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Sunday, January 20, 2008

'Mr Jazz' enriches Richmond

Music critic
Published: Jan 18, 2008

It may be a cold, gray Sunday morning in Richmond, Va., but there’s warm music and a welcoming voice on the radio. New Orleans native Michael J. Gourrier, a volunteer disc jockey at WRIR-FM, the city’s three-year-old community radio station, is spinning real jazz.

“WRIR, radio for the rest of us,” he announces from the station’s homey studio on Broad Street. “It’s time for another edition of Bebop and Beyond with Mr. Jazz. I’m your host, Mike Gourrier, inviting you to stay tuned for America’s contemporary classical music, the idiom we know as jazz.”

A bear of a man with myriad interests, Gourrier doesn’t look his 67 years. Nor does he show the tremendous loss he experienced in August, 2005.

Gourrier and his wife of 28 years, Eloise, are among the hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood that covered 80 percent of their city.

Prior to Katrina, Gourrier was a DJ at New Orleans community station WWOZ-FM for 24 years. He’s greatly missed there, said WWOZ program director Dwayne Breashears.

“Michael knows more about jazz than most people will ever know,” Breashears said. “That’s why they call him Mr. Jazz.”

A life-long jazz fan, Gourrier has attended every New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since the event’s 1970 start. Even after Katrina, he continues to be a presenter at the festival’s AT&T/WWOZ Jazz Tent.

Katrina-related floodwaters ruined most of the 12,000 CDs, 8,000 LPs, 500 books, photos and memorabilia Gourrier kept in a specially built room in his 9th Ward home.

“After being soaked in 6 1/2 feet of water, the mold and mildew got the rest of the stuff,” he said.

Because a few photos of Gourrier with such musical heroes as Horace Silver and Cab Calloway were placed on a high shelf, they escaped the water. And about 150 CDs, cherry picked from his collection earlier in 2005, survived.

Moving to Richmond in early 2006 following four months in Texas, Gourrier made lemonade from a big, sour lemon. He loves Virginia’s historic, beautifully preserved capital city and he’s nearing his second anniversary at WRIR.

Giz Bowe, jazz director at WRIR, is thrilled to have Gourrier as the other half of the station’s two-man jazz department.

“Jazz is his life and his love,” Bowe said. “The fact that he is volunteering his time and his talent to WRIR is just amazing. We’re lucky to have him.”

In typical New Orleans fashion, Gourrier grew up saturated in his hometown’s music-centered culture. He also sang in his church choir and his mother took him to Xavier University’s grand opera productions.

“A lot of musicians, who I considered famous, lived in the neighborhood,” Gourrier said. “And I would listen to music on the radio, everything from Guy Lombardo to Duke Ellington.”

As he grew older, Gourrier’s interest shifted from big bands to smaller groups led by Ramsey Lewis, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal. He experienced his jazz epiphany upon hearing a track from Horace Silver’s 1956 LP, Six Pieces of Silver.

“The day that I heard ‘Senor Blues,’ that’s when I became a bebopper. To me, 1940 to 1965 was the golden era of jazz music. So many dynamic compositions and artists came out during that period. People still practice the basic tenets of the bebop idiom and I consider bebop the foundation of contemporary jazz.”

Gourrier’s inspiration for being a jazz DJ hasn’t changed since his move to Richmond.

“My primary motivation is to expose people to an indigenous American art form that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to be exposed to,” he said in the WRIR kitchen last month. “And music is a very important part of life. I say music is medicinal. Take a big dose every day.”

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