"I played my first gig on saxophone," said Chuck Niles, "when I was 14, at a hotel which actually was a house of ill repute. The war was in its early days and we were right outside the gate of Westover Air Force Base."
To any Los Angeles resident who has listened to jazz on the radio, Chuck Niles is known not as a sax player, but as the city's perennially eloquent voice. When he is not on the air he may be at some worthwhile benefit or tribute, such as the KKGO-sponsored Woody Herman dedication tonight at the Wadsworth Theatre, which he will emcee in his familiar burnished baritone.
Back home in Springfield, Mass., Niles studied clarinet, then alto and tenor sax, playing in school bands. Though he was still involved in music, after emerging from Navy service in 1946 he went to American International College and graduated with a degree in psychology.
"But then I really started playing. There was a band that did a lot of college dances around Massachusetts, and I was sorta serious about playing."
In 1950, just out of college, he became interested in radio and went to work doing a morning show on WTXL in Springfield. From that point on his careers as radio personality and musician ran parallel, until he gave up public performing in the mid-1960s (but he still has three horns at home).
His first trip to California was, to say the least, uneventful. "I stayed for about a minute-and-a-half and couldn't get arrested; so I went to Florida in my car. Stopped at a gas station, and the guy pumping gas turned out to be a former bass player. He told me there might be an opening at a Daytona Beach radio station, and there was. I stayed there about a year, made a couple of trips to New York, but mostly worked around Florida--a gig reporting sports every night on Channel 12, a radio show in West Palm Beach. I was a big fish in a small pond, but I wanted to find a bigger pond."
A second Southland venture proved luckier. Niles landed a job as the afternoon movie host on Channel 9, and worked part time at KFOX in Long Beach. While there he met Jim Gosa (now a KKGO colleague) and the legendary "Sleepy" Stein.
"Sleepy asked if I'd like to be involved with this new jazz station he was starting, KNOB. I said yes, even though there was no money. I had been doing some movie work, a few acting jobs, so I could afford to do it."
The KNOB job lasted (with time out for summer stock acting assignments) until 1965, when the station changed hands and gave up on jazz. Meanwhile, KBCA (now known as KKGO) had become the dominant jazz outlet. Niles went to work there and, with a few absences, has been at the microphone there ever since.
He has been a constant activist for live jazz on the air. In the early 1970s, he began presenting Sunday concerts at the Museum of Science and Industry. Since January, 1984, he has been hosting jazz recitals at the Wadsworth Theatre. They are now heard on the first Sunday of every month. On Nov. 1, the incumbent group will be the New American Orchestra. Additionally, Niles presents live music every Tuesday from 8 to 8:30 p.m. at the Biltmore Hotel's Grand Avenue Bar.
"My hours on the station now are from 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. I keep busy, and in my spare time for the past three years I've been working on a screenplay about Central Avenue. It's a great story with a lot of human interest as well as music."
Niles is respected by listeners for his impeccable taste in music and for his obviously thorough knowledge of the subject. He is admired no less for his public service work.
Niles shrugs off compliments with a grin. "I don't want to pass myself off as a goody-goody or too altruistic," he says, "but I will say this: I believe in what I'm doing."