The Troy Street Observer

Dec 20: Norm Nathan’s Sounds in the Night

Norm Nathan, born on this date in 1925, hosted Sounds in the Night, a jazz program on Boston’s WHDH-AM, from 1956 to 1968. Each weeknight, from 11:30 to 5:30, Nathan would spin records and interview guests.

Photo of Norm Nathan
Norm Nathan, 1960

Nathan started in radio in 1944, but it wasn’t until he arrived at WMEX in 1952 that he played a jazz record on the air. His own shows were mundane, but he could play better music when he filled in for Nat Hentoff as host of Jazz Album. Nathan was out of radio for a time after WMEX, and was hired at WHDH in 1956.

Nathan was supposed to play easy-listening pop music through the overnight hours, but he began slipping jazz records into the mix, and night owls started listening. He added more jazz and found more listeners, especially among the college crowd. Eventually he had the show he wanted, or close to it. In 1958, Basie supplied a suitable theme song, “Midnite Blue.”

Describing his show, Nathan told Metronome in 1960: “It’s basically middle of the road. I play Basie, Ellington, the (Four) Freshmen, Christy, Sinatra, the Hi-Lo’s, Garner, Jamal, Red Garland, Brubeck, Miles. And it seems to attract both jazz fans and those listeners whose tastes are several notches above rock and roll, but not necessarily geared to jazz. You could say that the basic philosophy of Sounds in the Night is to gather as large an audience as possible without sacrificing musical integrity.”

Nathan played records, but he was also a perceptive interviewer, and performers often stepped off stage at Storyville or Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike and went straight to the WHDH studios in Park Square. Lennie Sogoloff told me: “Norm Nathan had a great show, and often when we’d close the club at one, I’d grab the artist and we’d head down and get on the show. Once Buddy Rich and I stayed until about dawn. We didn’t start back to the club for his car until 5:00 in the morning. It was good exposure. We always took advantage of that free advertising.”

Among those Nathan interviewed were Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Horace Silver, Sarah Vaughan, and one world-famous jazzman who kept nipping on a bottle of vodka through the interview, to no good effect.

By 1968, Nathan was the last of those popular Boston jazz DJs with radio homes on the AM band still active. The others—Hentoff, Speed Anderson, Bob Martin, Ken Malden, John McLellan, Symphony Sid Torin—were in other cities or out of radio. That year, WHDH ended his run when it reassigned him to an afternoon show, a slot during which he couldn’t play jazz. That’s when Nathan’s persona as the droll and sometimes wacky humorist took shape.

Nathan moved to WEEI in 1974, then to WRKO, and finally in 1984 to WBZ, where he again found a home on the overnights, with a popular weekend talk show that he continued until his death in 1996.

Only one thing to play here, “Midnite Blue,” in remembrance of late-night jazz on the radio and the local voices who played it. As the song ends, don’t forget to add Nathan’s signoff: “Bye-bye, Old Sport.”

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