The Mood Of The Night

Jazz tiptoes into the dark corners of the room, accompanied by Andy Bienstock's gentle voice. They've been a duo at WJHU for 13 years.

September 08, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

He talks to our wives in our bedrooms. He speaks to them softly, slipping them the powerful pill of music. He knows they are listening to him, this Bohemian-voiced night fly with the nursery-rhyme last name. He knows there's nothing innocent about jazz. It will break your heart, steal your woman, then buy you a Scotch.

"He's as good as anybody I've heard in this country doing jazz," says Baltimore talk show host Marc Steiner.

He is Andy Bienstock. The shy cat in a fedora has been at WJHU-FM (88.1) since it was 10-watt student station and Bienstock, a Johns Hopkins political science major, dropped by for a job that has lasted 13 years. At 37 (only), he's the station's veteran -- a New Yorker with a Yankees photo montage on his desk next to pinups of his main man, Frank Sinatra.

Bienstock's jazz show is an island of local music in the station's sea of public affairs and news. From 8: 30 p.m. to midnight (9: 30-midnight on Mondays), Bienstock swivels in WJHU's control room and sees himself in the reflection of the studio's glass. What does he see? A melancholy man alone with his moods and with a disembodied audience of one or one thousand? He's playing music for someone out there. This is a fun gig, but it's also a perpetual audition.

"It's a cool job. I don't disagree," he says. "But you want to come off well. You don't want to be a weenie or a jerk."

Nights at WJHU, it's just Bienstock, his phantasmic reflection, a coffee pot (he takes his java black), a messy music library (his doing), the air conditioning (which can make odd noises at night) and enough stamina to cruise uneventfully until midnight -- barring any thunderstorm that might knock the air out of the public station.

Like the jazz he exposes, Bienstock's program is improvisation. He's never more than one song ahead of himself. As he listens to one song, he plots the follow-up. They must make a fun, sensible couple; maybe Carmen McRae followed by Sarah Vaughan in a seamless segue leading Bienstock to the top of the hour and news from National Public Radio.

There are no play lists. No memos from bosses to pretend to follow. Bienstock plays what he feels like playing. "I make it up as I go along." What his mood calls for. "Days and nights have moods, and I don't think it's just me," Bienstock says.

"If you get really lucky," he says, "you catch the mood of the night."

Shadows and light

Andrew Mark Bienstock's night begins at 6 p.m. at the Charles Street studios of WJHU. Nothing is emptier than a radio station at night. All activity is on pause. All shadows and light. It's perfect for hide-and-seek or snooping around to see what kind of magazines are on Steiner's desk. Perfect for talking to yourself for six hours and wondering whether this is the onset of insanity. And why do bosses lock their doors at night?

On Bienstock's desk, there are cuddly pictures of Andy and Karen Fazekas, his longtime girlfriend. Five years ago they moved into a 100-year-old Victorian house in downtown Annapolis (the interior is Southern Living stock). He works nights; she works days in retail; and sometimes they meet in the middle. And Bienstock doesn't mind if you slip and call Karen his wife. Karen and her two teen-age sons are his family.

"The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz," "The Book of Baltimore Orioles Lists," and "How Proust Can Change Your Life" list on Bienstock's desk at the radio station. The mail rains promotional CD's, too many to test-listen, too much bad music piling up on his desk, Bienstock says. Near a Russell Baker column, Bienstock has pinned the headline, "Yanks Sweep Into History." This was a little boy, after all, who had a Yankees uniform with Mickey Mantle's Number 7 stitched to its back.

Now the boy wears a 7 3/8 fedora, which lounges on the shelf over his desk. "Hats are my one affectation," he says.

In his hat, Bienstock looks like Leon Redbone. Out of his hat, he looks like Frank Zappa or maybe a skinnier Inspector Clouseau. And his last name is Austro-Hungarian -- it's not Jack and the Bienstock.

"I've heard that I sound like an old man with a bow tie and a crew cut. I've also heard that I sound black -- which, of course, is the highest compliment for a jock playing jazz," Bienstock says.

And what about his voice? No one would guess that he's stuffed up all the time from year-round allergies. His sound is beatnik-y, not much of a bottom range, but a sweet tempo. Try describing it.

"His voice is, well, you're putting me on the spot," says WJHU's program director Terry Trouyet. "He has the type of voice that is flexible." Program directors like flexible: It's not sexy, but it's practical. A half dozen times a year, Bienstock substitutes for Steiner on his call-in program. It's a chance for Bienstock to sweat a little and talk to human beings not named Andy.

"I love Andy. He amuses me," Steiner says. "And he makes good scotch."

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