Obituary: Michael G. Nastos 1952–2022

Michael G. Nastos passed away in early November at age 70. He faced many health issues, but his irrepressible spirit seemed undaunted and in recent months he was quite active, braving the virus, as ever supporting the music and musicians he loved so much. We at SEMJA mourn his loss, acutely aware of his contributions to the association over the years as one of its founding members, as a contributor to this publication, a long-time member of our board, and as a past vice president.

His service to our organization was but one small element in a life lived to the full. For as long as many of us can remember, Nastos was one of the great voices of one of America’s greatest jazz radio stations, WEMU, during its golden years. Nastos not only held down an evening broadcasting slot but also lovingly curated the events calendar, which provided the most extensive coverage of jazz performances in southeast Michigan. For seasoned listeners, his show combined a revisiting of familiar territory but also provided new discoveries to be pursued while newcomers to jazz learned how to appreciate and love the music as Nastos did not just play records, he provided invaluable background information and listening cues, radiating an infectious passion and love for the art and its performers. But as much as he is generally known for his years at WEMU, this is only a part of the story of his versatile ever exploratory, sometimes difficult personality.

Nastos was born in Ann Arbor and lived as a baby in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. Then his family moved to the outskirts of Milan, where he attended high school. His love of music started at home and as a teenager in Milan he was hooked on jazz while at the same time training as a medical assistant, which led to a job at a psychiatric hospital in Ypsilanti. His first work for a radio station was at WAAM, which at the time was a music station, very different from what it is today, first selling ads and coupons, eventually subbing, and then fielding his own show. “They thought I had a good voice” Nastos once told us. “They put me on the air as George Michaels. I played a weird mixture of John Denver and disco.” In 1972, two years after graduating high school, he began a four-year association as music director of the student-run University of Michigan radio station WCBN, where he helped move the programming into unconventional free-form directions and was able to host his own jazz show. He also worked at Discount Records in Ann Arbor and even performed as a DJ in places such as the Rubaiyat, playing disco for dancing.

In 1979 Nastos packed up his car and moved to Woodstock, New York, to work as a publicist for the Creative Music Studio, a unique study center for contemporary music founded by Karl Berger and a few other musicians. This was a place of around-the-clock learning, playing and experimentation and a meeting place of musicians from different countries and musical backgrounds — the birthplace of many new jazz, classical and progressive rock developments. There Nastos met musicians from all over the world and got to know some of the finest musicians on the planet, such as Roscoe Mitchell and Don Cherry, not to mention writer William Burroughs. His time there, while brief, remained with him for the rest of his life, as he would recount in story after story from those marvelous days. “It was a mind-expanding experience” he told us. But when the necessary grant money was not renewed, he packed up his car, moved for a short time to Washington D.C., received an offer to regain his old job at Discount Records, and then returned permanently to Michigan. He hosted a jazz program on WIQB-FM in Ann Arbor and in 1980 he began to work part-time for WEMU, subbing for Jim Dulzo, eventually becoming one of its major broadcasters; he stayed there, with the exception of a couple of years, until 2013. He singled out the days when his old friend Dulzo was program director as the high point of his WEMU days.

As important as it is, Nastos’ radio work was only a part of his indefatigable work on behalf of music, focusing on jazz but also open to anything good no matter the genre. Writing was always a major focus of his work. Back in the days when the Ann Arbor News was still a newspaper, he was its special music writer and columnist and also contributed to the Detroit Metro Times. He edited books, wrote over twenty record and CD liner notes, provided program notes for the Detroit and Frog Island jazz festivals, created profiles and reviews for the All Media Music Guide and worked as feature writer and Detroit correspondent for two of the most important national jazz magazines, DownBeat and Cadence. In addition, he collaborated with many international journals such as the Irish Jazz Journal, the Japanese Swing Journal, Canadian Coda, or Polish Jazz Forum. His last writing assignments were for Hot House Jazz in New York. In concert with his international writing, he regularly contributed, by invitation, to the most important annual critics’ polls. For ten years, he served on the Michigan Council for the Arts & Cultural Affairs, first as a panelist and then as chair of the jazz committee.

In his ceaseless efforts on behalf of music, Nastos also worked to organize and promote performance opportunities for musicians and to bring major artists to our area. This aspect of his life began at the time he joined WCBN. Together with a small group of enthusiasts, in 1975 he helped found Eclipse Jazz, a student-run committee under the auspices of the University Activities Center at the University of Michigan dedicated to presenting music and workshops by some of the leading artists of the day. In its first year the organization brought in Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor, among others, to Ann Arbor. Nastos was involved with the organization for a decade, but also worked in similar capacities off and on since then, producing performance series at venues in Ann Arbor, working for the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, the Michigan Jazz Festival, Frog Island, the Toledo Jazz Festival, the Brighton Jazz and Blues Festival, and even serving as the business manager for the American Federation of Musicians for four years.

It is important to underline the fact that Nastos knew music from the inside, having played instruments for much of his life. While at Milan High School he played percussion instruments, eventually rising to first chair in various ensembles and garnering prizes for ensemble and solo work. He continued his studies at Washtenaw Community College under the tutelage of the late Morris Lawrence, one of the greatest educators in music, who recognized his talents and allowed him to serve as percussion and jazz history instructor for several years. While still a youngster Nastos had studied piano and then moved on to percussion, starting out in classical music and then moving on to jazz and world music. In later years he would fondly recall his time with Lawrence, his summer experiences at the Interlochen Arts Academy and all that he had learned from Louis Smith, Bob James, and Jim Dapogny at the University of Michigan.

Off and on over the years he continued to perform in various groups, and his playing has even been preserved occasionally on recordings such as As the Cicada Breathes by the Sublingual Ensemble from 2004 where his percussion plays a major role.

These are only the highlights of the many contributions that Nastos made to the artistic life of our community and do not touch on his other passions such as baseball, racing cars, or literature. It may come as a surprise to many of his radio listeners that for fifteen years he worked as the announcer at Milan Dragway, something of which he was most proud.

In recent years Nastos could be heard sporadically working at his beloved WCBN radio station, supporting musicians, serving on festival boards, and running the music program at Silvio’s Trattoria and Pizzeria in Canton. His enthusiasm for jazz never abated; after moving to a senior living apartment at Sequoia Place he started a live jazz series at the complex. In 2016 SEMJA bestowed him with the Ron Brooks Award with the hope that his work on behalf of the music he loved would continue for many years to come. It was not to be, but we all remember his words on that occasion: “I have accomplished a lot in my life, and I am very proud of what we have done to advance culture.”

As we go to press there are plans for a tribute to Michael G Nastos on December 30, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at the Blue LLama Jazz Club. Please stay tuned for more up to date information from the club.