Over his decades on the radio, Bob Seymour can't count the number of times he has been asked if jazz is dying.
"People were saying it was dying about 50 years ago," he said. "The answer is it's evolving. It's not going to die away."
So shall it be across Tampa Bay as Seymour, for 35 years the host and jazz music director for WUSF-FM 89.7, retires next week. His last edition of Saturday Night Jazz will air at 9 p.m. Saturday, ending an era in the community's jazz scene.
Seymour, who turns 66 on Monday, grew up in small-town Illinois, about 100 miles outside Chicago, and studied music at the University of Illinois. Playing trombone for a living didn't pan out, but he was insatiably curious about music and found he could put that knowledge to work on the radio.
"I was the kind of kid who read the fine print on an album and tracked down who was who," he said. "I often didn't know what in the world I was hearing, being 14 and hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or being 18 and hearing Miles (Davis). But it always made me come back for more."
Over the years at WUSF, he has interviewed and hobnobbed with heroes like Chick Corea, Dick Hyman, Nat Adderley, Joe Henderson and J.J. Johnson. He's also president of the Tampa Jazz Club, and a prominent booster of local music in general.
Since officially announcing his retirement Thursday, he said he has been struck by an outpouring of interest and appreciation.
"I may just make this like a Who farewell tour," he said, "and do it every year."
Here's what Seymour had to say in an interview Thursday:
This doesn't mean you're giving up on jazz, does it?
(Laughs.) Not at all. I'll still be very much part of the jazz community in one way or another. It might mean I can listen to what I feel like listening to, rather than what's piling up on the desk. The new releases never stop showing up, and sometimes, you have to pay attention to the stuff that's kind of iffy, rather than just listening to the stuff you know you're going to love. I'm curious to see where my listening will go from here.
What was the status of jazz on the radio when you started?
Even then, jazz was pretty much the province of noncommercial, listener-supported radio. WUSF, for example, played jazz every night, but it was only midnight until 2. Living in Sarasota, I listened to the jazz that was just on those couple hours a night. That's one thing I'm very happy about, is we've been supported by the listeners and by management to where it's now 60 hours a week of jazz.
What has changed more over the past 35 years, jazz music or the radio industry?
That's a good question. Jazz has evolved, and had its ups and downs in terms of public exposure. But radio has probably changed more, both in the way it's done operationally, and in the whole marketplace of media that's grown up around it. But I'm still a partisan of radio.
Sometimes, it's hard for the general public to think or care about jazz unless something major happens. Like last year, when Ornette Coleman or Allen Toussaint died, there was a bit of a resurgence in their music. Young people were talking about it in ways that they hadn't before.
That does happen, that something in the news will galvanize public opinion for a bit, whether it's somebody dying or somebody winning the Pulitzer Prize. Movies are coming out now about Chet Baker and Miles Davis; that's something we would be smart to capitalize upon. I know we will be here at WUSF.
In what kind of shape are you leaving the Tampa Bay jazz landscape?
Oh, there are so many terrific players on this scene. They may not get the attention that they deserve. But if you keep your ear to the ground in this community, I find that at the end of any given month, I've heard a hell of a lot of good music.
What do you hope people take away from your final Saturday Night Jazz show?
I hope they get a little insight — I hope I get a little insight — into what music first really reached me. I'm having fun looking through old records and trying to remember which ones I bought when I was in high school. I'll be leaning a little more toward some of my favorites and music that's always resonated with me.
Do you still have your trombone? You should bring it out.
No, I think I sold that for meal money when I was in college. But I did buy a flute in my 20s and used to play it, and I think in retirement, I might get that fixed up and go at it again. Maybe I'll become a working musician yet.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.