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Tony Mowod shines light on jazz from the Night Side

Wednesday, April 04, 2001

By Deborah Weisberg

Correction/Clarification: (Published April 6, 2001) Jim Paluzzi is the general manager of Boise State Radio; Scott Hanley is the general manager of WDUQ radio. The former's name was misspelled and the latter's title muffed in a story Wednesday about WDUQ's Tony Mowod.

Tony Mowod has a house in Brookline, but he's most at home in his studio on the Bluff, just blocks from where he grew up on the Hill.

Duquesne University's WDUQ-FM is also where Mowod, more than 40 years ago, began to develop a radio voice and style that has made him the anchor of Pittsburgh jazz. Each night from 7 to 11, he sits alone at a console, his manicured fingers pushing dials that play the "straight-ahead, lyrical, melodic, acoustic, moderately improvisational" jazz that he says his listeners want to hear.

Despite brief forays into other fields, including acting and restaurants, Mowod, 65, has remained an enduring radio presence, broadcasting on six local stations at one time or other. Now, he's heard far beyond Western Pennsylvania, through a WDUQ-Boise State Radio joint venture called JazzWorks LLC. Started three years ago with $390,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it brings 'round-the-clock jazz to such markets as Worcester, Mass.; Binghamton, N.Y.; Salt Lake City; and Normal, Ill.

Three nights a week, Mowod stays in the studio for an extra hour to record a digitally engineered JazzWorks version of his show.

"Tony plays accessible jazz," said Jim Paluzzi, general manager of Boise State Radio and

JazzWorks director. "The nature of radio is very personal. You're right at someone's elbow. And Tony is radio at its best."

WDUQ general manager Scott Hanley agreed.

"Most communities that have some sort of jazz scene desperately need a Tony Mowod but don't have one," he said. "Tony bridges the gap."

"I feel close to my listeners," said Mowod, whose phone begins to ring as soon as the Night Side theme song, "The Quintessence" by Quincy Jones, begins. He is on a first-name basis with callers he might never meet face to face.

"I've talked people out of depression," he said. "They call to tell me they're ironing clothes to my music. One woman told me she makes love to her husband while they listen to my show."

Tomorrow, Mowod's friends and admirers are planning a testimonial dinner in his honor at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Pittsburgh. The event will raise money for scholarships for young jazz musicians and to create a permanent home for the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, which Mowod founded 14 years ago and serves as president. It's unofficially based at Fosters, in the Holiday Inn Select in Oakland, the scene of its well-attended Sunday Night Jazz Party concerts.

But life hasn't always been so upbeat for Mowod, who had big dreams growing up above John's, the restaurant his father, Mowod Hanna Samreny, owned at Bedford and Washington avenues in the Hill District. His parents came to Pittsburgh from a little mountain village in Lebanon, one that Mowod visited for the first time last year as part of a personal pilgrimage.

Mowod attended Epiphany grade school, learning piano from the Mercy nuns. He went on to Central Catholic, where he developed a passion for the sound of jazzmen such as Art Tatum and Stan Getz. He picked up the vibraphone, still his favorite instrument, and the derbecki, or single-headed drum.

He enrolled at Duquesne University, acted with the university's Red Masquers and did a jazz show at WDUQ, though not in the format he wanted. He dropped out to pursue a drama career in New York.

"I lived on West 87th and roomed with Chuck Grodin for a while," Mowod recalled. "I did some off-Broadway, Playhouse 90, Studio One. I was a character actor. I played heavies. I just missed [getting] the role of Umi Tanoose, Uncle Tony, on the Danny Thomas show."

He worked in an office during the day and played the vibraphone three nights a week with a trio. He also studied Method acting with Milton Katselas, brother of Tasso, the Pittsburgh architect.

"He begged me to stay, but I wanted to go home," Mowod recalled. "I was seeing someone in Pittsburgh. Elizabeth. We decided to get married, and I thought we'd go back to New York, but we never did."

Instead, Mowod stayed here, raised a family that included a daughter and three sons, and worked in local radio while trying his hand at supper clubs. The first was Cedars Lounge in East McKeesport, which he owned with his father and brothers for four years. Next came the Vogue Terrace Dinner Theater, where he had visions of staging first-rate shows. Ginger Rogers appeared in "Annie Get Your Gun" before a fire destroyed the place, killing the stage manager.

When Antonio's, a Downtown restaurant and his final venture, closed 25 years ago, he hit his lowest low. Bankrupt, he took a management job with Servico, the hotel chain, to support himself and his family. He was also doing a weekend jazz show on WAMO.

"I was working hard, saying a lot of prayers. I had a lot of faith in God. If it weren't for my family, I don't know how I would have existed. I would have taken the bridge. WAMO was like therapy for me," he said.

In desperation, Mowod appealed to St. Sharbel, a turn-of-the-century Lebanese monk and miracle worker, canonized in 1977.

"His real name was Joseph Makhlouf, the same as my mother's maiden name," said Mowod, who was born Najeba Samreny but took his father's first name, Mowod, when he began in radio.

"I'm not a fanatic, but I made Sharbel a promise that, if he'd help me get my head above water so I could raise my family and get my self-esteem back, I'd build a shrine to him in Scott Township, at Our Lady of Victory Church."

The Maronite Our Lady of Victory began as St. Ann's on the Hill, which Mowod's family attended. The church moved to Brookline after World War II, then moved again to Scott. Mowod talked last summer about starting a campaign to build a St. Sharbel grotto and 6-foot bronze statue at the church.

"Tony had a faith experience with St. Sharbel," said the Rev. James A. Root, pastor of Our Lady of Victory. He's hoping the fund drive will begin this spring.

Mowod, whom some think of as Pittsburgh's patron saint of jazz, found his prayers answered in 1987, when his jazz show on WDUQ took off and the Jazz Society was born.

"He's a leader," said Al Dowe, owner of Dowe's on Ninth, a Downtown nightclub, "the greatest force behind jazz in this city."

Mowod's promotional savvy is impressive, and he turns much of it to PJS concerts and cruises, which help raise scholarship money for budding artists. Nationally, Mowod is building a name for himself and WDUQ through JazzWorks. Hanley, the WDUQ program director, declined to say how much revenue JazzWorks generates.

"Tony makes everybody he's with feel like a million bucks," said Paluzziizzi, JazzWorks director. "He's so well-connected, and the jazz community is so tiny, really, that, if you get a bad name, you're dirt forever."

But some would like to lift Mowod's mantle.

"The whole concept of the Jazz Society is great. It's bringing people together. And Tony's on top of his game, but one or two people can't cover all the music," said Butch Perkins, 48, a former WDUQ and WYEP jazz host.

"I tip my hat to DUQ, but the menu it has is just too small. You need different personalities, even another radio station playing jazz. There's an era of music that's not being touched at all. The period from 1943 through 1966 was marvelous, and it's only being covered hit or miss."

Perkins said Mowod mostly ignores the be-bop period that bloomed between 1945 and 1955 and doesn't play the music of jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

Perkins, owner of a cleaning business, says his Fineview home is a salon for visiting artists. He estimates his own collection of recordings at 75,000, including interviews with musicians, many of whom are now dead. He admits he'd love to be back on the radio.

"There should be something more coming from DUQ on a local angle," said Perkins. "Get someone live on the overnight. Open up the menu. Do something different."

Rebekah Hill, a music librarian who purchases compact discs for Carnegie Library of Oakland and plays keyboard for local bands, called for less of a mainstream sound at the annual Mellon Jazz Festival, in which Mowod is heavily involved.

"There's been talk among friends that they're not bringing in the up-and-coming or avant-garde artists. Should they? Of course. Mix it up!"

Mowod arrives at WDUQ early each night to select music for his show. He said he won't play pieces he doesn't like and refrains from airing "longer, way-out music" that he might listen to when alone.

"I don't want to offend anyone," he said. "I try to appeal to the multitude. I want my listeners to be comfortable. Otherwise, I can just hear the radio dials clicking off. Musicians understand that you need to be somewhat middle-of-the-road. They have to do the same thing," he said.

Paluzzi defended Mowod's playlist.

While every artistexperiments, he said, "the way-out wailing sound belongs on an Internet site and not a car radio. Tony does what he feels he should be doing to please an audience. He's incredibly honest and wouldn't play anything he didn't believe in.

"To say he should play more way-out stuff is like saying Rembrandt should be doing abstract art."

Dowe said that while Mowod "may lean toward certain types of music, he touches most of the great artists."

Brooks Bartlett of McCandless, a PJS board member and unabashed Mowod fan, is helping to plan the testimonial dinner for him. The event will raise money for the society's scholarship fund, which will award $25,000 to young musicians this year. It also will fund efforts to create a home for the society.

"A building would give musicians a place to get together to share their music and teach others and would include a hall of fame," said Mowod, who has eyed property in Garfield-Bloomfield. "It's been my dream for a long time. We're an all-volunteer organization, which needs an executive director and a staff."

The PJS also wants to purchase a "jazz-mobile" that would take performances to schools and public parks. Mowod headlines two PJS cruises a year, with some of the proceeds going to the scholarship fund, plus various concerts at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, Jazz Day in the Park and the Mellon Jazz Festival.

Bartlett, a nursing home physical therapist, moved here "from the hills of West Virginia" 40 years ago and began listening to Mowod, who was then on WKPA.

"I'd been following his career for years and finally made a point of meeting him," he said. "When I told Tony how much I admire him, he seemed taken aback that someone would pay that much attention to what he's been doing."

Tickets for tomorrow's testimonial dinner are $50. The event begins with a cash bar at 6 p.m., with music by Trio Grande, the David Budway Trio and the Gene Ludwig Organ Trio. For tickets or more information, call 412-341-5632.

Deborah Weisberg is a free-lance writer.

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