MUSIC | Jazzy J fights cancer, fights the system, and fights for independent artists


Received an email that October 13 the Twin Cities’ favorite Rasta bard, David Daniels, on his way up from Denver to perform in Duluth (partnering with folk-blues icon Charlie Parr) would stop off in Minneapolis to put in an appearance at, of all place, BarFly. I wasn’t quite sure I was reading what was right in front of my eyes. David Daniels at BarFly is like Bob Marley, for instance, playing at Studio 54. You just don’t see this firebrand, counterculture maverick holding forth at a disco-type venue. But, there it is. Daniels on the bill with a slew of other notables (including host MJ Kroll), working gratis, to a benefit for fellow area luminary and equally self-defining spirit Jazzy J, founder of the Internet station Twin Cities Radio. Both, it happens, are contending with cancer.

I get to BarFly and run into Chris Shillock (premier poet and, like me, a David Daniels fan) who joins me for Daniels’s set, for which his impassioned spoken word is ably accompanied on tablas by Danny Bolt. We enter the premises and it’s populated by a most non-mainstream assemblage of musicians, models and other artists as well as audience members straggling in. Neither Shillock nor I can stay long. After Daniels does his thing, Shillock is off to his own reading and I have deadlines.

Hitting the bricks, struck by how little I know about the evening’s center of attraction, I make it my business to find out more. At least something other than his being some guy who’s made an impression as a purveyor of alternate media. Later in the week, I get Daniels on the phone. “Jazzy,” he says, “through Twin Cities Radio on the Net, has given voice to independent artists who would normally for one reason or another would be shut out by corporate media. Jazzy sincerely loves the music and the artists he supports. I have greatly appreciated my appearances on the station, and it was one of those appearances that led to the creation of Adventures in Music and Storytelling, [my] collaboration with Charlie Parr.” He adds, “Jazzy also a warrior. He’s been battling this cancer thing for as long as I’ve known him, and he’s been an example and great help to me personally in my own cancer fight.”

I also get a line to Patti Horan, owner of online outlet Rock Capital Radio, who says that Jazzy J’s “contribution to indie music cannot be measured in statistics, key performance indicators, or sweeps. He did not start Twin Cities Radio for personal gain, but to bring forth indie artists and original music, leveling the playing field for them so they may just have a shot at reaching their dreams. Without Jazzy’s foresight, seeing that Internet radio was the future for music, many very talented artists would not be heard—let alone seen in real time streaming video. Technically he is brilliant. You can not assign value to what he has done or what he plans to do. Without him I would have never started Rock Capital Radio in Cleveland, which is taking off in ways we did not imagine possible. I liken him to a tsunami. The energy that he emits has created a wave of Indie music that reaches every corner of the globe. A ‘quiet revolution,’ he calls it.”

She also offers a personal glance at the man. “He has touched many lives including my own. When I am visiting him his phone does not stop ringing nor does the bell on his door. Young people and old alike are drawn to him for support and friendship. I sit on his couch and listen to the ‘kids,’ relatively speaking, talk to him about their day, about their dreams and plans. When I was there several young people who live in his apartment building stopped by every single day to make sure he was OK, to see if he needed anything. When he left the room one time a young woman that we were talking to looked up at me and said he was the ‘old man,’ father, she never had. When I was at the benefit for him I can’t count how many times I heard someone say they loved him and what a great friend and man he was, how much he had done to help indie musicians. He is probably my best and dearest friend. He gave me a great gift and set me on a course that will positively impact the rest of my life. That gift is indie music, new friends, and most of all his friendship.”

At length, I realized it was going to come to doing a piece on him. Turns out, he’s basically a stubbornly principled individual who strongly believes in making a difference. We sat down over breakfast at a restaurant in his Uptown Minneapolis neighborhood for an off-hand chat about this, that and a number of things.

How are things?
I’m going to the Mayo Clinic. Which would not have been possible had it not been for the benefit and had all those people not come forward. The potential is there for me to get pulled out of the fire, depending on what’s going on. They’ve got some new experimental programs at Mayo with my particular kinds of cancer. I’m looking forward to saying, “Okay, do what you need to.” Because they don’t have anything else that’s working, right now. So, thank God for my friends.

What is your form of cancer?
I have advanced bladder cancer. In my lymph nodes. It’s terminal, now. They’re giving me six months to a year. What they do is try to extend my life. They’re trying to build me up with B-12, Vitamin D, so that I’m a little more peppy, alert.

You’re, to say the least, more savvy than the average bear with regard to Internet technology.
I have my own servers. So, I serve up websites. I can put a hundred websites on one of my servers. And run [Twin Cities Radio] off of it. I’m also a Webmaster. I’ve probably built 500 websites.

Why did you start Twin Cites Radio?
I was in a virtual world on the Internet as kind of a pastime. They were streaming music in from an Internet radio station, and I’d gotten to be known as a music lover. I was crazy about music. This radio station asked me, “Hey, would you be a DJ for us? Get out your schedule. We’ll give you the software. We just have to be able to count on you. You can play any music you want to. I said, “Well, hell, yeah.” So, I made up my name and started playing, you know, mainstream music. I was havin’ a ball. Then, they went under. It was TNT Sounds. A lot of things come and go and they came and went. But, I [had] these fans [and] my own server. I discovered independent artists in Minneapolis and went “Woah.” Y’ fall in love, man. You cannot help it. So I started playing those for a fan in California, Lady J. And she started checking it out in her area. The same thing happened. One day, she says, “Let’s let other people know about the station and see if there’s any interest in being part of it.” I got bombarded. Then we thought, “We can do live music.” I know how to do it. Using the mixer and all that. So, I went to California. A place called the Acoustic Cafe, got it all hooked up. And the first artist we had on Twin Cites Radio was from California. It was Alex De Grassi, the guitar virtuoso. We broadcast all summer from the Acoustic Cafe. I realized if we can do it in California, we can do it in Minnesota. So I invited these friends over. David Daniels was one of them. Nate Stevens the same night. We were holding microphones up to the guitars and drums. Had all kinds of people listening. We couldn’t hardly stop talkin’ about it. We said, “We gotta do this again.” So, we kept doing it. Then, I said, let’s take it another step and we took it [from my house] into a recording studio. And let them mix it down. I figured, if they could do it from a studio, we could do it from venues. So, I’ve done it from Bunker’s, Stella’s Fish Cafe, 508. Being the IT guy, I figured out how to add video. That’s kind of how it got started and how it evolved.

That was in 2005 you started it?
It would’ve been 2004, actually, when I went to California. Then, it was six months, seven months that we really formalized Twin Cities Radio.

How has it grown since then?
Oh, wow. It’s crazy. We started out, I think I had 20 artists I was playing. Now, I’ve got 1,400. I’ve had offers. I’ve had people say, “Look, I’ll give you this much money every month to do this.” I tell ’em, “No. I don’t want it.”

To play their artists?
Yeah. I won’t do it.

Yeah. Or they come in and they kind of laugh at me and say, “You makin’ any money doin’ this? And blah, blah. I’ve got some money. We could put it in and really make this somethin’. Get real artists.” I said, “First of all, I’ve got real artists. Second, I don’t want your money. I don’t need it. I don’t care about it.” And one of the reasons I’ve refused money, because they’re not gonna have anything to say about what I wanna do. I’m not a perfect guy. I make mistakes, but if I do, it’s genuine. They’re my mistakes. I’m intentionally trying to harm anybody. That’s not my gig.

You’re not for hire.
I’m not for hire. I’m not gonna have somebody that, because he gives me money to run my station, is now gonna tell me his niece needs to be played and needs to be a rising star and featured artist. That relationship would end real quick. I’ve had people I’ve kind of partnered with, hung out with and did things together that got that way with me. I just cut ’em off at the knees. One in particular, who they are doesn’t matter, but I had this deal set up where three nights a week I was doing live shows. I’m sittin’ with the guy who owns the studio. We’re talkin’. He says, “Well, as this thing gets rolling, I’ll bring you in some real independent artists.” This elitist thing. I said, “I don’t believe I heard you right. Dude, you got this all wrong. I’m already playing the ones that people need to hear. I don’t know where you’re comin’ off with this and you better can it. ‘Cause I’m not gonna warn you again. Don’t be insulting these people who are comin’ out and doing good things for your studio. Don’t be comin’ at me that way.” He says, “Well, you need to have headliners.” I said, “What you don’t get and I’m not gonna tell you again, they’re all headliners. Every one of them.” Finally, I got enough of that snobbery from this guy and I said you know what, I’m takin’ my [stuff] outta here. You and me, we’re all done. I’m not doin’ this anymore with you and I couldn’t be more disappointed in who you ended up being.” I never cared about the money, so, he didn’t have anything to buy me with. And I’m not much of an elitist. I really don’t care for that. We’re all on the same playing field. Some people’s skills are a little bit different than others. And some people have work to do. That’s okay. I’m all right with that.

Independent cuss, ain’t y’?
I love it.

Where does that come from?
I think I got it from my mom, God rest her soul. She was an inspiration. Back when I got out of the Air Force after Vietnam, my mom went back to school the same time I did. I majored in bridge, girls and keggers. My mom ended up getting her masters and being a social worker. She was independent like that, too. What she ended up doing, which she loved so much, was overseeing foster and adoptions on Mower County. She had the same thing. She didn’t care if you were an attorney or if you and your wife both worked at McDonald’s. Everybody was on the same [plane]. I respected that. I always liked that about her. I try to live up to that.

How did that benefit come to take place at BarFly?
The impetus for it, I’ve been battling for about three years with this cancer. I had six months of real intense chemo, six months of being misdiagnosed. I mean, it was terrible. It was a nightmare. I finally got the care, got the surgery. What a breath fresh air. The Mayo Clinic has been wonderful. So, what happened was, July 22nd of this year, I went up to the Mayo Clinic. You have to understand. During this time, I can’t work. I can barely run the station. I went to the [Mayo Clinic] business office. They said, “We’re really sorry, but, your MA, Medical Assistance, insurance doesn’t cover [the surgery] anymore. When Tim Pawlenty made the change on June 1st, you’re now in the GAMC program. Unless you’re willing to pay cash, you can’t be seen here any more. They were very nice about it. The next morning my urologist called me. He said, “I don’t like to do this, but, you need to be seen right away and [your insurance] doesn’t cover it.” He recommended I go back to my oncologist. I did that. He said, “Your insurance doesn’t cover it here any more.” I went to my regular doctor, who said, “Your insurance doesn’t cover it any more.” So, I went and saw my worker. She said, “Your insurance isn’t going to cover it anywhere except one of these four hospitals. And it’s gonna take three, four months to get the system updated so you can actually get the care.” Now, all the while, I’ve got this cancer growing in my body.

And I said, “You’re kidding me.” She said, “No.” I said, “These aren’t choices. This is a death sentence.” She said, “You don’t have to pick one. Then, you won’t have any medical coverage. At all.” So, I designated University of Minnesota, Fairview Masonic Cancer Center. Called them. They said I wasn’t on the list yet and had to wait for the system to get updated. Something [had] to be done. My son, Morgan, who carried me all these last few years getting through this, he said, “Dad, we gotta do something. Fast.” So, screw this. I can’t wait two months. I got Pawlenty’s personal e-mail and I sent him a really nice e-mail, thankin’ him for making this it impossible. I marched down to Fairview with my son, went to the admissions office, told them the story and said, “You need to treat me. This is gonna kill me.” She said, “Well, we can’t admit you. The doctor needs to admit you.” I said, “Well, you’ve got to have hundreds of doctors in this great big hospital. Get one of ’em down here and let’s get me treated. I’m not leaving until I get treated. If I leave, what I’m gonna do is jump in front of the first bus I see out in front of your building. You can explain that to Channel 5, Channel 4, 9, and 11 about how come this guy killed himself out in front of your hospital. And I’m sure my son’ll be standin’ there.” They set me up with an appointment. Come to find out chemotherapy’s not covered. Morgan says, “Look, I’m gonna put together a fundraiser. I’ll take my friends and we’ll get yours, Dad, and we’ll put together something to make this possible. And we’ll get you back to Mayo Clinic.” He did all the work. What an awesome kid he is. He said, “I got a lot of friends. You got a lot of friends. What see what kind of love they got. Let’s pull somethin’ together.” That’s what made the benefit happen. All these nice people.

What’s next?
I’m gonna make this Worldcast Productions thing happen, four or five Internet radio stations, labels, all kind of things are gonna be behind it, with one goal in mind. That’s to level the playing field in the music industry as we know it today with the focus on Minneapolis. At least from my end of it.