Farewell Bobbi Rogers, With Thanks to Mort Fega
One of the greatest pleasures I’ve had as the host of Jazz a la Mode was getting to know Mort Fega, the legendary New York jazz DJ who was one of the most colorful voices in the history of my profession. Mort was the late-night jazz host on WEVD in New York, and among the legions of fans he attracted was Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. When Mort died in 2007, Fagen remembered him in a eulogy published on the pianist’s web site.
“He was laid back, knowledgeable and forthright, the cool uncle you always wished you'd had," he wrote. "I looked forward to Mort's between-track commentary as much as to the music itself. With Red Garland's 'Mort's Report' playing softly in the background, Mort, with the grace and enthusiasm that reveals itself only in the most bonafide jazz lover, would carefully list every soloist and sideman.”
(Walter Becker, Mort Fega, Donald Fagen; photo by Dick LaPalm)
I got to know Mort during the years when he and his wife Muriel lived in West Hartford. I was on the air only a few months in 1984 when I took my first call from him, and he remained a loyal listener and correspondent for over 20 years. The internet enabled Mort to tune in Jazz a la Mode after he retired to Delray Beach, Florida, and nothing was quite as exciting as answering the phone for a Mort Report in the middle of a broadcast. We’d get together on occasion, too, including a memorable hang at a jazz conference in New Orleans a decade ago.
Whether it was on the phone or in person, Mort had a wry way of imparting a useful bit of info, an insight, a wisecrack, or a hip tip on someone I should hear. The most memorable of the directions he pointed me in was toward Bobbi Rogers. Most of the other jazz players he named were familiar to me, but Bobbi was altogether new, and the best parts of learning of this great vocalist were that she sang around Hartford and that Mort had produced two exquisite records on her a few years earlier for his Focus label. (Mort also produced fine dates on Bob Dorough and Carmen McRae.)
The first, Tommy Wolf Can Really Hang Up the Most, was devoted to songs by the St. Louis-born composer who partnered with lyricist Fran Landesman in the fifties to produce some of the last songs that would qualify for inclusion in the Great American Songbook; the most famous of these, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” inspired Mort’s inverted album title. The second, Crystal & Velvet, offered a selection of refined standards by lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Ira Gershwin, Maxwell Anderson, and Lorenz Hart. Tommy Wolf…featured the trio of Hartford piano great Chick Cicchetti, bassist Russ Elliot, and drummer Ronnie Bedford, while Crystal…was Bobbi alone with guitarist Gene Bertoncini
Bobbi Rogers died on New Year’s Day at the age of 81. Part of the story that Mort conveyed the first time he mentioned her was that she had a substantial career as a nurse, and only sang part-time. Given the distinction she earned in both fields, I think it’s safe to say Bobbi had two callings. She did occasional tours, one of which brought her to Europe, and she sang at the Copa and Michael’s Pub in New York. But for Hartford area listeners, Bobbi will best be remembered as a fixture on Monday nights at the Arch Street Tavern, where she appeared with the Hartford Jazz Orchestra for a couple of decades. The band was founded by Cicchetti, who was Bobbi’s companion until his death in 2000, and he wrote scores of arrangements for her which she described to the Hartford Courant as “always so imaginative, especially the way they permitted the voice to be heard. Many of the arrangements also contained flashes of his famous sense of humor.''
I got to hear Bobbi only a couple of times in person, but her Focus dates have never been far from the turntable, and I’ve long made a point of sharing with listeners and personal friends her sublime take on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” Jackie & Roy, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald and other iconic voices have given us memorable performances of the song that Fran Landesman wrote as a hipster's take on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but none have quite captured its poignance like Bobbi.
I’ll pay memorial tribute to Rogers in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode with selections from her out-of-print Focus sessions, and from the CD she recorded in 2007 with the Kennedy Brothers, Some Little Something. Here she is with pianist Ray Kennedy performing “A Foggy Day.”