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."

One ex-KJAZZ host, who asked not to identified said, "I was let go because of financial budgeting. They could get someone to do it for less money. The station has lost its sense of apprenticeship. People who are running it have never been trained in either broadcasting or jazz. I came up with 28 years experience learning from the best of public broadcasting and jazz, and now you get people in management who've never been worked in a radio station before. It gives reason to pause when a jazz station lets go of their highest and best programmers and personalities. The station has been going down for some time in terms of ratings, audience share and fund raising. Not enough people are listening."

Downs concurs, "Chuck Niles is someone who's their bread and butter. He loves the music. He plays great music. But they use Chuck. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Whatever gimmick they can use to get more money coming in, they'll use, and they'll use Chuck for those things. Chuck just wants to play jazz, just like he's been doing for 50 years. All the other stuff is not Chuck's idea. The people who run KJAZZ don't necessarily know much about jazz. They know the business side more. They've said they'll try everything they can to make the dollars come in. I don't think they know exactly what to do, but if they have an idea, they'll try it." Heitkemper contends, "We've run a straight-ahead jazz station for 24 years. Some of the hosts program their own shows. They were hired because of their knowledge of straight-ahead jazz. We have a great music director, Scott Willis. He's very influential in the morning and evening programs. He handles the music library with thousands upon thousands of CDs and LPs."

Traditional jazz stations try to cling to a core audience of jazz devotees. But there is another way. "KCRW markets themselves better and has a much more diverse audience than KJAZZ," observes Downs. "I saw Branford Marsalis in a concert which they promoted. I'd never seen a more diverse mix at a jazz concert. They were all young and they all came to see Branford. It has to do with how they promote. Same with (Brad) Mehldau playing at places like the Knitting Factory." At KPFK, Maxwell is also reaching out to his audience. "I'm always surprised by who's listening. There's a growing audience for it and I have a specific emphasis on music with a social, struggle, cultural, or spiritual message. It is a narrow part of the spectrum. I did it as a reaction to what is missing in L.A. radio."

Being both a deejay (Spaceways on KPFK) and bandleader, Carlos Nino has a unique perspective on the radio scene. "All attention should be put on Mark Maxwell's show. I feel he's playing the best selection of a wide variety of music that people need to hear within the realm of jazz. I say this as a DJ and as a musician. I feel like the voice for real progressive jazz is to be found nowhere else," asserts Nino. He adds, "If people followed his lead, the world would be in a wonderful time for radio. I feel there's no edge at KJAZZ. James Janisse (KJAZZ) is a friend to everyone in jazz and I'm definitely supportive of him, but KJAZZ doesn't play anything that is challenging or provocative. That is problematic, because I feel that jazz music is revolutionary by nature. It's basically a commercial station."

Puzzling such criticisms would be directed at a listener supported station. According to Heitkemper, "We're public. Seventy-five percent of our income is from membership contributions. Seventeen percent of the other twenty-five percent comes from underwriting small businesses and groups that support us with a contribution and receive a mention. We receive less than $200,000 a year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is funded by the Congress. We have a $4,000,000 budget. It's pretty small for L.A." Borgers discloses, "We at KCLU get no federal money. At first, we were scared here, but now, it's a badge of honor. We've existed without a dime of federal money. KJAZZ gets a lot of money from the federal government. We live strictly by donations." "At KJAZZ, every time you hear the station, you hear a non-stop pledge for money," explains Downs. "I feel I was fired from KJAZZ because I asked for a raise," perceives Downs. "I asked for more money, but there's no money in jazz radio. I was getting $24,000 a year to work there. I was going poor, but I was supporting the music. I worked late in the night and early in the morning. I had to do other work during the day to support myself." Liebowitz relates, "I was earning $15 an hour when I worked at KJAZZ and they asked me to take a cut. I donate my time to KCRW." "There's only one black jazz DJ," finds Downs. "KJAZZ got rid of the ethnicity. Three blacks and one Hispanic are replaced by two women. We do need women, but the sound is changed by adding Caucasian women. There's a change in the style of music. They won't play free jazz, but they'll play Diana Krall. You replace the people, you replace the sound." Leibowitz adds, "I like some of the people at KJAZZ. Some of the people aren't very competent. They have a couple of women there that don't know much."

KJAZZ, through pledge drives, lets the people vote for their favorite artist and there are 88 "great" songs that they expect KJAZZ radio hosts to play. The list, which is on the KJAZZ website (www.kkjz.org), includes a respectful selection like Gerry Mulligan's "Walkin' Shoes," Miles Davis' "Concierto de Aranjuez," and Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance." The disheartening thing is the paucity of songs by listeners requesting anything recorded in the past 30 years. Only two songs (Diana Krall's interpretation of "Peel Me a Grape" and Eric Reed's "Bouncin' with Boo Boo") are within the past two decades. If KJAZZ is the only full-time jazz station, how come they aren't able to educate their audience into listening to anything recorded since 1980? And does that say more about the product or the messenger?

Violinist Jeff Gauthier comments, "You can't play music that is adventurous anymore." Guitarist Larry Koonse adds, "In terms of accessing a broad spectrum of music, it's not there. Avante-garde is not well represented. There's pre-'60s music, which I love, but I find there is too much at the present time and that reflects more of that period than the current music. 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. It's is like a jazz version of K-Earth 101. I love classic jazz and it needs to be played just like Beethoven. I even like updated versions of standards, but generally what I hear feels like an afterthought. For me, that's not interesting. There are other stations that have programming I find interesting and reflect the jazz tradition. KCRW and KPFK play some interesting stuff."

Gauthier clarifies, "It's not an L.A. problem. It's a problem with radio all over the country." Bill Cunliffe puts it into perspective, "I think that to have a full time jazz radio station in L.A. is unbelievably great and considering all the challenges of the market, I think KJAZZ does a really good job.

Most cities have even less jazz than L.A. does. Koonse points out, "There's a resistance to anything that is a bit far from what 'jazz' is and that's dangerous because jazz has always been about pushing down boundaries."

One of the main services of jazz radio is to spotlight local talent. A look at the KJAZZ playlist on any given date includes locals Pete Jolly, Bob Florence, Bill Cunliffe and Joe La Barbera. "I go to clubs," explains Niles. "I just saw a new kid who is fantastic." Cunliffe agrees, "I see Chuck Niles at gigs all the time." Heitkemper notes, "That's the number one focus, to support the local artists. We take great pride in supporting the local musicians. We have a great scene out here, so it's easy to do." But Nino vehemently disagrees, "Yeah, try to get something promoted there and try to get some love at that station, and you won't without paying the price. It's basically a commercial station. It's public in the name.

Just because you get less than half of your money from corporate sponsors doesn't mean you are a 'public' radio station. Try to get something announced there, like my band Build an Ark. If I want to have a ticket giveaway, I'd have to pay them. I wanted them to be a media sponsor, where they get behind an event that was for the community. I have to pay them for that? That's not the sign of a public radio station."

It appears that the airwaves are not immune to the tensions between art and money. Artie Shaw once said that in each song he played three bars would be for the money and one for the music. Or as my life insurance representative put it, "If your only problem is money, you have no problems." And perhaps by that assessment jazz radio in Los Angeles is without ills.

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