The disc jockey known for his eclectic, innovative program, first on WNEW in New York and now on NPR, chronicles a life shaped by his passion for “the American Songbook.”
The author comes by his affection for golden-age American popular music naturally, as the son of Arthur Schwartz, composer of “Dancing in the Dark” and other standards. Born in 1938, Jonathan was enough of a baby boomer to wind up at WNEW in 1967, just as it made the influential switch to free-form programming of rock that briefly liberated FM radio from the tyranny of Top 40. His current program mingles the best from both worlds, but it’s the years in between that mostly concern Schwartz in this memoir, notable for its elegant, if occasionally rather elliptical prose and its frankness about the author’s heavy drinking and tortuous personal relationships. (His two children, ex- and current wife, however, get only brief, circumspect mentions.) By his own account, Schwartz was an odd, intense kid. When the family lived in Beverly Hills, he sneaked into other people’s houses just to sit in the closet and observe them; when they moved to Manhattan he used a baby monitor to broadcast his own radio station. His mother, gravely ill throughout his childhood, died in 1953; Schwartz did not, to put it mildly, get along with his stepmother, and relations with Arthur were strained. He drifted into adulthood unsure how to translate his worship of Sinatra and other classic interpreters of American song into a viable career. The various radio stints are here, along with the girlfriends (some married) who kept wearily asking him to turn down the stereo and Schwartz’s modestly successful efforts as a fiction writer and a cabaret singer. The author settles a few personal scores but avoids seemingly unduly self-serving; even the famous spat with Sinatra over his on-air comments about the Trilogy album is recounted in fairly measured tones. The touching finale, after an Arthur Schwartz celebration at Lincoln Center in 2001, affirms Jonathan’s love for his father and the American Songbook.
Mannered but ultimately moving.