Michael Hanson and all that jazz

Jazz radio show host and drummer dies at 78
Michael Hanson and all that jazz
Photo courtesy of the Hanson family
Michael Hanson

Michael Hanson’s voice was his calling card through life and even the woman who heard it most every day for some 60 years was not immune.

Way back, Hanson — who died Sept. 9 at the age of 78 — was working at a radio station in Sheboygan and had volunteered to interview every contestant in the Miss Sheboygan contest. Somebody had to do it.

One of the entrants — her name was Rosie — heard the voice, and that was that.

“Oh, my goodness,” she said, many years later. “It was instant … something.”

If my math is right, Michael and Rosie Hanson would have been married 60 years next September.

I knew of Michael Hanson for his long, glorious run playing jazz on Wisconsin Public Radio. But I first got to know him, and Rosie, at the bar of the Fess Hotel, the location that now houses the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. on East Doty.

The Fess, which closed in 1994 — gone 25 years! — wasn’t a hotel at all after about 1970. It became a restaurant with a bar that attracted a lively mix of lawyers, journalists, musicians and other downtown wildlife.

Rosie Hanson was the hostess, keeping things on the rails, which occasionally took some doing.

Things happened at the Fess. Paul and Sara Soglin had their first date there. And I was having a drink at the Fess bar with Gene Parks when a messenger delivered Gene a registered letter from the mayor announcing Gene’s firing as city affirmative action officer.

Michael Hanson would captain a bar stool at the Fess and take it all in with a glass of wine and sly smile. He was a cool character, right out of an Elmore Leonard novel, minus the larceny.

Jazz fit the persona, and Hanson once said the music “grabbed me hard, early.”

At Wisconsin Public Radio, on and off — mostly on — for more than 40 years, Hanson hosted jazz shows with names like “Asylum,” “Round Midnight,” “Contemporary Jazz” and “Michael Hanson’s World of Jazz.”

At one point, Hanson was doing four hours of jazz a day on WERN/FM 98.7. When he stepped away, in spring 2000, he was hosting 9 p.m. to midnight shows on Saturday and Sunday nights.

I spoke with Ben Sidran, the celebrated Madison jazzman, at the time of Hanson’s radio retirement, and Ben called it “the end of an era.”

Sidran went on: “The radio has always been very important to jazz. Particularly late at night. Hearing jazz when you’re home alone or in your car, it leaves a lot to your imagination. It’s romantic. And the voice that brings you that music provides context for the romance. Michael has one of the most romantic jazz voices ever. He provided the context.”

Hanson enjoyed a few side ventures, including being a sought-after reader of audio books. He did a number for bestselling horror writer Dean Koontz.

Hanson was a talented jazz drummer himself. And as the frontman for Michael Hanson’s Jazz Group, he long ago played the Kennedy Manor and, for the past two decades, delighted listeners at the second story outdoor patio at Otto’s.

It was at Otto’s, a year ago this summer, that I last saw Hanson. Jeanan and I were meeting our friend Jeff Scott Olson. The patio was packed with people listening to Hanson’s group, so we sat downstairs, and Hanson joined us for a drink between sets.

He smiled and told us a story about a Milwaukee sound engineer who called himself Darkman who had digitized and made available on the internet many episodes of “Mindwebs,” a public radio program that ran from 1975 to 1984 in which Hanson read stories of speculative fiction by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.

Once at Otto’s, an audience member approached Hanson between sets and started talking about “Mindwebs” and how much he liked the show. Hanson thanked him and said there was this fellow named Darkman who had made the shows available on the internet.

“Michael,” the man said, “I’m Darkman.”

They struck up a friendship.

Jeff Scott Olson saw Hanson playing jazz this summer at Otto’s and the two agreed to get together to watch jazz DVDs at Hansons’ house. That happened earlier this month. Jeff said Hanson was a little tired — he’d been battling illness — but they had a fine time sipping beverages and watching Gene Krupa play drums.

“It was a great night,” Olson says.

A few days later, Hanson died.

I thought about the time I asked him which jazz recordings he would take with him to an island if he could only bring a few. He took a moment and said, “Some Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Lester Young.”

What a radio set that would be. We know just the voice to introduce it.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.