Friday, June 13, 1997
UC to make it official:
He's Dr. Jazz

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nobody can wipe this smile from my face. My stuffy alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, is giving an honorary doctorate to Oscar Treadwell.

Of the 3,944 people receiving diplomas from UC on this lucky Friday the 13th, he is the least likely - and most deserving - candidate to be a doctor of humane letters.

Oscar Treadwell is 71, a high school graduate from Collingswood, N.J., Class of 1947. He sells high-tech cutting tools for a living.

But he lives to play jazz recordings on the radio.

The man who goes by the initials ''O.T.'' has been on the air for 50 years. He knows his jazz so well, Charlie Parker - who seldom bowed to anyone - once paid tribute to him in song by writing ''An Oscar for Treadwell.''

This afternoon, it's a doctorate for Treadwell. A serious university in a no-nonsense town recognizes the man whose radio shows taught me the joys of being open to new challenges and the rewards of going out on a limb.

Doctor Jazz

In my past life as a music critic, I bumped into Oscar many, many times. But we first met in 1963, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

I remember the day, time and place: Sunday night, after dinner, in my parents' dining room.

They had just bought a brand-new stereo, a big, boxy Danish-modern thing. It had a turntable, which I could not touch, and an AM-FM radio, which I could.

And did.

I spun the radio dial searching for far-away stations. Somebody in Canada says something French. A woman rattles off the news, first in Spanish, then in English. Welcome to Del Rio, Texas.

One more spin and a strangely insistent melody springs from the speakers. Wild notes scatter about the room. Horns shout and scream. Bass and drums play hide and seek. The musicians challenge each other to do their best.

The tune sounds so good, so arresting, I don't dare touch the dial. After a long run, the music stops and a man with a deep voice starts reading poetry.

It's not that sissy stuff they make you read in school. Nothing rhymes. And it flows as easily as a bunch of guys shooting the breeze.

Where's this exotic stuff coming from?

Who's the voice?

I find out during the next station break.

The music and poetry are on the air from Cincinnati.

''And,'' the voice says, ''I'm Oscar Treadwell.''

Over the years, O.T. has skipped around the dial almost as much as I did on that night long ago. After 15 years on stations in the Philadelphia area, he came to Cincinnati in 1962. Starting at WZIP, he went to WNOP, then WGUC. After a brief layover at WVXU, he's on WVAE (94.9 FM), back on Sunday nights where it all began for me.

I used to think people like Oscar Treadwell were meant to be heard only by impressionable teen-agers. At that age, your brain is a sponge. You soak up everything. You try new ideas. You're not set in your ways, knowing your likes and dislikes and not having the time, the inclination or the guts to change them.

Now, with a few more years on me, I know you need an Oscar Treadwell at every stage of your life. The stuff he plays, still new and exotic, reminds me it's OK to lift the lid on life, take a deep breath and dive in head first.

The fearless playing he presents inspires me to write the same way. I may not hit every high note. But I keep trying.

For me, listening to him is more than hearing jazz, learning the music's history. It's not just understanding the contributions of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

O.T.'s message goes deeper than famous names and great music. To me, it's always been about taking chances.

Be open to what's new. Face every challenge in life. And never hold back.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.