It’s the end of an era tonight on my local public radio station, KHSU. After eighteen years of “Classic Jazz Variety,” the amiable, easygoing, good-humored Barry Thorpe is hanging up his headphones and abandoning us for Bali.
Barry’s no stranger to classic instrumental jazz: his playlists feature plenty of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and the like. But he’s partial to vocals, preferably playful, witty—okay, “novelty”—vocals. (Phil Harris, Danny Kaye, and Spike Jones loom large in the CJV universe, and Barry’s longtime theme song is Jimmie Lunceford’s “I’m Nuts About Screwy Music,” with alto saxophonist Willie Smith suavely handling the mic.)
And when Barry says variety, he means variety: stride, swing, western swing, bebop, blues, Broadway, music-hall, mambo, chanson…they’re all part of the weekly offering. Oh—and calypso. I first tuned in to Barry’s program in the fall of 1995, having just moved to Humboldt County and begun my first semester of full-time college teaching. And so I wasn’t sure I could trust my ears when, strung-out and exhausted and collapsed on the couch one Wednesday in early September, I suddenly heard the Roaring Lion coming out of my radio. (I think the tune was “Love Thy Neighbor.”) Granted, my little college town was just a few miles down the northern California coast from the fishing village of Trinidad, and even then Humboldt State University had a well-established steelband, led by the indefatigable Eugene Novotney. But I never imagined I’d be living in a place where Golden Age calypso plied the airwaves. (Over the years, I’ve heard Barry play Sir Lancelot and Lord Executor and The Caresser and possibly even a latter-day tune or two by Melody, but Lion holds pride of place in his calypso pantheon. Even as I write this, he’s spinning Lion’s 1939 “Bing Crosby”—”one of the best tunes ever written,” Barry opines matter-of-factly.) In short, I was gobsmacked. I called the station to talk to the amazing being responsible for this miracle, and Barry deflected my astonishment with grace, humility, and reciprocal interest.
And so I’ve gotten to know Barry a little over the years—he even asked me to sub for him once on “Classic Jazz Variety” when he was off vacationing in the South Pacific—and I’ve never known a gentler, more generous soul. (Or anyone with such a catholic knowledge of the more delightfully eccentric music of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.) It’s hard to believe so many years have disappeared. And now Barry has digitized and sold his 78s, ready to ride off into the Pacific sunset. I know it’s a (fictional) place, not a valediction, but: Bali Ha’i, Barry.