Little Rock businessman, minister and all-around civic champion Larry Ross had a reporter and 90-year-old Norwood Seymour on a conference call, urging some anecdotes about the stars who crossed Seymour’s path when he was a top Little Rock jazz collector and public radio host.
The call came in the wake of an Arkansas Business look at a quarter-century of radio industry in Arkansas, and Ross said Seymour should hold a place in Little Rock’s part of that history.
Seymour’s fabled jazz collection is gone now, in consideration of $10,000 from a record merchant and an opened-up room for visiting grandkids. Also part of history is “Jazz Parade,” the show he hosted from the late 1980s into the 2000s on KLRE/KUAR, but more on all that in a minute. Let’s hear Seymour’s pantheon:
He met Cab Calloway, knew celebrated Memphis pianist Phineas Newborn, and had the great Little Rock saxophonist and John Coltrane bandmate Pharoah Sanders on his Saturday- and Sunday-night show.
“In graduate school, you met Ray Charles and those folks,” Ross suggested, playfully regretting it once Seymour started telling the tale.
“There was a young man named Hank Crawford who played with Ray Charles, and he and I went to school together,” Seymour began. “When they were around they always invited me to the gigs. In fact one time they were about to arrest me because they thought I was one of the musicians, and there was some dope involved in the situation. I had to do some tall explaining that I was in graduate school at Indiana, in Indianapolis to see Hank and to see Ray Charles …”
“Maybe you don’t have to go into all that,” Ross interjected, laughing.
Another time, in New Orleans, Seymour encountered swing singer and Cotton Club bandleader Cab Calloway dining in a restaurant. “I told him I didn’t want to bother him, but that I was a disk jockey from Little Rock and just wanted to say hello. I was amazed that he asked me and my wife [Frankie] to sit down and talk with him.”
Seymour introduced himself as a DJ, but his public radio show was strictly voluntary, said Ross, also a drummer and a protégé of Seymour’s. “He was a great inspiration to me. He inspired me to want to find out what a downbeat was, if you will.”
Ross, who himself was a telecom executive, consultant and ordained minister who even now presides over 75 Methodist churches in Arkansas, credits Seymour for helping him visualize a path through undergraduate and graduate school.
“He was quite a mentor and profile in courage to me,” said Ross, a former Arkansas PBS Foundation Board member, offering a brief rundown of Seymour’s varied career beyond music.
“Radio was always a voluntary and secondary thing,” he said. “Seymour did so many things in his career it’s hard to know where to start.” After military service, he worked for the Census Bureau as a partnership specialist up until his retirement and before that ran Head Start programs in Pulaski County.
“He had about 18 Head Start centers that he oversaw, about 150 employees and a budget of about $2 million back during those days, as I recall,” Ross said, “beyond being a deacon in the church. But more than that, he played with the Art Porter Trio and with a guy by the name of Henry Shead.”
Shead, aka Henry Shed, was a Fordyce-born, UAPB-educated singer, pianist and arranger who made his fame in Little Rock’s Jim Crow-era clubs and wound up recording, scoring and making movies and TV appearances in Los Angeles. Shead died in 2012.
Asked if he remains a big jazz fan, Seymour replies “I would like to think so.” His “Jazz Parade” repertoire came “about 95%” from his own collection of thousands of recordings by jazz artists both big and obscure.”
“There was a guy working out there [at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s radio stations] named Glen Sargent who happened to see my collection and started to borrow some to play on his show,” Seymour said. “He was going back to Louisiana and asked me if I would take over the show, which I had no idea about.”
Seymour had never worked in radio, but he built a wide following with his collection and knowledge of decades of jazz, and his ability to relate that to listeners who would often call in. “It wasn’t requests,” Seymour said. “They just wanted to talk about the music.”
“He was kind of a tentmaker, like the Apostle Paul,” Ross said.
That vast record collection is gone now, and parting was a sweet sorrow, but Seymour reports that after having his 90th birthday July 14, he’s happy.
“I don’t have any recordings now,” Seymour said, saying that when he opted to sell he chose not to make any copies, digital or otherwise. “I resolved that when I cleaned the room out that I was just gonna clean it out.”
A record seller offered $10,000, and Seymour took it, but not essentially for the money. “The last haul was about six or eight months ago. I had built shelves on the walls of one room to put all the records in, and I wanted that room for the grandkids to use when they come for the summer and Christmas holidays and so forth. It was a room that they could have.”
Seymour said he stopped drumming years ago, sidelined by bone spurs of the leg. But he’s still up and around. “I have an upright walker and a walking stick,” he said.