Steve Schwartz, R.I.P., Farewell to a Friend

Mar 26, 2017

Friday night, as I was noting Day 30 of a cold virus, my friend Steve Schwartz was admitted to Seasons Hospice in Milton, Mass. Yesterday morning, while driving east for lunch with my niece Lizziə Lanə in Beverly and afternoon drop-ins at bluesman Peter Ward‘s 60th birthday gig in Cambridge and a visit with Jack Woker at Stereo Jack’s, I checked my messages during a routine stop at Natick Plaza on the Pike. There were several, but only one that mattered, the one with word that Steve died around four o’clock Saturday morning, two weeks shy of his 75th birthday, and several years into combating cancer and other grave health matters. I last spoke with Steve two weeks ago. He was fairly upbeat with the latest on his wife Constance Bigony’s art work, and reports on his three kids, Eric, Peter, and Jamie, and his grandchildren. As usual, he was curious to hear more about our grandsons Bisbee and Atlas; Steve gloried in his family, and he was delighted that, through my marriage, grandchildren had came into my life six years ago. Our call ended, as most did with Steve in recent years, with the hope that we’d be off gallivanting sometime soon. Alas, today I know that Steve’s been released from a great deal of pain, and those of us who knew him have lost a good, kind, warm-hearted man.

I knew Steve for about 25 years. Before we met at a Joe Lovano concert that he emceed at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass, around 1990, I would hear him on WGBH where he hosted Jazz from Studio Four. I spent many Sunday nights returning from the Cape with Steve guiding the way, always with his down-home theme song, Horace Parlan’s “Wadin’,” kicking things off at 7 p.m., and often with the word that he’d returned from the Cape only a few hours earlier. Perhaps more than any other experience I’ve had as a listener to radio, it’s the memory of Steve’s references to Fisher Beach in Truro and the details of a meal he’d had in P-Town that give me a sense of why I needn’t be surprised when listeners tell me about some seemingly trivial bit of personal material that I’ve shared while hosting Jazz a la Mode. “Oh yeah, but how about the night when I played those rare 1941 airchecks by Lester Young?” Alas, it’s usually a personal anecdote that resonates most.

Steve and I shared a love of jazz, movies, fresh seafood, and bike rides. He’d owned a bike shop in Mattapan before his radio career began. He was a great fan of Preston Sturges films, especially Sullivan’s Travels, which he relished sharing with friends. He grew up in Dorchester and spent a few years in Los Angeles during his mid- to late-teens. That’s where his love of jazz took root, and he was fond of recalling the day when Gerry Mulligan walked by as he was listening to a new Mulligan LP in the listening booth of a Santa Monica record store. During his Boston youth, he sang in a street corner doo-wop group, and maintained friendships with his harmonizing homies Jeffrey and Hal. Like a true Bostonian, he didn’t know my hometown of Worcester at all before we met, but he was eager for a tour, and we finally got that done a few years ago. I got to show him Northampton too, and in recent years, we would meet halfway in Sturbridge for lunch. Steve was the best kind of friend, one who was eager to hang on the next unscheduled day on the calendar. His opening line was often, “Two Jews sitting on a bench;” his favorite tag was, “News at 11;” and in written notes, he borrowed a Thelonious Monk title for his closing salutation, “Always know.”

Tom Reney and Steve Schwartz, 2007

While courting Meg fifteen years ago, I had occasion to spend dozens of weekends with her near Boston, and during that time Steve and I got together frequently to hear jazz and to ride bikes. In addition to negotiating the city’s busy streets, we took trails to Lexington and Concord; rode the East Bay trail south of East Providence; the Emerald Necklace of Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and Brookline. We ate all over too: Belle Isle in East Boston, Mac’s Shack in Wellfleet, Red Wing in Walpole, Summer Shack in Cambridge, Twin Seafood in West Concord, always in pursuit of great seafood at establishments hospitable to guys in bike shorts. Steve had a bead on every pop-up lunch spot in Boston, and while attending jazz conferences and festivals, we maxed-out per diems in New York, New Orleans, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Toronto, and Montreal. Steve was a gourmand of informal dining spots here, there, and everywhere. When word came down that Uglisich’s, a no-frills purveyor of alligator stew and oysters-by-the-dozen was closing, Steve and his beloved Connie flew down to New Orleans for one last hurrah.

Steve’s was one of the great voices of Boston radio, and he took great care in preparing his weekly, five-hour show. In that capacity, he also engineered and produced scores of concert broadcasts for WGBH and for Jazz Set, Jazz Alive, and other series on NPR. He engineered The Jazz Decades with Ray Smith, which for years preceded Jazz From Studio Four and assured that Bosotn audiences would have a night bookended by traditional jazz and hard bop. He produced state-of-the-art profiles on such New England-based jazz greats as George Russell, Jackie McLean, Gunther Schuller, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, and Yusef Lateef. And he conducted several highly entertaining panels at IAJE, including interviews with Dan Morgenstern and Nat Hentoff. Steve knew and was known by everyone in the business.

Steve and Connie thought the world of Meg and urged me to get on with the show back in 2005. They attended our wedding, and Steve gave a call and sent an anniversary card every year, right down to this last December 10. What a mensch. I’ll miss Steve more than I can say at this sad hour for I’m grateful to have enjoyed such an agreeable friendship with this truest of true friends. Rest in Peace, my man.

P.S. For further reflections on Steve,  click here for my Facebook page, where there are over 100 additional comments by many who knew Steve well.