Every Friday and Saturday night Jim Wilke embarks on a seven-hour jazz odyssey. He weathers the storms of big bands and small, sails past tempting siren songs, offers fresh libations of melody and rhythm while guiding a loyal crew of listeners through the bop tempests and ballad tide pools of jazzinterviewing its principals and identifying its sidemen, song titles, record labels and live venues. The journey begins and ends with a theme song: "After Hours performed by pianist Ray Bryant.
Although Wilke is known to the rest of world as host of Public Radio International's Jazz After Hours, to those of us in the Northwest he's a local treasurehis sonorous voice is as familiar by sound as the Space Needle by sight. In fact, Jim Wilke has been the voice of Seattle jazz since 1962, the year the Needle pricked the skyline, when he began broadcasting live on KING-FM from the Penthouse jazz club and capturing the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly. Over 40 years and hundreds of live recordings later, Wilke still tapes concerts for broadcast on Jazz Northwest, his weekly radio show on Seattle's KPLU-FM.
Born in Burlington, Iowa, Wilke grew up in nearby New London. He attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he got his start in radio as a student at WSUI / KSUI in the late 50s. In 1959 he moved to Sacramento and KJML to begin his first full time job in commercial radio. Two years later Wilke signed on with KING-FM in Seattle, where, from 1961 to 1977, he programmed classical music and jazz. He made the jump to KUOW and NPR in the early 80s, and in 1984 American Public Radio, which later became Public Radio International, began airing Jazz After Hours. His late-night early-morning weekend jazz program has grown in popularity ever since. Today it is heard on over 80 PRI stations throughout the U.S. and Canada.
In a media marketplace dominated by shock jocks, focus groups and listener formats, it's both rare and reassuring to turn on your radio and hear a guy who plays music he genuinely enjoys. Perhaps that's the secret to Wilke's success. Faithful listeners, like Monty G. in New York, think of Jim as "more of a friend than an announcer. They can tell he's the same thoughtful, approachable person on air and offwho, when he's not speaking into a microphone, loves to sail, hang out with friends, spend time with family, and listen to jazz.
All About Jazz: You began doing weekly live jazz radio programs from The Penthouse from 1962 to 1968 on KING-FM, taping performers such as Dizzy, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and a bunch of other jazz musicians that came through town. What was your personal response to the music of that era as it was happening? In short, what was it like to be Jim Wilke in the sixties?
Jim Wilke: Those were exciting days, and when you're in your twenties you never admit to not knowing how to do something. You just plunge in and do it. These were all live shows, direct to the studio and on the air, though we made an air-check (reference tape) in the studio as it aired. Fred Stimson was a KING engineer who volunteered to mix at first, but after a month or two, he couldn't make one of the shows and said "go ahead, you can do it yourself." He never came back and I did the next 200+ live shows by myself including the set up, announcing and mixing the live show and packing up on the break. I also did the clearances with the musicians. All of them (except Miles, of course) seemed happy to do the live broadcasts. It was the first set and people would come in for the second set saying they'd heard it on the radio and decided to come on down.
After The Penthouse closed in mid-1968, I did fewer live broadcasts, but began recording live-to-tape at other locations. Special equalized phone lines (30-15k) were becoming more expensive; especially to install, and microwave links were in the future. I did a few live shows for NBC Radio (Ray Charles, Woody Herman) for their annual New Year's Eve All Star Parade of Bands. That was the model for NPR's New Year's Eve show, only on NBC there was much less talk and more music.
I also did local New Year's Eve shows with Joe Venuti at the Pioneer Banque for KING-FM and with Ernestine Anderson from Parnell's and Art Blakey at the Jazz Alley in the U-District for KUOW. Blakey's band at that time had both Wynton and Branford Marsalis and the buzz about those two was just beginning. But I think my all-time favorite was a live show with Duke Ellington from DJ's on Fourth Avenue in 1967 with virtually all of the original cast intact at that time. What a thrill!
AAJ: Those classic jazz recordings have got to be worth their weight in gold. What would it take to get them released today?
JW: A few have been released. For example, in 1983 I got a call from Joe Williams who said he was in the studio recording a new album with the same trio he played with at The Penthouse in 1965 and wondered if I had the original air-check. I did and it became side one of an LP titled Joe Williams: Then and Now (Sea Breeze, 1998).
I won't release the tapes to anyone without assurance that clearances with the artists or their heirs are worked out in advance of any release. Many of the artists have passed since then, including all the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Bill Evans, Cal Tjader, Gerry Mulligan, Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, Jimmy Smith, et al., in addition to those mentioned earlier. There has been some interest expressed by some major record producers, but no deal has come from it. As far as being worth their weight in gold, I don't know. Most of these artists are well-documented already, and a few like Oscar Peterson, Charles Lloyd, Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton are still adding to their legacy. Most of those shows are still on 1/4" reels, if they're to be preserved I could use a grant and some help in doing so. I have talked to the Smithsonian and a couple of other institutions seem interested.
AAJ: Your early recordings at The Penthouse provided the emphasis for starting your own location recording business. How has that evolved over the years?
Jim Wilke (l) with Charles Lloyd (r)
JW: The Penthouse shows were live radio, but musicians noted the good balances and accurate sound we were achieving. It compared well to studio recordings but with the added excitement of being "in the moment." After a while I started getting inquiries from musicians who'd ask if they could hire me to record their performance at a club or concert. Sometimes it was just to document a special combination or reunion; sometimes it was with the intent of creating an album. The current series of shows on Jazz Northwest on Sunday afternoons helps keep that idea alive. I'm still doing live-to-two-track and mixing on the fly with a minimum of processing and EQ, leaving that to the mastering stage. My equipment isn't the most expensive or elaborate, but it's chosen for natural sounding mics and clean, uncolored mixers. I'm equipped for anything from solo to big band.
AAJ: In broadcasting I imagine one has to keep up with technology. Are you doing satellite radio, podcasts, etcetera?
JW: I'm still fascinated with the business after fifty years. Most of the changes have come in the last 20 years or so. When I taught radio classes at BCC (Bellevue Community College) we were still editing tape with razor blades and splicing tape. I took a CD player to show students what was soon going to replace the LP. I did host a daily jazz show on Sirius satellite radio for a while when it began.
Jazz After Hours is distributed by PRI via satellite in the US and goes worldwide via a dozen or more stations streaming to the internet. Listeners check in from the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, South America, a boat in the Caribbean, and even from one listener aboard a Singapore Airlines flight 40,000 feet over India. KPLU has recently added a podcast of each local recording we do on Jazz Northwest, so if you miss the show on Sunday you can download it on Monday or any day the next week or so. I've recorded on reel to reel tape, cassette tape, Beta tape, DAT, CD and computer hard drive. My microphones range from a ten pound RCA 44 BX ribbon mic from the '40s to modern condensers. I've gone from tubes, to solid state, to digital. I'm a bit of a gear head but I'm really in it for love of the music.
AAJ: Describe an average day in the life of Jim Wilke?
JW: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I hardly come out of my studio except for meals and to sail in the Duck Dodge race on Lake Union Tuesday evenings in the summer. After I complete production of 14 hours of Jazz After Hours for PRI, and one hour of Jazz Northwest for KPLU, the rest of the week is more flexible. That's when I do location recordings, write for CD booklets and other special projects. It's also when I sample the new CDs which arrived in the past week.
AAJ: How long does it take for you to produce two seven-hour segments of Jazz After Hours?
JW: I put in three long days to complete the 14 hours. I do the shows in real time; I don't rip CDs onto a hard drive and voice track like many radio shows are done today. When I was doing the show for Sirius, I voice-tracked a nightly six-hour show, a week at a time, and never heard a scrap of music in the studio, only when it was on the air. That really takes the fun out of it. I want to hear the music and experience it the way the listener experiences it, and react to what I've just heard, not just imagine it.
AAJ: How big is your library of collected jazz recordings?
JW: Somewhere between 15 and 20,000 LPs, CDs and tapes.
AAJ: With such a huge supply of music to choose from, how do you possibly decide what to play on Jazz After Hours?
JW: I generally focus on living artists, current releases and important reissues. The older recordings I include are generally in the jazz classics category, unless I'm into some programming theme such as a holiday or seasonal thing.
AAJ: Do you ever get tired of previewing, programming and processing all that jazz?
JW: I wish I had more time to audition new CDs. I receive 80 to 100 CDs per monthif I listened to each one in its entirety I'd have little time for anything else. I emphasize new music on my shows; most of it has been issued in the last three months, with a few classics and staples sprinkled in. The classics are well covered elsewhere; my shows are about what's going on with jazz right now. I enjoy programming, sometimes improvising on a theme like a full moon, a change of season, a holiday, tunes that are thematically related in some way, or contrasting versions of the same tune. I also key on who's touring and where they're playing. I do love doing the location recordingsand editing, mastering and producing those shows for Jazz Northwest. It's some of the most satisfying work I do and it makes me feel like a part of the music community, not just a radio guy.
AAJ: KPLU cancelled your daily JazzBeat segments a few years ago, which irked a lot of listeners. What explanation were you given for the cancellation?
JW: KPLU cancelled JazzBeat at the end of May of 2003 after nearly 11 years. I didn't receive much reaction to the cancellation personally, just a few expressions of mild regret from friends. Perhaps it had run its course. It was only two minutes, but about the same number of words as a daily newspaper column so it took some time to choose and research topics. The writing itself was fairly quick. I had considerable freedom in doing JazzBeat, just a few suggestions here and there which I incorporated when it seemed appropriate.
AAJ: KPLU, the NPR affiliate in Seattle, began broadcasting your Jazz Northwest segments in 1988. Until recently the show was a three-hour showcase of the best in regional jazz. What are your thoughts on the direction KPLU is taking, considering that Jazz Northwest has been reduced from three hours to one?
JW: I'd rather not comment on that for obvious reasons. At one time KPLU did carry all seven hours of Jazz After Hours both Friday and Saturday nights starting at 9 pm. The first three hours have since been displaced by local blues shows. Apparently, the listener support isn't as good for jazz as it is for blues, so that's the direction they went with weekend evenings.
AAJ: John Dimitriou is booking more and more smooth jazz artists into Jazz Alley. He's betting that a shift to smooth jazz will pay off in ticket sales. Is there a chance that you too will phase in smooth jazz programming on Jazz After Hours?
Jim Wilke (r) with James Moody (l)
JW: No, with rare exception smooth jazz doesn't interest me, and at this stage of my career I have no desire to program music I'm not interested in. Actually, I'm happy to say that's been true of most of my career. My model was and is Willis Conover, who had an annual contract with The Voice of America to do the jazz show in the way he saw fit. He said something to the effect of, "If you don't like it, don't renew my contract. But don't tell me how to do it." His contract was renewed annually for over forty years before he died in 1996.
AAJ: Describe the climate of the mainstream jazz market today, and, given the climate, where do local independent labels like Pony Boy and Origin fit in to the overall picture?
JW: If you think about it, much of the best jazz has come from small independent labels: Commodore, Prestige, Blue Note, Riverside, Fantasy, Concord, etcetera; and these were essentially one- or two-man operations at the beginning. Pony Boy and Origin are an extension of that. They are the product of people who believe in the music themselves and want to help musicians get their music heard by a wider audience. Profits are not the primary motive, but you have to at least recover costs somehow if you're going to continue in business.
The big labels are in and out of the jazz business so often these days it's hard to keep track. In this case it's usually the result of some insider having a jazz jones and pushing to build a jazz presence for the label. That's good as long as it lasts, but if this person leaves for some reason, that jazz department usually collapses, too.
AAJ: Your Best Northwest Jazz CDs of 2005 list names over a dozen of your favorite discs by local artists, including Greta Matassa, Floyd Standifer, Thomas Marriott, Dave Peck, and the Emerald City Jazz Orchestra. Could you briefly comment on these five selected artists and what you like about their music?
JW: This is the sort of mix I like. Greta's a singer who I've watched develop from a band singer early in her career to now when she's one of the busiest, most visible artists on the scene today and a born leader in her own right. Floyd is, to many, Mr. Seattle Jazz and rightfully so. He's a solid musician, knows hundreds of tunes, a great leader who other musicians love to work with; he's personable and audiences love him. He's the genuine article on or off stage.
Thomas is a young trumpet player in full flower with control, range and passion in his solos. It's been great watching him come up in the Garfield Jazz program, go on to New York Latin bands, Maynard Ferguson and come back to Seattle to add another spark to our scene here. Dave Peck grew as a musician when he was part of the house band at Parnell's backing visiting stars from Chet Baker to Sonny Stitt. He took the lyrical musical language of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett and created a recognizable style of his own. His influence as a teacher will continue to be felt for a long time. The Emerald City Jazz Orchestra is notable for perfect execution of great arrangements by Matso Lemtiaco. It can stand alongside many of the best bands in the country.
AAJ: We're now six months into the year. Can you offer a sneak preview of your Best of 2006 Northwest CDs?
JW: It's too early to start picking favorites when we're only half way through the year, but the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra's Sacred Music of Duke Ellington (Origin, 2006) is certain to be one of them. It was carefully compiled from the best performances of this music at annual concerts over five years. Many of Seattle's best instrumentalists are featured in the orchestra.
AAJ: Living through so many changes in the Seattle jazz scene, do you have any ideas about the direction the town is going or where it should go?
JW: Of course I'd like to see greater general public awareness of jazz, but I'm happy to see so many small clubs and neighborhood restaurants that employ jazz musicians. It's good to have jazz out in places where people encounter it like Crossroads, Seattle Center, parks, downtown Bellevue, etcetera, without having to seek it out. This is really important to creating awareness. TV does almost nothing for jazz except use it for commercials, and except for a few exceptions radio does nearly nothing. The Seattle Times offers minimal coverage, and the P-I (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) offers none.
AAJ: You have been nominated for The Willis Conover Award for Excellence in Jazz Broadcasting by the Jazz Journalists Association in 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006. When are you going to win this thing?
JW: Not to draw a direct comparison, but I like what Duke said on being nominated for but not winning the Pulitzer Prize. Duke said "Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." He was 67 at the time. This is like a lifetime achievement award and it's named for a person for whom I have enormous respect. Just to have my name in the same sentence with his is an honor, and I do have the honor of being nominated for the award more times than anyone.
AAJ: After 40-plus years in the business are there any goals that you still hope to achieve?
JW: I think I'll make it to 50, which I believe is next year. I've forgotten the exact date I started.
AAJ: I know you like sailing. What type of boat do you have and where do you like to sail?
JW: I'm currently sailing a 14' single-handed Laser. It's a one-design racing boat used in the Olympics and requires quite a bit of athleticism to sail well. I sail most frequently on Green Lake and Lake Union, occasionally on Lake Washington and Puget Sound. I also enjoy sailing the classic boats at the Wooden Boat Center on Lake Union. Sailors are as friendly as jazz people, and listening to jazz while sailing is about as good as it gets.
Courtesy of Jazz After Hours