He talks to our wives in our bedrooms. He speaks to them softly, slipping them the powerful pill of music. He knows they are listening to him, this Bohemian-voiced night fly with the nursery-rhyme last name. He knows there's nothing innocent about jazz. It will break your heart, steal your woman, then buy you a Scotch.
"He's as good as anybody I've heard in this country doing jazz," says Baltimore talk show host Marc Steiner.
He is Andy Bienstock. The shy cat in a fedora has been at WJHU-FM (88.1) since it was 10-watt student station and Bienstock, a Johns Hopkins political science major, dropped by for a job that has lasted 13 years. At 37 (only), he's the station's veteran -- a New Yorker with a Yankees photo montage on his desk next to pinups of his main man, Frank Sinatra.
Bienstock's jazz show is an island of local music in the station's sea of public affairs and news. From 8: 30 p.m. to midnight (9: 30-midnight on Mondays), Bienstock swivels in WJHU's control room and sees himself in the reflection of the studio's glass. What does he see? A melancholy man alone with his moods and with a disembodied audience of one or one thousand? He's playing music for someone out there. This is a fun gig, but it's also a perpetual audition.
"It's a cool job. I don't disagree," he says. "But you want to come off well. You don't want to be a weenie or a jerk."
Nights at WJHU, it's just Bienstock, his phantasmic reflection, a coffee pot (he takes his java black), a messy music library (his doing), the air conditioning (which can make odd noises at night) and enough stamina to cruise uneventfully until midnight -- barring any thunderstorm that might knock the air out of the public station.
Like the jazz he exposes, Bienstock's program is improvisation. He's never more than one song ahead of himself. As he listens to one song, he plots the follow-up. They must make a fun, sensible couple; maybe Carmen McRae followed by Sarah Vaughan in a seamless segue leading Bienstock to the top of the hour and news from National Public Radio.
There are no play lists. No memos from bosses to pretend to follow. Bienstock plays what he feels like playing. "I make it up as I go along." What his mood calls for. "Days and nights have moods, and I don't think it's just me," Bienstock says.
"If you get really lucky," he says, "you catch the mood of the night."
Shadows and light
Andrew Mark Bienstock's night begins at 6 p.m. at the Charles Street studios of WJHU. Nothing is emptier than a radio station at night. All activity is on pause. All shadows and light. It's perfect for hide-and-seek or snooping around to see what kind of magazines are on Steiner's desk. Perfect for talking to yourself for six hours and wondering whether this is the onset of insanity. And why do bosses lock their doors at night?
On Bienstock's desk, there are cuddly pictures of Andy and Karen Fazekas, his longtime girlfriend. Five years ago they moved into a 100-year-old Victorian house in downtown Annapolis (the interior is Southern Living stock). He works nights; she works days in retail; and sometimes they meet in the middle. And Bienstock doesn't mind if you slip and call Karen his wife. Karen and her two teen-age sons are his family.
"The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz," "The Book of Baltimore Orioles Lists," and "How Proust Can Change Your Life" list on Bienstock's desk at the radio station. The mail rains promotional CD's, too many to test-listen, too much bad music piling up on his desk, Bienstock says. Near a Russell Baker column, Bienstock has pinned the headline, "Yanks Sweep Into History." This was a little boy, after all, who had a Yankees uniform with Mickey Mantle's Number 7 stitched to its back.
Now the boy wears a 7 3/8 fedora, which lounges on the shelf over his desk. "Hats are my one affectation," he says.
In his hat, Bienstock looks like Leon Redbone. Out of his hat, he looks like Frank Zappa or maybe a skinnier Inspector Clouseau. And his last name is Austro-Hungarian -- it's not Jack and the Bienstock.
"I've heard that I sound like an old man with a bow tie and a crew cut. I've also heard that I sound black -- which, of course, is the highest compliment for a jock playing jazz," Bienstock says.
And what about his voice? No one would guess that he's stuffed up all the time from year-round allergies. His sound is beatnik-y, not much of a bottom range, but a sweet tempo. Try describing it.
"His voice is, well, you're putting me on the spot," says WJHU's program director Terry Trouyet. "He has the type of voice that is flexible." Program directors like flexible: It's not sexy, but it's practical. A half dozen times a year, Bienstock substitutes for Steiner on his call-in program. It's a chance for Bienstock to sweat a little and talk to human beings not named Andy.
"I love Andy. He amuses me," Steiner says. "And he makes good scotch."
One nameless night ("Is is Tuesday or Wednesday?"), Bienstock pulls an Eddie Higgins CD out minutes before his show. "I like to start gently." We've never heard of Higgins; that's why Bienstock is here. But he's not been put on the radio planet to stump the audience by playing obscure records.
"I don't aim at real jazz fans," he says. "Real jazz fans have incredible record collections and don't need me to tell them what is good."
Bienstock aims for a general audience who might not know that Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" is the greatest jazz record, period, turn the lights out. But they will be converted. "That's kind of a test. I play 'Kind of Blue,' and if they don't get it, they're not going to get jazz."
Five minutes before his 8: 30 show, Bienstock is still sitting through "The Connection," a pre-recorded call-in program. Bienstock loathes the host's tone. Bienstock's radio god is NPR's Carl Kassell. He also likes Howard Stern -- for about 15 minutes. He likes Tony Kornheiser in Washington and ESPN's "SportsCenter" all the time.
At 8: 30 p.m. Bienstock opens with Eddie Higgins, then something from Sonny Rollins on TT2 (Turntable No. 2). Bienstock believes in the moral and spiritual superiority of vinyl to compact disc. The fidelity isn't better; the small print on CD liner notes will drive you blind, and the cases break all the time.
To hold in your hands Dexter Gordon's seminal, double-album "Homecoming" is to feel music's rough edges again.
The day before his night shift, we pick up Bienstock for lunch in Annapolis, a seafood place overlooking Ego Alley. Samuel Adams and Clipper City pints arrive promptly. "I love gimlets," Bienstock says, offering liner notes on the making of a gimlet: Bombay Sapphire gin, Rose's lime juice, stir, pour into a chilled martini glass. "That's one thing I learned from Sinatra," Bienstock says. Always have a martini glass chilled and ready.
Observing Bienstock in daylight reminds us of any guy with the whole day on his hands. Having sacrificed his nights, he takes his sweet time reading the morning paper. He can be grumpy if he wants to be. He does not listen to the radio. And he frequents the gym to do something called power pacing.
"I'd be happy if I could read all day," Bienstock says. He loves Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker's books. That Spenser is a man's man: great cook, loves a good Gimlet, has a smart, fun girlfriend and can beat up any bad guy. Spence probably knows jazz, too.
On to dessert at some cool, New Yorky place in Annapolis, featuring a body-snatching German chocolate cake. In a glorious revelation, Manhattan born-and-raised Andy admits to falling asleep to James Taylor's greatest hits. Andy and his younger brother, Mike, were Springsteen disciples, and if Andy could have scored a ticket, he would have promptly excused himself from work last week to see Bruce at the MCI Center.
"I didn't start liking jazz until I was 17," Bienstock says. "I heard a saxophone solo, and it moved me to tears." In the age of cheap albums, Bienstock amassed a U-Haul's worth of jazz records. From 1982 to 1986, he was the jazz buyer for Record & Tape Collectors on Cold Spring Lane before leaving to work full-time at WJHU.
"I thought he would come back to New York. But he married the JHU radio station," says his father, Martin Bienstock, 78. "On his summer breaks, he wanted to stay in Baltimore and keep the station going."
Johns Hopkins brought Andy to Baltimore, but the political science major never finished. He was 19 when his mother died of lung cancer. Sapped of interest and focus, Bienstock dropped out of Hopkins. He believes his father had wanted him to be a lawyer or doctor. "No, I didn't," Martin Bienstock says. "Possibly a historian or something of that type."
Either way, he never imagined his son would be a jazz cat. Or who knew that Andy's brother, Mike, would become a cameraman and be credited on the new "Star Wars" movie? A film nut and a jazz cat -- the Bienstock Boys.
"All my life, people have jobs, but it's just what they do for a living," Martin Bienstock says. "Andy is one of the few people I've known who really loves what he does."
All that jazz
"Did you know that Jack Webb was a terrific jazz fan?" Bienstock asks off-air at WJHU. The question momentarily stuns us. The image of Sergeant Friday grooving to John Coltrane ruptures the imagination, but we trust Bienstock's information. He is, after all, in his element.
A radio station is like a ship at sea, always moving, always needing someone to stand watch. The equipment all looks so serious, but humor occasionally leaks out on deck. "No Food in Studios or Control Room," reads a sign over a cart rack. But "Food" has been crossed out and replaced with "Fun." There's also the requisite "Do not push the thermostat past 75 degrees or we will roast" warning. Bienstock wrote that one.
For his next set, he plays something by a young Herbie Mann on flute. Then, the workhorse "Moody's Mood" is performed by King Pleasure, singing, "What is all this talk of loving me, my sweet?" Someone in bed is listening.
Bienstock gets maybe four calls tonight, and one is from another disc jockey just calling to say hello. After an NPR newsbreak, Bienstock runs a "Car Talk" promo, then tells listeners water restrictions are voluntary, then fades up a Richie Cole-Phil Woods, sax-on-sax collaboration. Jazz is a collaborative effort, which explains a jock's habit of listing every musician on a track. It's poor taste not to mention a Bill Evans or Gerry Mulligan solo. "It slights people," Bienstock says.
Jazz can be a disc jockey's best friend. Its liner notes read like scientific journals. Not only is every musician credited, the music is dissected. " 'So What' is a simple figure based on 16 measures of one scale, eight of another and eight more of the first, following a piano and bass introduction in free rhythmic style," read the notes from "Kind of Blue."
"People ask me how do I know so much about jazz," Bienstock says. "I read the liner notes."
Jazz can be a smoker's best friend. Before he quit smoking five years ago, Bienstock had his "10-minute rule." He'd play a typically long jazz cut, duck out of the studio and commence smoking. Heck, some jazz recordings give you enough time to go to Royal Farms and buy a pack.
Right after his mother's death, Bienstock had started smoking. He was at PJ's, having a beer, listening to Sinatra and feeling low. What I need is a smoke. The Lucky Strikes made the 19-year-old literally sick to his stomach, but he applied himself to smoking -- despite his mother's habit. "Talk about stupid," Bienstock says.
Bienstock excuses himself to pluck Sarah Vaughan's "September Song" from the music library. He should be rushed, given the song currently playing has 1: 23 seconds left and counting. But Bienstock doesn't rush; he strolls. Hard to imagine him rattled, much less angry, although sources say an eyebrow actually rises when he's agitated.
"September Song" now plays somewhere, in your car or on the clock radio on your night stand. The song is right for tonight's mood, or maybe the song set tonight's mood. Whatever, however, we're in a mood.
Listen, there will be another song. Andy Bienstock just hasn't decided which one yet, but he has time.
There's always time for all that jazz.