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The Man Behind the Music at WQXR

Graham Parker on soulful Jewish music and getting instruments into schools

Batya Ungar-Sargon
March 27, 2014
WQXR's Graham Parker. (Marco Antonio)
WQXR's Graham Parker. (Marco Antonio)

Graham Parker got his love of music from two different places growing up: the John Lyon School—a British private school—and his shul in Edgeware, in northern London. This dual musical identity has accompanied Parker throughout his life, from London to the studios of WQXR, New York’s classical music station, where he works as general manager and where I met him on a recent afternoon. He was wearing a dark corduroy jacket over a denim shirt, accented playfully with a pink plaid tie and pink jeans. Matching his jaunty outfit was a warm and bubbly personality.

Parker credits the prestigious music program at the John Lyon School with inspiring his musical curiosity. “It was one of those classic stories of one music teacher who just changes your life—Mr. Goodwin. It wasn’t that he was a good teacher—he was a dreadful teacher—but you realize, my God, he taught me so much,” he said. But alongside his classical music training, Parker had been attending synagogue on his own each week since he was 11 years old.

He explained that as he began to prepare for his bar mitzvah, he became enamored of the music, the services, and the communal aspect of it all. “Jewish music, it’s like an old soul thing,” he said. “Cantorial music, klezmer, Yiddish music, Israeli folk. I just love that sound—it’s like, my people. It just resonates in my bones.”

In 1995, he moved to New York with his wife—“I was straight then,” he deadpanned—and after working in a restaurant, landed a job doing marketing at the New York Philharmonic. It was a job he had dreamed about back in England. “My boss eventually said to me, ‘I gave you the job because I couldn’t understand a word you said!’ My accent was much stronger then.” Parker did subsequent turns at the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

In the meantime, Parker’s marriage was unraveling, and finally ended when he came out. He had known he was gay his whole life. “It was total denial,” he said. “Nice Jewish boys from England don’t come out.” When he and his ex-wife, who was less enamored with Judaism than he was, split up, Parker found himself thinking of the Shabbat services he hadn’t been to in a while. “I had this urging to go back,” he explained. “I was like, ‘I want to go to shul!’” He began attending Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in Manhattan.

“I went to shul, on my own, and it was this kind of amazing experience of, ‘I am gay, I’m Jewish, and there’s a place for me.’” Within a year he would meet his husband, with whom he now has two children. “He’s a psychologist,” Parker told me. “As I said to my mom, ‘I met a nice Jewish doctor, how bad can this be?’” The couple lives in Washington Heights and are active in their synagogue, Fort Tryon Jewish Center.

In 2010, Parker was approached by WQXR with the idea of taking the brand, which has been owned by the New York Times Company for 70 years, and re-imagining it in a modern media world. “I grew up with radio, I really was a radio kid, and I knew the power of these huge brands, like the BBC, and the impact they can have on community, on kids, on buying CDs, going to concerts,” He explained. In a lot of ways, radio is where the two sides of Parker—the communal and the classical—meet.

Enter the WQXR instrument drive. From March 28 through April 7, Parker is spearheading an initiative to collect donations of gently used instruments, which will then be refurbished by Sam Ash music stores and donated to New York City public schools. Donors can drop off instruments at locations in all five boroughs.

“Asking our listeners to think about donating a gently used instrument that they aren’t using anymore, and let us give it to a New York City public school kid is kind of an amazing tie-in between the trust we have as a brand, the loyalty of our audience, and the enormous need in New York to keep the instruments flowing to where the need is today,” Parker explained. “I think it’s really, really important. I think it’s why coat drives are so effective. It’s like, look in your closet. I don’t wear that coat anymore, just give it away. Just face it, you’re not going to play the trumpet again. Your 40-year trumpet career is over, time to move on. A city kid needs your instrument.”

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.