When Mike Cornette was a student at the University of South Florida, the big deal on WUSF, the campus radio station, was the controversial “Underground Railroad” show. Groovy jocks played the hippest progressive rock tracks, some of them 20 or 25 minutes long.
Hey, it was the ’70s.
Cornette, a transplanted Canadian, was studying radio in 1974, “right when they decided to kick all those people off campus,” he remembers. “So the rock ‘n’ roll station went away. One day, they asked me if I knew anything about jazz; I said ‘Yeah, I know who Dizzy Gillespie is.’”
Good enough! Cornette was given the newly-revamped FM station’s Saturday-morning jazz program. “They said ‘Here’s two shelves of vinyl. Check them out.’ I checked them out and fell in love with it.”
When he left five years later, for a bigger and better-paying gig in Texas, he was WUSF’s full-time Jazz Director, with a midnight to 2 a.m. air shift.
Cornette, who returned to WUSF in 2008, and has been Jazz Director (again) for the last five years, is officially retiring. His last show airs live starting at 9 tonight.
Along with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and its history, Cornette brought to WUSF a burning desire to help create a Tampa Bay jazz scene. His on-air interviews with local players, hundreds of them, have become key building blocks. They come to the studio to talk – and to play.
“When I first came back,” Cornette says, “the Palladium was doing maybe one jazz show every other month. Then they started to be successful, so now there’s a little hub going on there. And the Floridian Social Club has jazz every Sunday.
“There was a point where Creative Loafing was asking us ‘Can you go out and see live jazz every day, seven days a week?’ And we said ‘Yeah! Here’s a list.’ Not in the same place – it would be nice if we could have a full-time, straight-ahead jazz club again.”
From the Tampa-based trio La Lucha:
La Lucha spent many late nights driving home from gigs, listening to the radio and sitting in driveways, waiting for the song to end, just to hear Mike tell us what we’ve been listening to and what part of the world that band/musician comes from. As a trio from different parts of the world, jazz is what brought us together. In our beautiful and strong jazz community, Mike has been that connector for us.
Mike’s unwavering support for La Lucha cannot be thanked enough. From playing our music on radio and inviting us to perform in the studio, to being on stage and hosting concerts, Mike helped us be heard and be seen.
Love you Madly, La Lucha
Alejandro, John, Mark
Cornette had spent almost 30 years in the music distribution business, based all over the country, before that 2008 re- relocation to Tampa Bay (his father, and his wife’s father, were living locally at the time).
Bob Seymour, WUSF’s then Jazz Director (and a good friend from the old days), convinced him to take a couple of overnight air shifts (for some, jazz is best received in the wee hours).
Five years ago, when Seymour retired, Cornette was hired as Jazz Director.
What does the title mean, exactly? “The primary role is putting a quality product on the radio,” Cornette explains, “and there’s a sort-of formula for that. You want to have certain types of music be represented. You don’t want to have vocalists back-to-back, necessarily. You want to vary the instrumentation. It’s a diverse color wheel, so you always want to try to have a very nice presentation.
It’s a lot of work. There’s a chart, Jazz Week, and there’s a lot of auditioning there. I got 500 CDs last year. I just counted, there are 16 different radio promo reps that are supplying product to radio stations.”
That’s all soon to be in the past. Although WUSF’s All Night Jazz programming will continue, it will do so without Mike Cornette.
He says he wanted to retire in 2008 – but the lure of turning people on to great jazz, and helping build a local jazz community, proved too strong.
This time, however … “I am 67, and I had a health issue during the summer, which turned out to be nothing,” Cornette says. “But during that interim I decided it was time to retire. It’s just felt like the right time to do it. While I’m healthy and can still do things.
“The first thing we did was book a Viking Cruise. We just got back from Europe three weeks ago.”
At 10 tonight, during his show, he’ll air some vintage audio – the 2019 Nate Najar Jazz Holiday concert, recorded live at the Palladium.
“Be sure to tune in,” he says, ever the promoter. “It’s a good one.”