WATCH: JAZZ DJ, Steven Bognar's new short film, is a loving portrait of former WYSO jazz host Steve Schwerner
When local filmmaker Steven Bognar captured Steve Schwerner doing his WYSO jazz show in 2007 it was just a year before Steve and his wife Nancy left Yellow Springs and moved to Brooklyn to be at the center of their growing family. Steven’s black and white portrait, with elegant, understated graphics and title design by Thanos Fatouros, is an intimate close capture of a lifelong love affair with jazz.
Steve’s history at WYSO goes all the way back to his freshman year at Antioch College in 1955, when he was invited to do a radio show at Antioch by YSO founder Terry Herndon, then Steve’s hall advisor. From the time he began listening to the legendary New York jazz disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin on WEVD growing up in New York, Steve had wanted to spin jazz records on radio. After his stint as an undergraduate DJ he returned to it in 1976 when Steve and Nancy (who started at Antioch two years after Steve) returned to Yellow Springs, Steve to become Dean of Students at Antioch College.
Behind the heartfelt passion of the voice on WYSO was an eyewitness to the spectacular heyday of modern jazz in New York in the 1950s and 60s. Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at the Five Spot in 1957? Steve was there. Whole weeks with the classic Coltrane Quartet? He was ringside. Icons Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins? He experienced them all live—in their prime. From age 16 he was a regular in the peanut gallery/bullpen (for listeners only) at the legendary New York club Birdland. Online you can find a photo by Francis Wolff (his images are an integral component of the classic covers of Blue Note Records) of Steve sitting in thrall there near bebop piano giant Bud Powell.
After his stint as Dean of Students at Antioch he shared the WYSO program Alternate Takes with another Antioch faculty member, Warren Watson, and taught a history of modern jazz class. He was also instrumental in bringing musicians such as Jaki Byard, Mulgrew Miller, Steve Lacy, Jane Bunnett and others to perform and discuss their music with students.
I love the ending of the film which catches Steve wrapping the show and packing up while the haunting Mingus piece “Celia” plays (you see his vinyl copy of the record East Coasting spinning on the turntable). The filmmaker tilts up to a transmitter tower at sundown as Steve makes his way home. Bognar tapes Steve on and off the YSO mic, recording the host framing the music in a larger cultural context.
Steven says, “Steve Schwerner’s jazz show on WYSO brought me so much pleasure and taught me so much about this great American art form, that the chance to do a small film portrait of Steve, doing his show, meant a great deal to me. Jazz is a lot about tone, and Steve himself always sets a beautiful tone as he does his show.”
Steve, now 85, lives with Nancy in Brooklyn, surrounded by family and back tuned into New York jazz radio. His warmth and spirit still resonates at WYSO and with the friends and listeners he left here. Steven Bognar's intimate, beautifully crafted short film reminds us how lucky we were to have him.