When he headed for BU from his home town of Camden, New Jersey, in 1968, Eric Jackson thought his ultimate destination was medical school and a career in psychiatry. But as a jazz fan from an early age — and the son of a fairly renowned jazz DJ — he found himself on the closed-circuit BU student station, WTBU. He was playing R&B at first, then jazz, and what he calls "mixed music" — the kind of jazz-pop-R&B hybrids that included Blood, Sweat & Tears and Sly & the Family Stone. He found himself with more and more shifts — even though he hadn't particularly asked for them. And even though, for the most part, he wasn't playing the kind of rock and pop that was so popular at the time. Pulling as many as four four-hour shifts a week, he finally asked the student station manager why — when he was so out of synch with current rock tastes — was he being given so much time.
“I’M GOOD AT THIS?” Eric Jackson, celebrating 30 years of hosting jazz on WGBH, is the principal honoree of Jazz Week.
"Because," he was told, "I know that when you're on the air, I get quality radio."
The 19-year-old was stunned with a self-realization: "Oh, so I'm good at this?"
By now, Jackson is secure about his abilities. His early career found him at the BU-affiliated WBUR, then WILD and WBCN — and eventually at WGBH, where he's celebrating 30 years as the evening jazz announcer. JazzBoston has made Jackson's benchmark a keynote of this the fifth annual Jazz Week (April 29–May 8; see sidebar), with two separate events: a who's who of local jazz talent at Scullers this Monday evening, and a night of rare film clips of some of Jackson's jazz heroes at the Regent Theatre next Friday, May 6.
Jackson's achievement is impressive by just about any measurement. Steve Elman — a former jazz DJ and member of the management team at WBUR as well as a current board member of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame — points out that only one other jazz DJ in Boston comes close to Jackson for longevity at a single station: the late Tony Cenammo, who was at 'BUR for 25 years. And, says Elman, "Eric is the only jazz DJ in Boston history to hold a single daypart continuously for 30 years." In fact, he says, "Very few others in any radio genre have hit that mark — and they are all legends," naming AM-radio stalwarts Jess Cain, Carl DeSuze, Gil Santos, Gary LaPierre, and Loren (Owens) and Wally (Brine).
What matters to jazz fans, though, is the quality of Jackson's programming. With "smooth jazz" encroaching on the commercial stations, and traditional acoustic jazz disappearing from all but isolated pockets of college radio, Jackson has held to a standard of "real" jazz that continues to gratify. The heroes who lit his fire, he tells me over lunch in Kenmore Square, were John Coltrane (in his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) and Miles Davis's "second quintet," with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. That's a pretty good baseline for the standards of jazz modernism.
But Jackson's programming extends far and wide — from a deep knowledge of Ellingtonia to the scores of guests of all kinds whom he's interviewed in the 'GBH studio, from Dizzy Gillespie and Abdullah Ibrahim to Ran Blake and Danilo Pérez (the last of whom is a featured player at the Scullers event). If Jackson doesn't tend to the extremes of the avant-garde, it's not necessarily because of his own taste. He claims Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor as personal favorites, and if he doesn't play them often, it's because "the people who like that music are not as vocal. Whereas if I put on Cecil Taylor, I can guarantee people are going to call up and complain. Where are the people who like Cecil calling up to say, 'Wow, this is really great, we don't hear Cecil Taylor on the radio'?"
Another issue is the length of some avant-garde pieces. Jackson, who prides himself on taking as many requests as possible, recalls a listener's asking for a specific Cecil Taylor track that happened to be 20 minutes long. Jackson suggested a 10-minute track. Soon the phone was ringing. "You're not thinking about your audience," he was told. Jackson laughs. "I told him, 'I'm definitely thinking of my audience: the caller asked for a 20-minute song, and I talked him down to a 10-minute song!' "
As a kid, Jackson remembers there was always jazz on in the house. His father, Sam, was the first African-American DJ in New England, playing jazz on a Rhode Island station in 1947 when the family was based in Connecticut. In Camden, Eric picked up on two commercial jazz stations in Philadelpha.
"In those days, I identified music by moods. And each of those stations had a very distinct sound." WWDB 96.5 featured the legendary announcer Sid Mark and his all-Sinatra program, Fridays with Frank. The other was WDAS 105.3, where Ed Bradley got his start playing music, and which Jackson recalls as generally more soulful. Meanwhile, he could expect his father to bring home late-night guests from the Ellington band — drummer Sam Woodyard or trumpeter Cat Anderson. For 27 years, in fact, Sam Jackson (who died in 2009) was a special guest on Jackson's show every Father's Day, when, together, they would often explore Ellington's music.
Mood is still what determines Jackson's show. "The show has to have a flow to it. The first half-hour, the first song, are extremely important to me." Which is why he still misses his old theme song, Tommy Flanagan's "Peace." For the first couple of decades of his show, Jackson began with that ballad and gradually amped up the energy. These days, though, WGBH has ruled out theme songs and said, "No ballads for the first hour." Jackson's show, trimmed back from its heyday, now runs 8 to midnight Monday through Thursday, and 8 to 10 pm on Sundays for "Spotlight" programs on a single artist.
Aside from his intelligent programming, a big part of Jackson's appeal — the key mood setter — has been his voice and delivery: casual and inviting, with a warm, beautiful tone. Which is of a piece with his personality. "He's always, absolutely in service to the music he plays," says Elman, while still having a singular, "emblematic" on-air style. "In a business driven by ego, he seems to be selfless. And that warm, genial presence on-air is something special and rare, especially in a world of media that never seems to stop shouting."