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Radio legend Leigh Kamman, the voice of jazz in the night, dies at 92

For many people, Kamman’s voice — a perfect radio voice, resonant and intimate — defined decades of Saturday nights.

Leigh Kamman: “To describe jazz in the spoken language of English for me is a challenge.”
Photo by Andrea Canter

A career jazz broadcaster, historian, supporter and fan, host of MPR’s “The Jazz Image” for 34 years, Leigh Kamman died peacefully Friday at his home in Edina, with his family nearby.

The next day, as phones rang, texts were sent and Facebook postings appeared, themes emerged, and choruses: “Sweet gentleman.” “The kindest person ever.” “A humble giant.” “So gracious.” “That voice.”

For many people, that voice — a perfect radio voice, resonant and intimate — defined decades of Saturday nights. As Gerry Mulligan played and Alice Babs sang in the background, Kamman spun stories full of images, setting a mood: “And here we are, floating down through the night, from London to … wherever you want to go.” In the cities and small towns across Minnesota, people stayed up past their bedtimes to hear where Kamman would take them. (And many misheard his name for years as “Lake Hammond.”)

“To describe jazz in the spoken language of English for me is a challenge,” Kamman once told MPR. Although his language was sometimes florid and his sentences labyrinthine, his narrative, and his love for the music and its makers, lured us in.

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Kamman met jazz as an 11-year-old, working a summer job at a resort in central Minnesota. The owners, friends of Kamman’s parents, played old 78s at night, and he’d go to sleep hearing Duke Ellington. As a high school junior in St. Paul, he scored an interview with Ellington at a train station and published it in the school paper. Still in high school, he hosted his first jazz radio show at WMIN. He broadcast live from Minton’s, a jazz club in Mendota Heights, and The Flame in Duluth. Bassist Oscar Pettiford showed up to play the Flame, and he and Kamman became friends. Pettiford later wrote a tune called “Kamman’s A-Comin’.”

Over the next several years, Kamman hosted jazz radio programs for the army during WWII, returned to Minnesota and WLOL, moved to New York for a job at WOV radio in Harlem, and came back to Minnesota, working for KSTP and eventually for MPR, where the first “Jazz Image” was broadcast in 1973. That show began as an all-nighter, starting at 10:30 p.m. Friday and ending Saturday morning at 7. Later, it went to six hours, then four, then three (9 p.m. – midnight), always live until Kamman started winding things down. Many of his shows included interviews he had done with jazz greats over the years.

He often interviewed national artists who came through the Artists’ Quarter, the St. Paul jazz club that closed last December. “He was the most supportive guy ever,” remembered drummer Kenny Horst, who owned the AQ for many years. “If we had someone come into town, he’d call and interview them live on the radio.” Horst recalled that Kamman was especially fond of Lew Tabackin and Mose Allison. “He was nice to everybody, no matter who they were.”

Horst was a wry admirer of Kamman’s way with words. “Once I was making a record with Bob Rockwell, and Leigh wanted to interview me and Bob. We went to this restaurant close to where Leigh lived. The interview was going rather nicely, and at one point Leigh asked a question. He stopped talking, which is how we knew it was a question. I looked at Bob, Bob looked at me, and we both started laughing. Neither one of us had a clue about what Leigh had said, but it was profound as hell.”

The final “Jazz Image” aired Sept. 29, 2007. Kamman began working on a book about jazz broadcasting, and he often went out to hear live music. On August 17 of this year, he attended a birthday party for saxophonist Irv Williams, another nonagenarian, at the Dakota. That was the last time Horst saw him, and again, Kamman made him laugh.

For decades, Horst had jokingly blamed Kamman for wrecking his 1957 Lincoln convertible. Horst was still a teenager on the day he drove his new car down West 7th in St. Paul, listening to Kamman on KSTP, when Kamman played a tune by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Horst got so excited he rear-ended the car in front of him. At the Dakota in August, Kamman said to Horst, “Sorry about the car.”

“That voice, the language, the things he talked about in the night,” Horst mused. “It was magical.”

A private family funeral will be followed at a later date by a community celebration of Leigh Kamman’s life. Meanwhile, you can hear him in a series of five-minute broadcasts produced by Jazz88 KBEM. They’re available on the Ampers community radio website. Here’s the first episode.