After 35 years, WBGO is still a radio station with a mission

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WBGO’s morning host, Gary Walker, has been with the station since 1984.

“WBGO is a miracle radio station and I’m going to tell you why.”

But before Dorthaan Kirk — Newark’s First Lady of Jazz, with her silver braids behind her headband and her welcoming smile and her eyes that have seen more of this music than most people will ever hear with their ears — does that, let’s go back to 1979.

Newark had for 12 years been recovering from the riots of ’67 — six days, 26 dead, hundreds injured, swaths of the city destroyed. Resentment smoldering long after the fires were extinguished. Maybe, by 1979, Newark had not yet recovered, or maybe the trends that precipitated the riots just settled in to stay: capital flight, de-industrialization, rising unemployment, dwindling opportunity.

Kirk had for two years lived with the loss of her husband, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a virtuoso whose cometary life still glows across a certain period of jazz history. He played many instruments — sometimes three saxophones at once — and infused his work with a sense of political urgency. He was only 42 when he died. Today, in Dorthaan Kirk’s WGBO office, Rahsaan Roland Kirk is present many times over via brightly colored, almost mystical illustrated posters that seem to capture his artistic spirit better than any photograph.

Dorthaan loved jazz before she met Rahsaan, but their life together immersed her in the scene. So it was no surprise when, one day, she got a call about a new jazz station in Newark.

“I choose to say that I’m one of the original members and I was the third person hired here. That may or may not make me a founder,” she said. “But I was here from the beginning.”

The original WBGO went on the air in 1948 and was licensed to the Newark Board of Education; it broadcast things like spelling bees and football games. But by the late 1970s, the station was underutilized. And the signal was very powerful, reaching upwards of 20 million listeners across the New York metropolitan area.

Bob Ottenhoff, then a Rutgers University graduate student, saw an opportunity. He convinced the Board of Education to transfer the broadcast license to what would be New Jersey’s first public radio station. The Board agreed, and Newark— the city of Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter and Larry Young — became home to a new NPR affiliate, dedicated to jazz. They gave it a nickname: “The Jazz Source.” By some weird coincidence, the old call letters were the same as the new founder’s initials: BGO, Bob G. Ottenhoff.

Ottenhoff went on to an estimable career in public broadcasting and philanthropy, but remains close to WBGO. He’s unmistakably proud of what the first members accomplished. “One day we turned on our station, if you will, and said, okay, here were are! Start listening to us! … It’s almost as if the airwaves went out and found people. They found those jazz lovers wherever they happened to be.”

It was a gamble: a community-supported, non-profit, independent jazz station with a skeleton staff, dubious cash flow, nonexistent marketing, borrowed records and no real broadcasting facility.

But it worked. And 35 years later, by all accounts, it is still working.

From a humble storefront studio in downtown Newark — a brick façade with gold-painted call letters fastened above the door — WBGO broadcasts throughout most of New Jersey, north to Rockland County and southern Connecticut, east to Long Island. And you can stream WBGO from anywhere in the world. It is the only full-time jazz format station serving New York City, the world’s jazz capital.

WBGO has grown tremendously since 1979 without deviating from its mission: using that powerful signal to bring straight-ahead, mainstream jazz to the people. The hosts and staff are Jesuits of jazz, evangelizing to the masses instead of poring over sacred texts in cloistered sanctuaries, as critics and academics sometimes do.

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DORTHAAN KIRK

In her WBGO office, Dorthaan Kirk is surrounded by pictures of Rahsaan and other musicians and friends and family — all overlapping categories. Here is where she exercises her duties as Newark’s First Lady of Jazz. She is the Special Events and Programs Coordinator, and always has something brewing, inside or outside the official scope of her work at WBGO: a kids’ concert series, jazz vespers at Bethany Church, a monthly jazz brunch at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center named in her honor.

One project was being assembled on the day I met her. Bill May, a photographer, was hanging black and white portraits on the walls of WBGO’s front hallway. He was digging through the seemingly endless plastic packaging on one of the frames. “It’s like an onion,” he said. “Just keeping peeling layer after layer.” He might as well have been talking about his work, and the station, and the past.

“Bill has been documenting WBGO since very, very, very, very early on,” Kirk said. “This exhibit is from various events, a lot of which I produced, back when. It’s a walk through history.”

Peering out from the glossy portraits: Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck. A jazz pantheon. “It’s very sad, so many of them aren’t here anymore. But the good part about it is that when they were here, they were very supportive of WBGO.”

***

Any given week day, Gary Walker wakes up at 3 a.m. Maybe he’ll work out, maybe he’ll put on a Stones record “to cleanse the palate.” By 4:30 a.m. he’s in the shower, and then he’ll hit the road. By 6 a.m. he’s on the air, waking up WBGO’s listeners.

“When I was in school, I thought, I’ll never be a morning person,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it’s the best time of the day. It’s quiet. I don’t know what rush hour is! Well, I know what it is coming home some days. But I’m having the time of my life.”

Walker landed in New York City in 1982 and went on the air at WBGO five weeks later. In 1984, he took over the morning spot. “I worked in almost every different format of commercial radio before I came here,” he said. “This is the first, and only, and probably the last public radio station I’ll ever work at.”

If Walker told me he was born in a broadcasting booth with a microphone in his hand, I’d believe him. He has everyone’s idea of the perfect radio voice: resonant with a touch of grit around the edges, an intonation that doesn’t swing his sentences upward or curve them downward, but at the end of every phrase drifts sideways into a deeper register. The effect of such a voice is fundamentally cool. (Or “hip,” as Walker tends to call things he thinks are cool.)

Walker’s passion for radio, as a profession and a cultural endeavor, is matched only by his passion for the music. “Jazz is one of the greatest art forms we have in this country,” he said, “if not the greatest.”

Waking up in the middle of the night is a small tribute to pay at the altar of jazz. Walker is happy to do it. He spends his mornings in the broadcasting booth, piling up stacks of CDs, making trips to the library across the hall for more music. WBGO is old school that way: all the music you hear is beamed off a compact disc that the host personally queued up. (Walker is also the music director, and his desk is obscured by hundreds, possibly thousands, of CDs, that he will sort through and vet. “I can listen to music all day, every day,” he said, and one gets the impression that, sometimes, he does.)

Like all the hosts, Walker builds his playlists within a loose framework— a classic performance at the top of the hour, followed by a vocal track, a new song, etc. — but the songs are up to him. “Classic performance is one of the categories,” he said, “but what classic performance?”

He let this sink in, eyes a-glimmer. “Wow. What freedom.” The possibilities, not literally endless, might as well be. He plans a few things out in advance, nuggets of information around which to construct a set, but otherwise, when he is on the air, he is improvising.

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RHONDA HAMILTON

And Rhonda Hamilton is listening. She is likely across the hall, combing through the library with a stack of CDs nestled in her arm, preparing to host WBGO’s mid-day show. Like Walker, she improvises, but almost entirely so, and she builds her set around thematic and structural continuities between songs, as if creating a puzzle from the inside out. Her calm, easy-going presentation makes it easy to overlook the discipline and breadth of knowledge that this requires.

“Most of the time I’m following Gary, and whatever is the last song that he plays, that’ll be my starting point,” she said. “Today he played this song by Bobby Watson called ‘Heckle and Jeckle,’ so that made me think of pairs. I started out with ‘Bags & Trane,’ Milt Jackson and John Coltrane. From there I went to Ella and Louis — Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.”

“It’s more fun and challenging to do it that way,” she said, and perhaps it’s how Hamilton has managed to stay on WBGO through all of its 35 years. She wasn’t the first on the air — Art Vincent, a legendary jazz broadcaster and enthusiast who died in 1993, beat her by a week. Otherwise, she’s been here from the beginning, continuing a quest that began when she was a child growing up in Manhattan.

“I remember going up and down the radio dial trying to find the music that I wanted to hear,” she said. “I don’t think I was conscious that jazz was what I wanted, but when I heard that sound I said, okay, this is what I want to listen to.”

During the week, Hamilton is followed by another WBGO veteran, Michael Bourne. (Altogether, the station has 14 regular hosts and a staff of reporters who are responsible for WBGO’s news content.) The other hosts are well-regarded — Felix Hernandez’s Rhythm Revue, a classic soul and R&B show that airs on Saturdays, is especially popular — but Hamilton, Walker and Bourne form a sort of triumvirate that embodies the station’s identity.

“Between the three of us, there’s a hundred years of jazz radio,” Walker said. “And on some days we all look it! They won’t let us hang out in the same room in case there’s a nuclear disaster of some kind.”

***

Sept. 8, 1980. WRVR, New York’s preeminent jazz station, is broadcasting over the city and surrounding environs. It’s that mournful Charles Mingus tune, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Then, abruptly, the voice of Waylon Jennings, singing Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country?” As a New York Times reporter later observed, this was a rhetorical question only — ready or not, WRVR was switching formats, from jazz to country.

“WRVR’s escape from New York was met with great fury by jazz fans here,” said James McBride, a writer and musician. He’s still flabbergasted by the whole affair. “That was a pretty nasty piece of business. Overnight, literally, it just vanished. Someone pulled a Mack truck up to the place, took all the music out, and it became a country station.”

But WRVR’s demise was a new beginning for WBGO, which used the opportunity to expand from part-time to around-the-clock broadcasting. By the mid-1980s, McBride, along with thousands of other jazz fans, started to tune in. He never stopped.

“ ‘BGO is the best jazz station I’ve ever listened to,” he said. “It’s the last line of defense in a world gone corporate jazz. You listen to Sirius Radio and it’s just awful. It’s humpty dumpty jazz. But ‘BGO, they swing all the time.”

The station has a special place in McBride’s routine. During the day, when he’s at home in Lambertville, he writes. (His memoir “The Color of Water” was a best-seller, and his novel “The Good Lord Bird” won the National Book Award in 2013.) But once the day is done, he breaks the writerly silence of his home with the sounds of WBGO. “I put it on when I go to bed and listen to it all night,” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and hear somebody who’s just inhaling the clouds, you know, and I’ll go back to sleep and wake up the next morning and I just feel good.”

McBride is an accomplished jazz composer and performer, and I asked what draws him to this music.

“Jazz is about the truth,” he said. “You can’t really play this music without being honest. What jazz is, we could talk about that all day. But the music demands a certain kind of honesty, in every way, technically and spiritually. When you understand that, the bare truth of it, the simplicity of it — it’s simply gorgeous. That’s how you can tell the phonies from the real ones.”

For McBride, just one of the station’s 450,000 weekly listeners, there is nothing phony about WBGO.

***

WBGO is older than me. I grew up in northern New Jersey, well within the range of its signal. My dad often tuned in to 88.3 FM and left it playing on the stereo. He wasn’t a hardcore jazz fan; no one in my family was. For us, the station was what its nickname suggested: the jazz source. It was like turning on the faucet for a glass of water. You tuned in to WGBO to hear some jazz.

One weekend, my dad was listening intently to a block of music by the great vibraphone player Bobby Hutcherson. It might have been a special occasion, like Hutcherson’s birthday. I was probably shuffling around the kitchen in a Metallica shirt, eating junk food.

Hutcherson’s vibes floated through our house, shimmering and haunted, alive and ghostly at the same time. You could almost see the mallets dancing in a blur over that weird machine, the figure stooped, elbows bent, conjuring up notes in pairs and clusters. Then a ferocious run up the bars.

“Did you hear that? Just listen to that guy. Amazing,” my dad said. “Bobby Hutcherson.”

Another kind of jazz fan would want to know the date and location of the recording; the names of all the players; the make of the instruments; the proper place for this tune, historically and aesthetically, in Hutcherson’s oeuvre. And maybe another kind of jazz station would instruct you on all that.

There’s a time and a place, as they say. But this music, all music, is first meant to be heard. And WBGO knew that from the beginning.

“Just listen to that guy. Amazing.”

***

In a small lounge next to WBGO’s broadcasting booth, a picture of Homer Simpson is taped to the wall. He is raising an accusatory finger and saying, “Ahhh … those jazz guys are just makin that stuff up!”

Homer might feel at home among a certain section of WBGO’s audience. Of course there are hardcore jazz fans who tune in. But the station’s mission is not just to satiate them. WBGO is a champion of jazz for anyone who wants to listen.

Some of that work happens online, through social media and the blogs, or in person, at events and concerts. But much of it depends on the people in the booth. In their approach to broadcasting, the hosts differ considerably from, say, Phil Schaap at Columbia University’s WKCR. Schaap, a jazz historian, has been on the air for nearly as long as WBGO, and seems emblematic of the academic style that WBGO mostly rejects. His signature program “Birdflight,” for instance, is devoted entirely to the music and minutiae of Charlie Parker.

“You don’t have to know a lot of jazz. I think that’s a misconception,” Hamilton said. “You don’t have to know the difference between a tenor and an alto saxophone or who Charlie Parker or Jelly Roll Morton was. You just have to like what you hear.”

When she’s on the air, Hamilton provides a little context — but not too much. “I don’t think you need to be hit over the head.”

Walker agrees. “My biggest consideration is not this side of the microphone,” he said, gesturing toward himself. “It’s the other side of the microphone. What is the audience doing in the morning? Do they want to know what color socks Sonny Rollins had on when he did this recording date at Rudy Van Gelder’s and what they had for lunch? No!”

“I’ll give you another great example,” he said, shifting into a cheeseball version of his own DJ voice. “When someone says, ‘And of course that was Roy Haynes on the drums.’ ” He threw up his hands.

“For the 99 people out of 100 who didn’t know that was Roy Haynes, you’re speaking down to them. And traditionally, that’s the way the jazz arts have been presented. I’m not saying dumb it down, but make it palatable.”

3 thoughts on “After 35 years, WBGO is still a radio station with a mission

  1. In 100 percent agreement with everything that was said. Absolutely the best jazz station I’ve heard. So happy to have become a member and financial supporter.

  2. Great article!! WBGO has been my university of Jazz, my family and my source of deepest comfort. As a physics graduate student at Rutgers in the late 80’s and early 90’s , I listened to you guys all the time and learned about the music and became a life long jazz fan. Apart from the ‘holy trinity’ mentioned above, my dearest, hippest jazz professor was Mike Anderson, Dr. Bop himself! His overnight program ‘Music for the Serious Set’ was the source of inspiration for countless overnight study sessions as I worked my way through all the crazily challenging problems that are the rite of passage in the training of a physicist. The parallels with the practice that is required of a jazz musician before he or she emerges and blows our minds with a delightful performance was very apparent to me and kept me on track. Mike introduced me to Abbey Lincoln’s music and reminded us listeners how lucky we were to be alive in a place close enough to hear her live at New York’s Fat Tuesday’s and later at The Vanguard. Those performances are unbelievably special experiences that I cherish each day of my life.

    At WBGO my husband and I felt that we had found our community- our lives were run by the Jazz Calendar- and the point mentioned by Mr. McBride about the truth of this music was something that you brought to us everyday.

    When we left the US to return to India in ’94, the biggest component of the luggage we shipped home was our jazz collection- lps and CDs- and they kept us going until the internet arrived and let us renew that umbilical connection to WBGO again!
    So from a pair of old time fans across the globe, thank you for the music!
    With love and deepest gratitude to the triumvirate, Dr. Bop (where is he??!!) Ms Kirk and all other wonderful BGO people whose names we don’t know,
    Lekha Nair and Nalin Pant

  3. I am a native New Yorker now living in Norfolk VA. I remember fondly listening to WBGO all the time and really enjoyed a weekend announcer. Mike Anderson who was a really. Hip. Guy. And Jazz historian. A great memory. I also enjoyed. WKCR. And Bird Flight. Daily dedications to. Charlie Parker

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