KINGSTON, R.I. — November 18, 2019 — Pittsburgh lost jazz icon Ronald “Butch” Perkins in the spring. A jazz radio DJ who reached the height of his career in the 1980s and 1990s, Perkins hosted two- to three-hour shows interviewing jazz luminaries from across the country.
His shows captured an artist’s entire career, and even included rare facts about the artist or recordings the public hadn’t heard yet. Now, his personal archive of shows has been posthumously donated to the University of Rhode Island thanks to the coordination of Professor Emmett Goods.
Perkins was not a musician, but he had a way of connecting with his musical guests that not only forged a relationship between them and him, it also made the artists feel more connected to the Pittsburgh community, and vice versa.
Goods, a professor of jazz at the University grew up listening to Perkins’ show. “Butch was kind of a mentor to me,” he said. “He brought in people [to his show] who were really influential in the world of jazz and formed great relationships with those people. It really made me think that there was something special about jazz.”
Throughout his youth, Goods would periodically see Perkins at jazz shows, but most of his exposure to the DJ was through his radio show.
“Although Butch wasn’t a musician, he took his position as a DJ to bring in artists to the area that he thought were significant,” said Goods. “He brought in Betty Carter at the height of her success, shortly after her legendary performance on the Bill Cosby Show. That was one of the first times I went to a jazz show and it wasn’t just local musicians that I already knew, it was a major artist.
“Jazz is special because it’s a tangible art form,” Goods continued. “Superstars are somewhat untouchable, and can’t be truly understood. Jazz musicians are everyday people. You get to engage with them in a way that’s very real.”
It was shortly after Perkins died that Goods was reminded of the DJ’s personal archive of all of his shows and interviews. He realized the educational potential of the tapes, and thought they could be used to instill a love of jazz in his students as they did for him.
Calvin Stemley, a close friend of Perkins, coordinated the gift of the archive from Mr. Perkins’ family to the University. On Oct. 25, he played with the URI Jazz Band and accepted a plaque on behalf of Perkins and his work as a DJ and strong supporter of jazz. Stemley is a retired music educator from Pittsburgh Public Schools and continues to perform in the Pittsburgh area where he mentors young people and teaches them about music, especially jazz.
“Butch was a monumental figure in spreading the word of jazz,” said Stemley. “Listeners got really great knowledge firsthand about the music, the practices, what musicians did, and their different styles. His was the most informative jazz program Pittsburgh had, and he was highly respected among other disc jockeys.”
Once the tapes are digitized, students will get to listen to full interviews with jazz luminaries such as Joe Harris, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Kenny Washington, Jon Hendricks, Slide Hampton, Benny Green, Walter Davis Jr., and many more. Goods notes that there are about 80 cassette tapes, each about 90 minutes in length.
“This collection of recordings is unique,” said Goods. “Not a lot of institutions have a jazz archive, especially an audio archive like this. This puts URI in a unique position. If we do this right and really utilize and make known these recordings, more people might donate their recordings to us, and we could become a repository of such tapes. We’re in a really good position, as Rhode Island is responsible for one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world. We are known for being great hosts and ambassadors.
“We want this archive to be a living breathing thing, and due to the technology we have now, the recordings can be something that’s very accessible to everyone.”
Lauren Poirier, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and public relations and English major, wrote this press release.