Story last updated at 1:55 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2002

Jazz 'doctor' hangs up mike on KBBI show
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Joel Gay does his last show "Fringe Benefits" Sunday night.  
"Doctor Gay's" last Sunday evening on KBBI's jazz radio show "Fringe Benefits" started out feeling like an end but ended up feeling like a beginning.

One week after KBBI first went on the air in 1979, then 26-year-old Joel Gay dropped the needle on the first song of "Fringe Benefits." Gay was not new to radio. He began playing jazz on the air in New Mexico after roommates reminded him of a love for the music genre passed on by his mother.

"These guys started listening to jazz in college, and I realized, man, I've been listening to it my whole life," Gay said. "I heard it and felt like I was home."

In 1979, Gay said KBBI was happy to have someone who knew their way around a sound board, and eagerly gave him the Sunday evening slot.

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Gay searches KBBI's music collection for the right tunes to finish his 20 years playing jazz.  
"I got off to a really good start and found a niche," he said.

Gay based his radio name, "The Doctor," on a nickname earned after helping an injured hiking partner in the Brooks Range. The show's name, "Fringe Benefits," was inspired by two friends drove the company car from Jackson, Miss, to Albuquerque, N.M. and on to Homer, arriving just as the show started.

"As you can imagine, it was a little bit of a rockier road back then," Gay said.

Gay said he was not alone in his preference for "acoustic jazz with a little bit of a bite." In the early years especially, there were several DJs who shared "Fringe Benefits."

"We had a pretty lively crew of disc jockeys back then," Gay said. "There's a big crew that have done "Fringe Benefits" over the years."

Gay occasionally turn the mike over to someone else for as long as a year while he fished or worked on other projects, and regularly shared the show with at least one other jazz-lover, but of all the disc jockeys past and present whose voices have graced "Fringe Benefit's" airwaves, Gay more regularly gave up his Sunday evening after-dinner hours to the show.

Not that it wasn't mutually beneficial, he said while preparing for the final show.

"This is what's kept me going all these years," he said. "Getting to sit down here and listen to music. If I hadn't done this show, I wouldn't know nearly as much about jazz as I do. It's been a great education."

Much of that knowledge came from listening to the performers play, reading the liner notes, and developing an understanding of likes and dislikes.

"I tried to share the lore of jazz with my listeners," he said. "Sometimes, maybe that sounded like I was a professor, but I would just read the liner notes and recite them. That's how you develop knowledge."

Gay said he often played off a mood or a theme, and tried to keep each show original.

"I always go for jazz that's got a little bit of heart to it," he said. "Everything I play has the same feel. It's not stuff that's too soft, or smooth or produced."

Gay said he's never been sure how many people were listening to "Fringe Benefits," though a loyal group of listeners would call or comment later on his jazzy selections. Among them, Homer's beloved Brother Asaiah, who would call most weeks to tell Gay, "That's some groovy jazz, Brother," and request Ella Fitzgerald, despite the fact that he could rarely remember her name.

"I don't think there are all that many people who are crazy about jazz," he said.

But a few times, Gay said, he has been surprised, such as during a conversation with a fellow at Alice's Champagne Palace. When the conversation led to Gay's radio show, the man suddenly exclaimed, "You're The Doctor?" then whipped around and yelled to the news to his friends. Some commented that while they don't like jazz, they liked his show, while others occasionally criticized an edgy show.

Last Sunday, on what Gay estimates to be his 600th to 750th show, his listeners kept the phone light in the KBBI studio lit and a few popped by to watch and listen to Gay's final show and reflect.

Among them was the man who has taken the "Fringe Benefits" baton with hopes of continuing the show far into the future. Lasse Holmes, whom Gay said seems to love jazz as much as he does, has been sharing the show since around 1993, and hopes others will step up to help continue the legacy of Sunday night jazz at KBBI.

During the show, the two played an impromptu game of "name that tune," with each song Gay popped into the CD player. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, John Coltrane and the music that started it all and summed up Gay's mood at the beginning of the show, Miles Davis' "All Blues" off the album "Kind of Blue" filled the small, sauna-like studio.

"I'm just grateful I made it through the opening without choking up," Gay said, and cranked up the music.

But true to the therapeutic value of spending three of the weekend's final hours immersed in sound, Gay's mood lightens by the end of the night, as he rolled through a few of his favorite songs.

Gay, a longtime Homer News reporter and former managing editor, and former member of the KBBI board of directors, leaves Homer next week to start a job as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.

Though earlier unsure, by the end of the show, it appears "Doctor Gay's" days of playing jazz over the air are far from over.

"This is just too good to not keep doing," he said. "Now, I just can't see not doing it. I just can't see not letting this be a part of my life."