabs part of his early jazz CD collection and heads to the WCUW community radio station in Worcester, where he's the volunteer host of a weekly show. The CDs he grabs are carefully selected to give local listeners access to “pioneer music” he called “beyond compare.”
Cantor grew up in the 1950s listening to rock and roll, while his older brother, Mark, followed their father's taste for jazz and became a collector and historian of jazz music and the genre's films. Although his brother persistently encouraged him to listen to jazz, it wasn's until the 1980s when John picked up a Bix Beiderbecke LP at a New York flea market, that he got hooked. Since then, he's compiled what he considers a modest collection of about 10,000 jazz songs from CDs and downloads. He guessed Mark has 20,000.
John worked in the health care planning field until he was forced into retirement in 2009 after having a stroke and being diagnosed with a brain tumor. After six months of treatment and his condition still prohibiting his work, John sought a volunteer opportunity where he could stay close to home. A friend who knew of his affinity for jazz suggested he talk to WCUW about doing a show. John put together a prototype and was given the 2 a.m. slot for starters. His programs were well-received enough for him to be moved to Saturdays from 6 to 8 a.m. He's been hosting during those hours for about a year and a half now.
When John talked about early jazz, his whole face brightened. In preparing his show sets, he arranges 40 songs to play over the two hours. He chooses early classic tunes mostly from the 1920s to 1940s. He tries to play “popular standards,” like “Stardust Melody,” that have endured over time and are still recognized by most listeners.
One of John's main aspirations in doing the show is to get listeners to hear the music at face value. He hopes they'sl be awestruck, like him, over the talent and innovation that the early musicians brought forward. He's simply thrilled about hosting.
“I love it. I get an adrenaline high from it. I look forward to it,” he said. He also likes being a part of WCUW Community Radio, he said, whose mission it is to provide an outlet for alternative voices.
“I like volunteering, giving back,” he added.
John models his show after the style of rock and roll disc jockeys he listened to in his youth: more music, less talk. He gives brief facts after three-song sets. But when John's not on the air, he can's wait to talk about jazz. It's as though he doesn's want anyone to miss how good it is.
“Let me tell you my favorites,” he said. “My favorite musicians are Louie Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke (of course), Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Sidney Bechet….My favorite jazz singers are Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Louie Armstrong, Frank Sinatra. For song writers, it's Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter.”
John's wife, Greta Schnee, accompanies him to the station. She pays some attention to early jazz, he said, but she and their 14 –year-old daughter, Alexis, prefer listening to Green Day. Alexis knows who the prominent jazz musicians are, but, John added, “She won's pick up my CDs.”
At least not yet.
John can sometimes be found playing jazz tunes on his clarinet with his band mates from The Hot Club of Worcester at local Open-Mic nights. His radio show is streamed live at www.wcuw.org.