Radio Documentary Listens To Musicians' Devotion

Posted: April 03, 1996

Six years ago, when he plumbed the life and music of jazz great Miles Davis in an exhaustive 8-hour radio documentary, producer Steve Rowland came away with the holy grail of broadcasting - a George Peabody Award.

Now comes Rowland's latest project, an even more ambitious 13-hour documentary for public radio called The Music Makers, which examines the creativity and devotion to music of six influential or visionary contemporary acts: Patti LaBelle, Carlos Santana, George Clinton, The Neville Brothers, the late Frank Zappa and an emerging Philadelphia hip-hop group called The Roots.

The Music Makers, which is airing on all three local public radio outlets, began last night on WXPN-FM (88.9). Over the coming weeks, 'XPN will air the series in two-hour blocks on Tuesday nights from 9-11 p.m. WHYY-FM (90.9) will broadcast the series in one-hour segments on Wednesdays, beginning tonight at 10. And WRTI-FM (90.1), which will air it in one-hour blocks on Fridays, launches The Music Makers April 12.

``The major criterion I was looking for in the artists was people who were devoted to their music - more to their music than to commercial success - and who were articulate with an interesting story to tell,'' says Rowland, 40, a Temple University film school graduate and Mount Airy resident.

``I don't think any six artists would be totally definitive of contemporary music, and I am not suggesting these six are the six, but they are among them.''

Rowland and his partner, novelist/songwriter Larry Abrams, 41, a Northeast Philadelphia native now living in California's Bay Area, have succeeded in achieving their vision.

Armed with $500,000 in funding, mostly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, Rowland and Abrams devoted 4 1/2 years to the project. They delved into the origins of each artist's music, the artist's determination to innovate and his or her love of the art form.

Although several artists declined to cooperate with Rowland and Abrams, often citing the demands of their careers, Rowland is happy with the cross-section presented by those artists who did.

``Hanging around these people, I learned a sense of commitment to art and music that each of them has,'' says Rowland. ``That is very pure, and it is being buffeted about all the time by the marketplace - what will work, what won't? So, when somebody has a career of 20 or 30 years and still has a passion for the music, it's remarkable and it's a pleasure to spend time with them.''

Rowland concedes that one of his goals with The Music Makers is to change the public's perceptions about some contemporary artists. ``Most people have an instant opinion about these artists, a two-second judgment,'' he says. ``And it's usually wrong.

``People think of Carlos Santana and they think of Woodstock. Patti has lots of hair and fingernails and sings `Over the Rainbow.' Frank Zappa has a funny beard and a strange sense of humor. I hope what people come away with after hearing this series is an understanding that these are all people who have spent 20 and 30 years exploring music. They are true virtuosos who are sound innovators who have contributed to the musical landscape.''

In addition to the established acts, Rowland and Abrams also focused on the upstart hip-hop group The Roots.

``There was a buzz on the street about them, and I was a longtime friend of their manager [Richard Nichols],'' says Rowland. ``When I was working with them, they were just about to release their first record. At that point, most people aren't documented because they aren't famous, and I wanted to explore what that period in a group's existence is like.''

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