- Reporters Desk
By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer
Gary Wagner is a self-proclaimed dinosaur in an era when society worships the newest vogue through the internet.
The disc jockey has committed his life to playing blues music, at a time when young African Americans have abandoned blues for rap.
The question asked often is, what is the blues?
“Blues is an emotion,” says Wagner “it can be a sad emotion or a happy emotion.”
Wagner, known by his moniker, The Wagman, uses the blues to send out the vibesover the radio every weekend on public radio station KKJZ, which resides on campus at Cal State Long Beach.
His show, Nothin’ But the Blues, streams – thanks to the Internet – all over the world. Each weekend, for nine hours, he sits completely alone working at a frenetic pace, often picking songs on the fly as fans – and artists – call in requests to play music that cannot be heard on any other FM station in Los Angeles. Wagner is proud of the fact that he is one of the few DJ’s around who picks his own playlist. This is rare at any radio station today, where playlists are pre-programmed nationally for the highest level of familiarity to listeners and the least amount of variance from the predictable.
This past year, the station’s management Global Jazz, cut a full day from the blues program. Instead of two days of blues, listeners were relegated to only Sunday, with The Wagman. Management believed the mission of the station is jazz, rather than Blues. During his 2012 summer pledge drive, Wagner successfully led an on the air revolt to bring back the Saturday show. In a show of support, fans overwhelmingly stepped up to demonstrate their commitment to the Blues with the one thing corporate management listens to: Dollars.
Rabid fans of The Wagman donated $93,998 and the Saturday show was reinstated.
When asked about the response to the pledge drive, station manager Stephanie Levine offered the following statement “Our goal is to provide a balance of both jazz and blues programming for as long as we are fortunate to operate KJazz. We will do our best to strike a balance when responding to the feedback we receive, with the understanding that we can never make everyone happy all of the time.”
I was fortunate to spend a day with Wagner, while he was playing a tribute to recently deceased legend Bobby Blue Bland. Wagner kept up his fast-paced spinning of two-minute songs, all while fans touched in with Facebook messages and phone calls. The visual was fascinating.
Wagner says he is hopeful for the genre of blues music.
“There are a lot of young people getting into it,” he said. “There are teenage bands playing the blues.”
He cites young talents, such as California based Ray Goren and Quinn Sullivan, who plays with Chicago blues legend, Buddy Guy.
“It is cyclical,” he said. “In the 70s, people were interested in disco. Then in the 80s, Stevie Ray Vaughn comes along and there is a whole wave of blues appreciation. Then it fades for a while…I think it is about to come back and I’m excited about it.”
Although he is known for classic blues, he tells us most of what he plays is contemporary and artists send him new music to review on a regular basis. He calls the newest interpretation of the music, “post-rock blues.”
Wagner became involved with radio at 15, when his mother drove him to a local radio station to sit with the disk jockey. As a teenager, he landed a job at Los Angeles station KNAC. Uncle Sam had other plans. When he left for the Army, legendary Los Angeles DJ Jim Ladd, got his shift – Ladd’s first job in radio – and Wagner ended up in Vietnam.
In 1992 Wagner was brought to KLON, now KKJZ. The station had organized the annual Long Beach Blues Festival in 1980 as a fundraiser and it took place each year on the athletic field at Cal State Long Beach. The festival was an iconic event with a national reputation, showcasing legendary blues musicians for 29 years. All the greats played in Long Beach – literally. It’s hard to name a blues musician alive in the 80s and 90s, who did not stop by CSULB. Tens of thousands of Blues fans attended each year. The loss of the festival remains deeply mourned. Since the demise of the beloved festival, fans see Wagner as the keeper of the flame.
Wagner has met and worked with many of the blues greats.
“In 1979, when I was working at WJKL, at Elgin, Ill., I got a chance to interview Muddy Waters,” he recalled. “It gives me chills when I even say the words.”
He cites that event as a life changer. The musicians still keep in touch with Wagner. While he was working on a Saturday, Roy Gaines called to say hello and Wagner played one of his songs for listeners.
Facebook also keeps the popular radio personality in touch with his fans. Four-thousand fans follow his philosophical musings and humorous postings. Occasionally, Wagner reflects about the impermanence of life. Following a major injury, he is slowly recovering, but feeling his mortality.
He is just as philosophical about his broadcast style.
“The space in between the songs is where I live,” he said. “The thing that makes it magic is not knowing what’s going to happen next. That means I have to do it, I have to figure out what to do next. That’s the magic of being live.”
Nothin’ But the Blues will host its next pledge drive the weekend of July 13 and July 21 on KKJZ 88.1. Tune in to hear Gary Wagner carry the flame and keep the blues alive.