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.