All that jazz

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Harry Riser, 86, continues his love of big bands through a weekly radio program

By Navar Watson

About 10 years ago, Indianapolis resident Harry Riser was dining with his wife at a sidewalk café in Chicago when a strange woman recognized his resonant voice and approached him.

“You’re Harry Riser,” she said, which he confirmed. “I listen to you every week!”

People in Chicago craved jazz music, she claimed, but there was no local radio station that played it. Surely enough, when Riser returned to the radio studio in Indianapolis, his manager confirmed hundreds of listeners in Chicago, as well as Los Angeles and New York.

Born in Vincennes, Ind., 86 years ago, Riser is primarily known for his work as a magician. But for 25 years, he has hosted a radio program, “Grand Big Bands,” through WICR-FM, The Diamond 88.7 at the University of Indianapolis.

Now living at The Wellbrooke of Westfield health center, he continues this passion today despite his reliance on a wheelchair.

“My leg doesn’t work real good, but I can still talk into the microphone,” Riser said. “My voice hasn’t been affected.”

The New York Times once reported that more than 400 different big bands existed in the genre’s heyday, Riser said. In his room alone, he has the recordings of more than 300.

“If you want to hear all the big bands that ever were,” Riser said, “keep listening on Sundays and you’ll hear them sooner or later.”

“Grand Big Bands” airs every Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. The three one-hour episodes feature his choice of big band music and a number of stories about the artists.

A jazz fan for decades, Riser has met countless artists – among them, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Les Brown.

“I could tell you 20 stories about Les Brown,” Riser said. “We were good friends.”

Sophomore communication major Katie Keihn has helped Riser record his program at UIndy since the beginning of the summer. She said she is inspired by Riser’s stories every day, especially the ones about his celebrity friends.

“You don’t get that interaction today with our artists,” she said. “He got to speak with them on a personal level … He was a part of their lives.”

Keihn, production director at WICR, will be recording with Riser every week until she graduates. She considers him a “joy” to work with.

Coming in with a smile on his face, Riser often jokes around in the studio, Keihn said. In a recent recording session, he spoke in a German accent for no particular reason.

“He’s a light in a dark tunnel to me,” Keihn said. “He’s so much fun, and listening to him do what he does best is incredible.”

Having Riser in the studio is a great learning experience for communication majors, professor Russ Maloney, WICR director of programming, said.

Though Riser had no previous training in radio, he has “just a fantastic voice” and a knack for telling compelling, first-hand stories.

“A good radio broadcast today isn’t that different from a good radio broadcast 75 years ago,” Maloney said. “Telling stories is … the most important thing.”

In Oct. 2013, the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation inducted Riser into their Hall of Fame, not only in recognition for his radio program but also for his enduring promotion of jazz.

Riser’s “dynamic personality” and energy have “done nothing but endorsed jazz,” said Gene Markiewicz, foundation president.

Drummer for the Farrelly/Markiewicz Jazz Quartet, Markiewicz himself was inducted in 2011. He and other members of the 20-year-old foundation recalled Riser attending nearly every jazz function in town.

Markiewicz called jazz “America’s true art form.” It takes an effort to appreciate it, he said, and though some people don’t understand it, “that’s okay.”

“Some people will make you feel guilty for not knowing enough about jazz, which is wrong,” Markiewicz said. “But Harry doesn’t do that. He knows his audience. He’s a pro.”

Keihn said many students at the university listen to WICR’s Top 40 hits station, rather than the big band program. Keihn, however, has become a jazz fan after working with Riser.

“Working on this station, I’ve kind of fallen in love with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, and also Billie Holiday,” she said. “You find the people that you really kind of connect with.”

88.7 WICR is the only jazz station in Indianapolis. Maloney said about 6,500 people tune in at any time during Riser’s program. He said the program will always continue, despite how many people listen to it.

“He will do that show as long as he wants to do it,” Maloney said. “If nobody listens [to it], I don’t care. The show is there.”

Despite his disabilities, Riser continues to have his grandson drive him to UIndy every week. To Riser, playing big band music never gets old.

“There is a thrill that comes from hearing a chord played by five trumpets or four trombones,” Riser said. “I liked that sound. I still like it today.”

“Grand Big Bands” airs every Sunday from 2 until 5 p.m. on WICR-FM The Diamond 88.7, or on the radio’s website. The program is also available through iHeart Radio and Tune In Radio.

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