Seaview Stories: Obie the Jazzman

Photo of the O'Bryant family

Jazz expert Obie O'Bryant hosted a jazz program for 13 years on radio station KMUN and is shown at the control panel at the station. O'Bryant, a well-known civic activist, died in 2002.

One of our Thursday evening highlights after we bought our Seaview beach house was tuning in KMUN's popular jazz radio program, hosted back then by a mellow fellow named H.A. (Obie) O'Bryant. (His first name was Herman, but only his family and close confidants knew that. Everybody else in town called him Obie.)

It took my wife and I a while to discover O'Bryant's jazz program on the radio because it started several years after we became part-time Seaview residents. But after it went on the air, it wasn't long before we were Thursday night regulars - along with a large number of jazz lovers on both sides of the river.

As one of many Astoria residents who volunteered their time on the community radio station, O'Bryant is remembered by a host of local jazz afficionados for the depth of his knowledge about jazz music and his ability to communicate that to his listeners. He knew many of them by name and "schmoozed" with them during his broadcasts, adding to his popularity.

In fact, part of the fun in listening to the program was provided by Obie himself - the bright personality, his deep knowledge of jazz, its fascinating history and the colorful musicians who created the music and whose musical talents helped keep it alive.

A consummate jazz lover and amateur disc jockey who knew his jazz inside and out, O'Bryant had a large personal collection of memorable jazz records and CDs he played on his program. His show was informal and fun, a popular fixture featured on KMUN for 13 years until the late 1990s when illness forced his retirement from the local airways. O'Bryant died in Portland in 2002 at the age of 77.

Judging from the variety of jazz music he played, O'Bryant's taste in jazz spanned many forms and a host of different musicians. One of his favorite jazz personalities was famed trumpeter and jazz icon Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, and one of Obie's favorite pieces was the Armstrong standard, "What a Wonderful World." That song was played at Obie's funeral.

Besides the good music he played, O'Bryant's jazz fans looked forward to his pithy comments on the air, his wry sense of humor and the inside background information he offered on the featured musicians and their music.

Obie always did his homework beforehand, and his informed patter about jazz and jazz players made his program something special for his listeners.

Obie's radio show had a loyal following of jazz enthusiasts in the KMUN listening area in the North Coast region on both sides of the Columbia. The program's popularity was due largely to Obie's fresh, outgoing personality and the easy way he passed along his knowledge of jazz music. Listeners often would call in during the radio show, chat with Obie and make special requests for their favorites.

If you liked jazz music, you listened to Obie O'Bryant on Thursday nights - it was that simple.

In his day job O'Bryant worked in the sales and marketing department of Pacific Power for 35 years, retiring in 1986 as local sales manager. He was instrumental in organizing the first local jazz festivals in Astoria and Seaside and was active in many other civic endeavors, including the Astoria Regatta. O'Bryant's son Michael also worked for Pacific Power in Portland.

Obie received the Boy Scout's Silver Beaver award in 1966 and the Astoria Chamber of Commerce George Award in 1967 for his work on the United Good Neighbors drive. As a jazz buff he chaired the Oregon Dixieland Jubilee for four years, helped fund the Clatsop County Historical Society, and helped organize the Ragtime Rhodies Jazz Festival in Long Beach.

Michael recounted many memories about growing up in the O'Bryant household. "We grew up in Astoria with music in our house all the time," O'Bryant said. "That's when my dad woke up and turned on the Scandinavian Hour. At some point soon after, he got it in his mind that the whole house should listen, so he turned the stereo up loud enough to knock all of us kids out of bed."

"After Scandinavian music," Michael said, "Obie O'Bryant was a jazz fan 'as long as I remember. His father, and our granddad, played alto and soprano saxophone, and his uncle, who developed multiple sclerosis in mid-life, was a pianist who played with many of the jazz greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman (according to family legend.)"

"My dad was on the cutting edge of Hi-Fi music, and collaborating with a fellow named Marv, who had thick black-framed glasses, a crewcut and short-sleeved shirts with rolled up sleeves. Obie built his first stereo set from a kit. That was in the 1950s.

"My dad told us about what seemed like hundreds of jazz concerts he attended before and after World War II, including many of the Jazz at the Philharmonic traveling shows in Portland," Michael O'Bryant said.

"Much of the knowledge he had about jazz was acquired first-hand. He took me to see Louis Armstrong for his Lloyd Center opening concert, and made sure we had an appreciation for good jazz music."

Michael said his collection of vinyl jazz records and CDs amounted to a couple of thousand discs, records and tapes.

Obie believed in supporting local civic events and did just that in Astoria for more than 20 years. He helped found the Astoria Jazz Festival that specialized in traditional Dixieland jazz, and made friends with all the musicians, friendships that carried over to his radio jazz program on KMUN.

Several of O'Bryant's eight children are carrying on a love of jazz and blues music, son Michael said, "all thanks to the early-morning jazz concerts in our home."

When his jazz program first started on radio it was a tandem effort by O'Bryant and a friend named Vem Barth. Now in his early 80s, Barth still is a KMUN volunteer who hosts his own jazz program on that station every other week. Later O'Bryant began hosting his evening program as a solo DJ, on the air every Thursday night from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

One person who had a rare insider's view of Obie's jazz program is Ashley O'Bryant, Obie's granddaughter who often joined her granddad at the KMUN microphone as a child.

"I was on the program with him many times from about age five or six until I was 11 or 12 years old," Ashley said. "It was great fun being an assistant DJ and I learned a lot about jazz and how radio stations work."

Ashley said the music O'Bryant played on his program came mostly from his personal collection of records and CDs, which were divided among family members after he died.

She said her grandmother, O'Bryant's late wife, Gertie, would record most of the programs and play the recordings for family members.

Ashley said she looks back with nostalgia on the good times she had on her grandfather's jazz program. "Being on the radio with my granddad made me feel really important," Ashley said. "I got to pick some of the music he played, and we made a great team."

Ashley is 22 now and works in the advertising department of the Daily Astorian newspaper. Ashley's mother and one of Obie's daughters is Billie Jo O'Bryant Tarabochia of Astoria, who also has fond memories about growing up in a household where the morning wake-up call came from a stereo turned up full-blast, playing her father's favorite jazz music.

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