Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tony Mowod

tony mowod
Tony Mowod from Public Broadcasting Guide

Hey, jazz in Pittsburgh has a long and storied legacy with enough greats to fill a Leo Tolstoy novel. And there's no danger of it slipping away from the City's affection, at least as long as Tony Mowod is around to carry its torch.

Born Najeba Samreny (Mowod is his pap's first name), the son of Lebanese immigrants, he grew up in the Hill and lived above "John's," his dad's restaurant, located on the corner of Bedford and Washington avenues.

Mowod went to Epiphany grade school in the Lower Hill, across from the Civic Arena, and was taught piano by the Mercy nuns. From there, he went off to Central Catholic, where he developed his taste for jazz and starting taking vibraphone lessons. After graduating, Mowod crossed the street from his old elementary school and enrolled at Duquesne.

Jazz and the stage wrestled for his attention in those days. He was a player with the university's Red Masque and spun a jazz show at WDUQ. Mowod eventually dropped out of the Bluff school to chase his acting dreams in the Big Apple. But music and scripts kept their tug-of-war tensions pulling on his soul.

Chuck Grodin was his roomie for a while, and he trod the stage in off-Broadway roles. Hey, he was even one of the finalists for the "Uncle Tanoose" role on the Danny Thomas TV show.

He had a 9-to-5 office gig to pay the rent, and played the vibraphone three nights a week with a trio. But he left New York to come home and get married, fully intending to return and make a grab for the brass ring.

We know how that works out in real life. Mowod's roots took hold, and he raised his family here. That's a familiar story for Pittsburgh musicians; the City has been blessed in that many of its artists stepped into the glare of the bright lights and decided home was where their heart was, after all.

Mowod worked in local radio, but his bread-winner was running supper clubs. He operated the Cedars Lounge, the Vogue Terrace Dinner Theater, which burned down (both were in East McKeesport), and finally Antonio's, a Downtown bistro.

It closed in 1976, and Mowod was broke. He became a Servico manager while doing a weekend jazz show on WAMO after stints at WAZZ, WTAE, WKPA and WYDD (he was named the “Radio Personality of the Year” from 1967-69).

The next decade was a struggle, but by the late eighties it all came together when his jazz show on WDUQ took off and the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, his brainchild, was born.

He's spent the past couple of decades producing and broadcasting "The Night Side" jazz show, one of WDUQ's mainstay programs. It's been syndicated since 1997 as JazzWorks and reaches some 60 markets. Mowod's Quincy Jones' theme of "The Quintessence" is followed by jazz that's in tune with the average jazz joe.

That's earned him an occasional potshot for shunning the be-bop and avant garde artists and not pushing local players more heavily. But what he spins works; mainstream jazz has always been pooh-poohed by the hardcore followers, though it's what the majority of listeners want to hear. You can't please all the people all the time...but 95% of them is a pretty good catch.

But a darker cloud looms. Whether there will be a Mowod show to tune into at all in the future is the $64,000 question. WYEP's purchase of the station has raised concerns about WDUQ's continued commitment to jazz programming, and the end result is yet to be determined, or at least announced.

While the status of Night Side may be up in the air, the PJS will be around no matter what. Its mission statement says it all "...(an) all volunteer organization, dedicated to the promotion, preservation and perpetuation of all jazz. This is accomplished through education, performance, partnering and community outreach for members and the general public."

And it does all that.

Since Mowod founded it in 1987, the organization has a web site, started a Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame and awarded over a quarter of a million dollars in scholarship money to student musicians, raised through dues and events.

They've held a Winter JazzFest, Jazz Cruises on the Gateway Clipper, Caribbean Cruises, the "Jazz Train," "Jazz Day in the Park," a smorgasbord of concerts, and been recognized by both the Allegheny County Commissioners and Pittsburgh City Council - and you know how often they agree on anything.

Mowod himself has received his share of recognition; he's earned more awards than Old Mon has gray hairs (and that's more than your fingers and toes can tote up, unless you're related to a centipede). Here's a select list:

California University of Pennsylvania awarded him the “Excellence in Jazz Promotion Award” for both 1989 and 1990. In 1992, he was presented with a plaque by the River City Brass Band for “Outstanding Contribution to the Growth and Development of Jazz.” In 1998 he was honored as the "Radio Entertainer of the Year" by Showtime. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette selected Mowod as one of the "Top 50 Cultural Power Brokers of Pittsburgh" in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

In 2000, he was chosen by Vectors/Pittsburgh as the “Man of the Year in Arts and Music” and received the Harry Schwalb "Excellence in the Arts Award for Jazz" by Pittsburgh magazine. In 2001 he was the recipient of the “Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting Award for Radio” of the Pittsburgh Radio and Television Club. In 2003, he was again picked as one of the "Top 50 Cultural Forces in Pittsburgh" by the PPG. In 2004 Mowod was inducted into the Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame.

In 2007 he took home the Talk Magazine/Walt Harper "All that Jazz" award, in 2009 he was named a "Champion of Jazz" by the Washington Jazz Society, and last year he was honored as a Jefferson Awards winner for his work with the Pittsburgh Jazz Society.

As always, if you want something done, find a busy man to do it. Mowod is also an Adjunct Professor of Jazz History at Duquesne University School of Music, and serves on the boards of the American Federation of Jazz Societies and Pittsburgh First Night, along with being an advisor for Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies.

And he's never quite shaken the acting bug; he still does summer stock plays. To pass the time, he also writes liner notes for local jazz releases and is active in church projects.

Busy dude, that Tony Mowod, and that's a good thing for Pittsburgh's current jazz scene and also its legendary players of the past. As he reminds his audience, "Keep a bit of love in your heart, and a taste of jazz in your soul." He's living proof of what that can accomplish.

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