Interview: Bill Graves of Focus

The Face Behind the Voice: Bill Graves

Bill Graves host of Focus


Bill Graves hosts Focus every Tuesdays at 7 p.m.


Bill is the host of Focus, a program dedicated to exploring the context and intimacies of specific jazz recordings each week. In talking with Bill, you can't help being swept into the story of jazz, as he describes how social movements, artistic genres and even philosophical positions are each expressed in the music if we listen closely. Bill strives to bring consciousness and perspective to the music. Take a few minutes to get to know Bill Graves, host of KRTU's Focus. You can find him on the radio every Tuesday night from 7-8 p.m. on 91.7 FM. - Kate Rawley Warters


For you, what is jazz?

BG: Jazz is a unique American art form where music is played with improvisation. This art of improvisation is also shared with another American musical art form, the blues.


When did you first become interested in jazz?

BG: When I was a kid, I found a Sonny Stitt album at my local public library.  I liked the way his last name was spelled.  I came to love the way he played his saxophones.  I later saw him perform on two occasions - in Baltimore and again in Chicago.


Do you have any favorite musicians or albums?

BG: I always hedge on this question and say that I like all jazz music and am always interested in hearing jazz music that I haven't heard before.  I am always listening to expand my jazz musical landscape.


What should listeners expect to hear when they tune in next Tuesday to Focus?

BG: I have always thought that the recording date is an important consideration when listening to jazz. I also think that the cultural and social setting that surround the jazz artists and their performance is significant. So I like sharing some context for hearing jazz music.


How did you develop the concept for Focus? How has your programming changed and evolved?

BG: The show's idea was developed in discussions with Aaron Prado and Matt Fleeger, with off stage encouragement from former KRTU host Jeremy Donald. I started airing music that I was very much familiar with in the beginning but have since ventured out into music that I have recently discovered.


You are also a fan of the blues. Tell us a little bit about your relationship with blues music.

BG: My experience with the blues, like jazz, grew from living for 16 years in Chicago. I lived near and could walk to the often crowded blues clubs on the North Side of Chicago. I literally rubbed shoulders with Willie Dixon while his band warmed up one night before he took the stage. More recently, I also contributed articles to a blues music encyclopedia. This interest has always run concurrently with my interest in jazz.    


For those that have not been exposed to jazz, what albums or artists should they listen to?

BG: Who are the best ambassadors of the jazz musical world? It's no coincidence that Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck did just what you asked about. They took jazz music out to the world in the form of "Good Will" tours of the U.S. State Department. A lot of people around the world heard live jazz for the first time from these two artists. You won't go wrong starting with these two. And then just listen to how your interest branches from there.


Do you think listening to jazz over the radio on KRTU is different than listening to jazz on CD or MP3? How?

BG: Definitely, it is different and often better. KRTU will play music you very well may never have heard before from their vast collection, and they will play it in the full spectrum of sound. MP3 is a compressed music file with a lot of the sound file left out.  I think that this form of music can sound hollow. You will never hear MP3 music played on KRTU.


Jazz has a rich history, but there's so much innovation and high quality music happening right now - What do you think about the state of jazz today?

BG: It's exciting and diverse.  Jazz music is global and inclusive in the performers that it attracts.


You know that a lot of your listeners are just coming home from work and may even be cooking or sitting down to dinner while they listen to your show. How do you help them as they transition into their evening?

BG: I want to play music that they will want to listen to and also music that they might develop more than a passing interest in. That's why I like to stay with a particular artist or group of artists for the span of an hour.


Where do you find the music you play on your show?

BG: I play music that I have in my collection at home. I also invite guests on the show who have brought in their own recordings from their private collections. Sometimes I also played music from the KRTU holdings.


What has been the most challenging part of being a host on KRTU?

BG: Doing the show live and knowing that people are listening live.


What is the most rewarding part of hosting Focus on KRTU?

BG: Having people phone in while I am on the air and say they liked the show.


Describe your relationship with your audience.

BG: I definitely feel engaged and take one of Aaron Prado's suggestions to heart every time I open the mic. The host is a companion to the listener. You are talking to a friend.


What about your family, are they jazz fans? How do you incorporate the music into your family time?

BG: I knew I was in deep when I had a conversation with my wife before we were married that included Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. She's a human jukebox and can not only "name that tune" but she can sing the lyrics as well. Including Fats Waller. My daughter has a diverse interest in music that dates back to her early days. She likes music of all genres, including jazz.


What is your greatest inspiration, musically or otherwise?

BG: A few years ago, I read a biography of Billy Strayhorn. As a prominent member of the jazz world, I came to appreciate his love for life that is so apparent in his music. He was fond of saying, "Ever onward." We all need to be looking forward with his kind of optimism. 


What is one thing you wish more people knew about KRTU 91.7 FM?

BG: That it is a community of people with a high level of dedication to making KRTU a great jazz radio station and also one that is welcoming in spirit.