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RIP Harrison Ridley Jr.

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Yea, I know he's not an artist, but...,.Jr./


Harrison Ridley, Jr., Jazz Educator, Historian, and Broadcaster, Dies at 70

Harrison Alexander Ridley, Jr., a lifelong devotee to what he called "The Positive Music," was an icon in the jazz world. His exuberance was shared with legions of radio listeners who, for over 32 years, tuned to WRTI-FM on Sunday nights when he hosted The Historical Approach to the Positive Music. Mr. Ridley died on February 19th after a brief illness. He was 70 years old and lived in West Philadelphia.

Fans from all over the world discovered Mr. Ridley on the dial, and recently found his show online at They enjoyed his encyclopedic knowledge presented in a friendly and relaxed style characterized by his signature phrase, "Yes Indeedy!" A tireless advocate for jazz history and education, his enthusiasm and knowledge were welcomed in the classroom, the community, and everywhere else he travelled. Mr. Ridley served as a consultant for the Library of Congress, and was recently presented with an honorary doctorate of music by Villanova University where he taught an Honors Course in African-American Music. During his career he was the recipient of over 80 awards and citations.

"On behalf of the WRTI community, both listeners and staff, it is with great sadness that we reflect on the significant loss of Harrison Ridley, Jr. to the jazz community," says WRTI's General Manager David. S. Conant. "The honors and the respect Harrison garnered in his lifetime were many and well deserved. But what I will remember most, along with his trademark 'Yes Indeedy!' is the broad and authentic smile with which he would greet me, along with the occasional bear hug. Knowledgeable, and sincere in his love of jazz, he was above all a gentleman and a truly gentle man."

Mr. Ridley grew up in West Philadelphia, the oldest of 10 children. His father, Harrison Ridley, Sr., loved music and brought home records for his children to enjoy; Jazz, R&B, and Gospel. Though his six sisters and three brothers were content to listen to the music, Ridley remembers that it wasn't enough for him. He had a passion for history, and he wanted to know the story behind each musician and his music. That curiosity took him to the library, where he began amassing notebooks of information.

He also had a passion for collecting. Originally he collected sports cards, but soon he began collecting music books and record albums. (His mother Katherine graciously put up with the clutter, as would his wife Janet years later.) Mr. Ridley also played the vibes in a neighborhood band and was a hoopster in the Philadelphia Basketball League, where he played for 22 years.

His early schooling was at Blankenburg Elementary School, and Shoemaker Junior High. After graduation from West Philly High School, Mr. Ridley was drafted into the Army and received training as a teletypist for the Signal Corps. And there he began sharing his love of jazz and his knowledge of its history with his Army buddies. "Being in the service was a wonderful two-year experience," he recalled. "I got technical training, played in the camp's basketball league, and taught jazz appreciation classes."

Back in civilian life, he took a job on the custodial staff of the Philadelphia Board of Education, working there for 37 years (30 of them without a single absence). And he continued collecting records and books and doing his research, which incorporated African-American history as well. It was the late '60s when he began lecturing on the history of black music at Philadelphia high schools and community centers. An auxiliary course developed as a result. "You can't understand the history of jazz without understanding African and African-American history and culture," he explained.

With his reputation as an anchor growing, he made several guest appearances on local radio and TV shows such as Malcolm Poindexter's Black Editions. It was in the early '70s that he became a familiar face at WRTI. He volunteered to help the student hosts put their shows together. Then in 1976, the station manager offered him his own show, the Sunday evening slot between 8 and midnight. Mr. Ridley recalled, "I didn't accept immediately. I had to think about it. It was a big commitment." It was, indeed, an enormous responsibility to do a quality four-hour show each week.

But as with everything he did, he took this commitment seriously, only missing three broadcasts during his 32-year tenure as host. This astounding accomplishment was done in the face of maintaining a full-time job, enjoying family life with a wife and daughter, and teaching workshops and classes at the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Clef Club, Temple University Center City, the Villanova University Honors Program, and the African-American Studies Department at Temple University.

In all, Mr. Ridley lectured at more than 30 colleges and universities along the East Coast, and was a member of the Duke Ellington Society and the John Coltrane Society. He won over 80 awards including the honorary doctorate from Villanova, an Award of Appreciation from the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, an Outstanding Services Award honoring 35 years of service to the community presented by PASCEP Temple University, and other honors from the University of Pennsylvania, Peco Energy Company, and the Parkway Program of the Philadelphia School District.

Fellow WRTI Jazz Host Bob Perkins says, "Harrison was the quintessential source of knowledge about jazz. If anyone had a question about a jazz subject, he was the final arbiter – the Supreme Court Judge of Jazz." Yes Indeedy!

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I had no knowledge of Mr. Ridley before this - my loss - but it seems from reading about him that he was definitely an artist.

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Oh no.

I listened to him for the past 25 years. What a character! He was a familiar site all over the city lugging around a big pile of LPs under each arm wherever he went. I just told my wife and she said,"You mean 'Mr.Yes Indeedy?' That's terrible." Truly a gentle soul who had a life long love affair with music. There was no bigger fan of Duke Ellington. None. He told me once that he saw Duke perform over a hundred 30 times*.

I took a non-credit jazz course with him about 8 years ago. It was very interesting because he knew sooooooo much about Philly jazz history - stuff that has never been written down and now unfortunately never will. The highlight of the class was when Harrison arraigned for us to attend a rehearsal of the Philly Legends of Jazz Orchestra. Leon Mitchell, Sam Dockery, and Butch Ballard were some of the members that turned up for the rehearsal. Afterwards we got to hang w/ them and heard them trade some amazing stories. One of the best nights of my life.

Rest In Peace, Harrison. You did good.

* = My memory is a little faulty this article says he *only* claimed to have seen Duke 30 times.


Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) - Sunday, February 25, 1996


Harrison Ridley Jr. arrived at the studio on crutches - ``me and my four legs,'' he joked - and held one staff member after another in a fatherly embrace. It had been a month since the veteran disc jockey slipped on ice and tore up his knee. And no smile was broader than his when he finally slipped behind a WRTI-FM (90.1) microphone just before 8 p.m. last Sunday.

``I'm back, y'all,'' he announced. Over the next hour, in a show dedicated to bandleader Mercer Ellington, who died Feb. 8, Ridley demonstrated why he's Philly's most sagacious jazz DJ.

He pointed out that Mercer was a fine composer who wrote ``Things Ain't What They Used to Be,'' a big hit for his father, Duke Ellington. He cued up seven of Mercer's choicest recordings, all long out of print. And he revealed some little-known facts: that singer Carmen McRae and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry all worked in Mercer Ellington's band. So did Johnny Hodges, said Ridley, although on one album he was credited simply as ``the ever beautiful alto sax great.'' Hodges couldn't be named, the DJ explained, because he was on another label.

``Yes, indeedy,'' said Ridley after a Hodges solo - a trademark expression he reserves to convey his highest approval.

For many, the phrase applies to Ridley himself, who last month marked his 20th anniversary with WRTI, which is owned by Temple University. The DJ, who will be honored by 'RTI tonight at a public concert and sold-out VIP dinner, has worked 30 years as a custodian. But he has so immersed himself in jazz history that he also has served as a consultant to the Library of Congress, and lectures at Temple's Center City Non-Credit Course Center and its Pan-African Studies Community Education Program.

Ridley's program, The Historical Approach to the Positive Music, has won more than 40 community awards and is a mainstay of WRTI programming. His soft, gentle baritone - which never conveys a hint of learned arrogance - can be heard on the station every Sunday from 8 to midnight.

Tonight's tribute - which will include a performance by pianist Kenny Barron and his trio at Temple's Mitten Hall - is rare acknowledgment for the 57-year-old disc jockey with a passion for collecting jazz recordings and documenting their history. (The concert will be broadcast live on WRTI at 9.)

To Ridley, jazz is America's classical music. His goal is to document its majesty and to showcase voices long muffled by oppression and neglect. ``Many people collect [recordings] commercially,'' he said. ``I collect to patch up history.''

Ridley's obsessiveness as a collector is legendary. The Philadelphia School District custodian doesn't own a car. Yet his jazz library holds 8,400 records, 6,500 books, 2,000 78s and nearly 300 CDs. (A purist, Ridley buys CDs only when the music isn't available on vinyl.)

His dad, who died in 1987, was Baptist; his mother, Catherine, 77, is Pentecostal. And while this oldest of 10 children professes not to follow any specific religion, his worldview recalls that of a gospel prayer-warrior.

He neither smokes nor drinks. He hasn't eaten red meat or pork since 1963. He's patient and kindly with students, whether they lionize him or try to trick him with tough questions. And in the mornings, he plans his lectures and meditates.

``I always tell students, `Love yourself - you create a halo. People will be drawn to you,' '' said Ridley, who lives in West Philadelphia with his wife and whose daughter, Jade, attends Penn State.

Ridley was a child when he got his first record - a 78-r.p.m. of Lionel Hampton's ``Flying Home.'' Later, he tried to play the xylophone and then the vibes, but stuck with neither. He confesses to knowing little about chord changes and music theory. But jazz history is another matter.

After graduating from West Philadelphia High School, where pianist McCoy Tyner was a classmate, Ridley joined the Army and used his salary to buy records. When he got out in 1964, he caught every jazz concert he could. Ridley said he was at Pep's Musical Bar, the famous jazz club at Broad and South, when saxophonist and flautist Yusef Lateef recorded his Live at Pep's LP in 1964.

Ridley has put most of his energy into Duke Ellington. He owns 595 Duke records and 69 CDs, his greatest trove by a single artist. He saw Ellington perform more than 30 times and has been writing a history of Duke, on and off, for 15 years. (The project is currently off; Ridley is working on a jazz history of Philadelphia.)

Ridley owes his radio show to Ellington and former WRTI music director Buddy Cohen. Ridley and Cohen met while scouring bins at the same record store. In 1975, when Cohen needed someone to do commentary during a 12-hour Ellington marathon, he asked Ridley.

Ridley carried 200 records to the studio and worked all 12 hours. The gig brought numerous requests for Ridley to deliver his jazz history rap on a show then called Blues Graveyard. He said he appeared so often that, in January 1976, WRTI managers finally said: ``This is your show.''

Above all, The Historical Approach has been a haven for musicians. Mercer Ellington always checked in when he was in town. So do Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Max Roach and others. ``Criticism isn't my thing,'' Ridley explained. ``I don't try to prove that I know the musicians better than they do.''

Nonetheless, Ridley can't disguise his erudition. ``He knows all the records I've been on better than I do, and I made them,'' observed Butch Ballard, drummer for Count Basie and Duke Ellington, among others.

From his seat in the studio, Ridley gets a good view of the rising jazz talent in his listenership. He remembers how, as a teenager, super-bassist Christian McBride would call the studio to ask about bass players on various cuts.

Ridley designs The Historical Approach to showcase musicians he feels never get their due. He said he loves to focus on arrangers and women artists in particular, and presents a show on pianist Mary Lou Williams the first Sunday of every year because ``she's still dramatically underrated.''

He logs every tune he plays into a spiral-bound notebook that takes at least two years to fill. If a listener can't recall a song he heard two Sundays ago at 10:15, Ridley digs up the title. He averages more than 50 calls a show.

Ridley was the iron man of jazz radio, never missing a program or a day of work until the blizzard of 1996. That slip on the ice put him on his back for a month and required physical therapy. Ridley could no longer take the bus to the studio.

The hiatus only made him more eager to get back.

``Music is my mental therapy,'' he said.

Edited by J.H. Deeley

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Someone I met at the Sonny Fortune show at Chris' Cafe this past Saturday night told me about this and it makes me sad for two reasons mostly. Firstly, I kick myself for slacking off in my listening to our local jazz station, just have been caught up in listening to the iPod in the car. Secondly, I don't recall reading anything in the local rags at all, which is quite disappointing.

I first learned of this jazz "thing" when I was a sophomore in high school and fell in love w/ playing trumpet in the jazz band. Harrison Ridley Jr, through his show on Sunday nights, "Historical Approach to the Positive Music", succeeded in transforming my casual curiosity about jazz into a raging passion and hunger for more. The show lasted from 8pm-12midnight and each week was dedicated to different artists, periods in said artists' lives', groundbreaking groups, big bands, decades, you name it.

I would often tune in while trudging through homework I procrastinated on earlier that weekend. Being a newbie to world of jazz, and a budding trumpet player, I had no idea who to listen to, but Harrison fixed that right away. He often focused on specific artists close to their respective birth dates. One that stands out in my mind is when I became aware of Blue was a night dedicated to Horace Silver, and Harrison was playing Juicy Luicy. I thought, "Man this is great! I have to tape this and go back to it later, find out who these people are!" I did this over and over and over again. It was a John Coltrane feature when I first learned who the heck Lee Morgan was!! Harrison sucked me in from the moment the needle dropped to Sidney Bechet's 'Blue Horizon' (the show's opening theme)

It was usually every other week or so after school when I walked to this little family-owned CD store in my hometown(which unfortunately is long gone, not my hometown ^_^ , the store) and spent a couple hours looking through their catalog. They only had a few jazz titles in stock but could order just about everything and the prices were to die for so I could order two, three...six at a time and not put too much of a dent in my Wawa paycheck. You can imagine that within a school year my collection grew from about 5-6 CDs and audiotapes, to something closer to about 40-50 discs of pure musical gold with people I previously never heard of..Hank Mobley, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell, The Brecker Brothers, Donald Byrd, Dave Holland, Cannonball Adderley, Jerome Richardson, Roy Hargrove, and so, so many more.

Harrison's show seemed timeless and while driving last night I turned on 'RTI expecting to hear "Yes indeedy, now we're gonna hear a tune recorded..." For a split second I forgot and then realized he's no longer with us. It doesn't mean I can't look up though and thank him for the amazing world he opened up for me.

Thank you Harrison,


Edited by Templejazz

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I wanted to say more about Harrison but wasn't finding the words, not being very wordy to begin with. But I read another thread on Bill Withers mentioning his first three albums and it struck me that the personalities were very similar - plainspoken, soulful and down to earth in the extreme. Make no mistake, his main interest was in jazz and he had relatively little involvement in popular music, but when I ask myself how to let another music fan what Harrison was like, well this fits. Yes Indeedy.

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