June 20, 2006

Don't Miss This Jazz Personality on America's Got Talent!

Music Journalist Jonathan Widran to be featured on the show airing Wednesday, June 21st at 9 PM!

AmericaGotTalent_Logo.jpgAlthough our Jazz Personality column typically covers artists in the world of contemporary jazz music, this time we get an inside look at a music journalist and what he's up to besides writing! Jonathan Widran, prolific writer of well known magazines Smooth Jazz News and Jazziz, spends at least some of his time singing. Friends and family have known this for a long time, but it might be news to the rest of the music world. Most of this happens in the karaoke circuit in the LA area where he lives; most of it happens with a good friend of his named Fred; and most of it happens with songs that are affectionately known as 'one hit wonders.'

So when the America's Got Talent search was on (from the producers of American Idol), The Freds, as Jonathan and Fred are known, couldn't resist the opportunity to see if they have the right stuff to strut in front of a panel of jugdes -- a trio, nonetheless, typical of American Idol, complete with the American Idol band and a big stage on which to make their best impression. How did this happen and what was it like? Jonathan tells all in this interview with www.smoothvibes.com writer Beverly Packard.

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BJP: Before you tell us about your audtition for America's Got Talent, let's back up and talk about how long you've been a music journalist, what genres you write about and where your work appears?

JW: To make things easier I tell people I have been a music journalist for 15 years, but actually my first articles were in a small free paper called The LA Jazz Scene in early 1989, so I’ve actually been doing it for 17! For that publication, which is well known in the local jazz community of Los Angeles, I wrote a lot of features, reviews and also a column called "Night Rhythms", which covered record releases, concerts, club shows of all the local jazz talent (mostly smooth jazz guys on their way up like Richard Elliot, Boney James, etc). I started writing for the national jazz publication Jazziz in 1990 and have been doing the "Contempo" column, covering mostly smooth jazz (with touches of other genres like world music, a la Willie & Lobo) thrown in since 1991. So that’s 15 years! I’ve written hundreds of reviews and done many interviews for that column, and it’s been one of my great calling cards since the magazine is so well respected in the jazz world.

JonathanWidran_PR.jpgI’ve also written for the same amount of time, covering other genres as well, for Music Connection, a West Coast based industry magazine that has given me high visibility among the movers and shakers of the recording industry. I used to write a column in there called "Producer Crosstalk", and got to interview big pop, R&B, and even country producers, plus smooth jazz producers like Paul Brown and Jeff Lorber! And also many famous film composers. Currently, for MC, I write a less interesting column called “Close Up,” which profiles one of the magazine’s advertisers in each issue. So I talk to a lot of studio owners and people who run mastering facilities…and get to learn about some of the nuts and bolts about making music. So even if it’s not as exciting as talking to the artists, its’ educational! And over the past two years, I wrote cover stories on Mindi Abair and Brian Culbertson, bringing them to an audience that had probably not heard of them before!

I have regularly appeared on this online site, Peter Boehi’s SmoothVibes.com, since 1997, and so that’s a great place to find old columns for reference purposes. Peter, jazz aficionado from Switzerland, allows me to post as written with no pre-editing. These days I don’t contribute original information here, but my Jazziz 'Contempo' column is featured in its original form every month. Plus, SmoothVibes is in search engines all over the world, which means people can read my work that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.

Many people in the smooth jazz community know me from my extensive writings in the nationally distributed magazine Smooth Jazz News, which launched in December 1999 and is very popular among the true fans of the genre. In the summer, the publisher, Melanie Maxwell, travels to every major smooth jazz oriented festival so SJN has high visibility in that community. I like writing for this publication because the articles touch on the personal lives of the artists beyond just their latest gigs and recordings…and it’s always interesting to know about their families and hobbies. Online, I also write for the popular website All Music Guide, and my reviews there are syndicated to hundreds of websites worldwide, so my name is definitely out there. I started out for them just doing smooth jazz reviews (since before me, they only had straight ahead jazz critics reviewing smooth jazz, which they didn’t like much), but now have covered everything from rock to R&B to country, gospel and world music. There have been other publications and websites over the years, including Amazon.com, but these are the major ones I write for now.

In addition to the journalism, I also for years have done a lot of PR writing, which means bios and press releases for many different record companies and public relations firms. I have written bios on most of the major smooth jazz artists, but companies have hired me to write bios in many different genres beyond smooth jazz, and that’s always expanding. I may not like all the music these artists make, but they all have great stories to tell and it’s fun to help artists just starting out their careers.

PR writing also pays a lot better than the journalism and reviewing! But the journalism is what got my name out there in the first place. For one L.A. based company I work for regularly, I have written about rock, folk, jazz, gospel, country and even hardcore alternative rock. Plus I’ve written press releases for clients I grew up listening to like Air Supply, Tommy Tutone and The Knack!

BJP: What are the most satisfying aspects of your work in music journalism?

JW: I think the most satisfying thing is being able to have built what is essentially my own freelance business, setting my own hours and beating the system by working entirely at home! When you live in L.A., where people drive long distances on the clogged freeways and spend their lives in traffic, this is a real blessing. I’ve created an interesting niche for myself. Unlike many freelancers, I rarely have to pitch ideas to anyone. I’ve built the PR business by word of mouth so people call me all the time for new projects. And I write regularly for the same publications and am comfortable doing that! When I’m caught up on my work I can go to the beach or the movies, or just take a walk. On the professional side, I really enjoy talking to the artists and finding out what makes them tick creatively. I like the fact that musicians, whether unknown, well known or legendary, talk to me with respect and most of the time treat me very kindly. It’s fun listening to people’s stories and figuring out clever ways to convey them to either other journalists (when I do PR) or people reading the articles. I also love getting so many free CDs and getting to see so many great shows and concerts over the years, all for free. It’s kind of a dream job for a music lover. The couple of jazz cruises I have been on were the best things…what could be better than enjoying a week at sea and in beautiful ports and listening to great concerts every night. Fans pay a lot of hard earned money to do what I get to do for free…but then again, I provide something for the artists that helps their career. I still feel like a kid getting away with something, but I know I contribute as well.

BJP: Before developing your music journalism career, you also wrote a book about your journey into trying to make it big in Hollywood called Hooray for Hollywhat? Can you tell us about what you were trying to do in Hollywood and basically how it turned out?

JW: I was always good at writing but I think it’s usually not practical to dream of making any sort of living doing it. Like being a musician, even if you’re talented, it’s hardly a safe career path like being a doctor, lawyer or teacher is. I hadn’t really thought about being a scriptwriter but while I was in my second year of UCLA, I was a big fan of the TV show Family Ties…and one day I woke up with a vision of Alex Keaton, the Michael J. Fox character, writing a term paper. I had just gotten a low grade on an English paper and needed to vent my frustration. I wrote a “spec” script (meaning on speculation, as a sample) for the show and was able to submit it to the producers of the show with just a release form. They liked it but said they already were working on a similar idea about Alex getting his first low grade in college. Anyway I got to go to tapings and meet the producers, and so for the next six years or so (including several after graduating) I wrote a lot of sitcom spec scripts and a few screenplays. I had an agent and began working with a partner, and had a lot of close calls in terms of selling stories and one of the screenplays, but it got very frustrating having so many close calls. Like a lot of people who are encouraged, I went through a lot of interesting experiences (chronicled humorously in the book) but ultimately focused on the music writing, where I was getting more respect and more money than I was ever able to make in Hollywood!

BJP: So when the America's Got Talent show was conceived by the makers of American Idol, you couldn't resist calling upon some of the talent that you have to see if you could possibly make your way back into 'show biz,' is that it?

TheFreds1.jpgJW: Kind of, but it’s doing a whole other thing. My original goals were to be a writer producer for television, not sing on TV, which is what my friend Fred and I (collectively known as The Freds) did on the first show of America’s Got Talent. Over the years, purely for fun, I did karaoke in various settings, and when I met Fred, we shared a mutual love for the one hit wonders of the 70s and 80s we grew up with…and karaoke was a fun and inexpensive way to hang out on the weekends. We didn’t have any specific act in mind, we just enjoyed singing together and we became real crowdpleasers on the karaoke circuit in the Burbank area. So when we heard about auditions for the show, we thought it would be fun to try out with all the strange folks who were bound to show up…we can carry a tune and we are definitely entertaining, but it shocked us when the evaluators liked what we did…and even more stunned when they called and said they wanted us to audition again on the main show stage at Paramount for the producers…suddenly we were onstage talking to Regis Philbin (the host), singing and entertaining the audience and having David Hasselhoff (one of the judges) tell us “You guys would be perfect to sing at a beach barbecue but not on this show!” So he got it that we were just having fun and hardly expected to win a million dollars. But the audience really liked us, and it was cool because we are not professionals so there was no pressure to get into the main competition. We also got to meet Simon Cowell, the show’s executive producer, who was very nice and told us, “You guys are good for the competition.” It was fun to go back to Paramount, home of Family Ties in the 80s, and do this instead of worrying about selling a script! Plus we got to meet all the other contestants on the show, many of whom were very talented and many of whom were weird, and the production team (many from American Idol) was really nice.

BJP: Tell us more about the talent that you and your friend have and how you share this talent every week around the LA area karaoke circuit.

JW: We were regulars at least twice a week at the Burbank Holiday Inn but have done it at different places (less regularly) since that venue closed a year ago. We have a repertoire of about 30 songs, all hits from the 70s and 80s that everyone who grew up then heard on Top 40 Radio. My friend Fred does comedy improvisation at Second City, and is an aspiring actor. I just do it for fun but maybe The Freds will have a career out of this. If William Hung could be famous, why not us? Reality TV gives people like us a chance to get our five minutes of fame! I really just enjoy making people laugh and smile, and not take life so seriously. I think there are karaoke singers all around America who like to have their moment in the spotlight. The one we got is just bigger. Obviously, the producers thought we were entertaining, and that’s all we really aspire to be considering our vocal limitations.

BJP: I've seen you perform live in a karaoke setting and I'd call it a quite 'commanding' performance -- total energy and dedication, you sing on key, you are simply 'on fire' about these favorite songs of yours. And a LOT of fun to watch. What was the reaction of people like the judges and others on the scene -- Regis Philbin and David Hasselhoff, to mention a few?

TheFreds2.jpgJW: Regis is just the host and I didn’t see how he reacted, but this is the breakdown on the show’s official judges. The British guy who is the Simon of the show, Piers Morgan (who was a big newspaper editor in England) didn’t get it at all but did say he thought we were fun. Brandy was born in 1979 and I’m sure never heard “Don’t Pull Your Love” so it didn’t connect with her…but she did like our Old Navy matching print shirts! Hasselhoff, who once recorded the other hit by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds himself, totally got what we were aiming for, with his beach barbecue remark. He acted like he thought we were fun but not right for a million dollar competition…which we already knew. Twice the next day, he said, Hey, how are the Freds doing? Once outside on the lot, the other when looking down from the judges table into the audience during a break. One of the producers of the show (and remember, this is the same group that does “Idol”) thinks we’d be great for corporate gigs. Another said of all the acts who didn’t “make it,” they were sorriest about us because everyone really liked us. Many of the other contestants came up and told us they enjoyed our performance as well. We’re sort of the crowd pleasers in between the great talent and the total Gong Show acts.

BJP: What is your personal reaction to being a part of this experience?

JW: It was really a fun experience, kind of surreal, and we got to meet a lot of interesting, strange and talented people…and sing on the biggest stage we were ever on. Plus it’s funny to think that the almighty Simon was watching us backstage, so he devoted five minutes of his life to “The Freds”! Also everyone on the show was very kind and attentive. It’s a great crew. Maybe if we can get enough people to write to NBC, they’ll have us back on the show like they do sometimes on the finale of Idol…Simon actually said, “people may like you and may want you back!” It was a great life experience, and one I’m sure thousands of karaoke singers across America would love to have!

BJP: Do you have a 'gut feeling' as to where this could lead you and Fred??

TheFreds4.jpgJW: Fred’s always fantasized about The Freds going on tour a la The Blues Brothers (another musical comedy act whose antics outshone their actual vocals), and TV is a powerful medium so who knows. Plus with internet marketing opportunities, you never know. Or it could just be a neat five minute thing and that’s the end of it. Either way, I know we’ll keep entertaining people. Whether we get paid for it, that’s the question. I’m enjoying the journey, wherever it leads. And it’s fun telling some of the musicians I know about it…so they can see me in a whole other way!

BJP: What's your advice for those who want to 'make it big' in the music/entertainment industry?

JW: That’s a question usually asked of people who have made it big. Have I made it big? Well, I make a living doing something I love, and am a Grammy voting member of the Recording Academy, so in a small way, yes, I suppose I have. Basically, I would say it’s about having the passion to do it…and showing up and not being afraid of rejection. As successful as I might appear as a writer to many, I can’t count the intense rejections I have received on my scripts and book projects. The journalism wasn’t really my first choice but when I started getting respect, I knew I was on to something. Follow your dream as far as it can go, but have the grace to adjust when you get to crucial crossroads, and there’s no shame in shifting gears. I love the stories artists tell me about the balance they have to strike between being commercial and being who they are. Usually success is a matter of both. Talent should be a given.

BJP: (tongue in cheek) Do you plan to give up music journalism and market yourself as an entertainer, if for nothing more than the parties of those celebrities who may have fallen in love with your style, or even better, if you triumph with the likes of anyone from Taylor Hicks to William Hung??

JW: I’m sure I’ll always be writing in some way, and I really enjoy what I do so I cant imagine abandoning it no matter what opportunities came my way. I’m sure if anything works out on the entertaining side, I would find a way to play a behind the scenes writing/scripting role. I will say however, that the idea of entertaining hundreds or thousands of people is probably more gratifying than seeing my name in print. I’ve been doing the writing so long, it’s not that big a deal anymore…but when I think of all the people who would love to be making a living doing something they enjoy, I am very grateful that I took the hard road and stayed on this path. As for Taylor, I think the fact that a guy who is more of a great and fun entertainer than a truly brilliant vocalist won Idol shows that America likes to be entertained and is ready for talent that isn’t in the typical cookie cutter mode. Enter the Freds! But seriously, I hope he can inspire a lot of people who work as hard as he did to “make it” for ten years to keep doing what they do best, and not give up.

Jonathan_Beverly.jpgBJP: Thanks, Jonathan, for spending some time with me so that musicians and others who keep up with your writing will know this other side of you that is quite fascinating!

JW: Thank you, too, and don’t forget to tune in Wednesday night!

BJP: No way would I miss this! That’s The Freds this Wednesday evening, June 21st, on America’s Got Talent, airing at 9 PM.

Posted by Beverly J. Packard at June 20, 2006 3:28 AM