L.A. Jazz Radio

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What predominates the airwaves is a rehashing of the same sort of thing from the late '40s to the mid to late '50s, without any real nod toward some of the other stuff that has happened since then, or reflecting any creative input that makes it fresh, reflecting now. —Larry Koonse
We've all experienced the feeling of discovery: driving in traffic and the radio plays a song. Sometimes it's an obscure, local artist. Other times it's some classic recording one never knew existed. I still recall listening to "Song for My Father" and "Ruby My Dear" for the first time. Having never heard of Horace Silver or Thelonious Monk before; jazz radio made them my new friends.

Since the '70s jazz radio has gone through major changes. Gone are the days of a disc jockey playing an entire new record by an artist. With only one full-time jazz station, what is the state of jazz radio in our city?

"We have some good jazz stations," replies legendary big band leader Gerald Wilson. "I didn't know there was such a thing," chuckles Mark Maxwell, host of Rise on KPFK (90.7 FM). "There are only two stations that claim to play jazz in L.A. and we play the real jazz, not the smooth stuff," defends KKJZ/KJAZZ (88.1 FM) legend Chuck Niles. "There's only one game in town," says KCRW's (89.9 FM) Bo Leibowitz, "and that's KJAZZ." "It depends on how you define jazz," replies Ken Borgers, ex-program director at KJAZZ, currently at KCLU (88.3 FM). "If you're a Kenny G-oriented fan, the state of jazz in L.A. is good. The Wave (94.7 FM) does what they do well. If you're a lover of straight-ahead jazz, it's harder to find. There's still good mainstream jazz to be heard, anytime you've got Chuck Niles there. Sam Fields is the most solid jazz programmer in America. My sister (Helen Borgers) is great doing. There are good isolated pockets, and there's no one better for Latin jazz than Jose Riso. I hired him."

Eric, a commuter, adds, "I like KLAC (99.3 FM). They play Basie and Frank. I also listen to KJAZZ. They played something by Lee Morgan that was good and "Moanin'" by Art Blakey. But all they do is ask for money. Give it a rest!" Kim from Agoura maintains, "You've got to listen to Chuck Niles. I've followed him for years. He's the voice of jazz." Larry, who commutes from Calabasas to Santa Monica, agrees, "I can't stand The Wave. It's the same old stuff. If I want the mainstream, I will hit Chuck Niles."

It seems, however, that KJAZZ is changing its format. Reedman Dan Higgins explains, "I've listened to KJAZZ since I was growing up in Long Beach. It's been through everything, but the one common thread is Chuck Niles. He's still going strong. The station has definitely changed. There's not as much of the '50's, '60s straight-ahead style I've come to know and love. I hear a lot more blues. There's less Parker, Trane and Miles. And there's now an element of smooth jazz. Sometimes I look down on my dial and I don't know if I'm on 88.1, because I'll hear something that should be on The Wave."

"KJAZZ is looking for an identity," observes Borgers. "They weren't happy with the numbers they were getting. I was let go because they wanted to shoot for a younger audience. They're doing things not within the jazz vein. They have a Caribbean jazz show on Saturday nights that's basically a reggae show." Maxwell agrees, "Hard bop and Blue Note stuff doesn't get much play there." Anyone who has listened to KJAZZ over the years has noticed that there have been some major personnel changes over the past couple of years. Borgers details,"The list of people who have left are stellar—Dick McGarvin at the top of the list. His credentials go back to the '50s. Ken Poston, the concert producer—a legend. They're running through a lot of people and are looking for an identity that is pleasing to them."

Was there a blood-letting at KJAZZ or was it normal radio procedure? KJAZZ's Sean Heitkemper explains, "We've had numerous personnel changes, a lot having to with who was program director at the time and what their objectives were to maintain an audience and keep our ratings up. It's still the same core guys: Chuck Niles, Helen Borgers, Sam Fields, Scott Willis. That's our bread and butter. We're not at liberty to discuss why people left."

Ex-overnight jazz host Leroy Downs was one of those let go by KJAZZ. "I got an email. I was late by ten minutes and didn't play any Eric Dolphy on his birthday, according to a memo. A few months later, they said my services were no longer available. I don't know why Alfredo Cruz is gone. Things are changing over there, not because of the music and 'we want to do a better job.' I believe it is all about money. With public radio, they have to have dollars coming in, so let's try to get the people that are on the popular stations and maybe their sound is what people will like and listen to." Maxwell recognizes Downs, "Leroy Downs was doing a good job over there and they let him go recently. They let others go too."

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