Everybody knows jazz came up the river from New Orleans, but who would have figured it would end up in Long Beach?
It settled in other places, of course, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But block for block, street for street, the harbor city has become a blues and jazz haven in its own right.
There are downtown clubs and North Long Beach bistros where the music sloshes out the doors on most evenings. The Queen Mary has been known to bob and sway to jazz rhythms emanating from its Observation Bar.
There's even a bit of jazz broadcasting history in the Long Beach area. In 1956, Alex (Sleepy) Stein opened KNOB, the first all-jazz radio station in the world, in Signal Hill, the little city within the city of Long Beach.
Most noticeably nowadays, Long Beach has KLON, the Los Angeles area's only all-jazz radio station. And Long Beach has Chuck Niles, the rumbling voice of jazz in Southern California for almost 40 years.
Niles, 67, a tall, angular man with the mussed-up hair of someone who has just dragged himself out of bed--which may be the case for this late-night jazz club habitue--has been the Los Angeles area's premier jazz disc jockey since the mid-1950s.
The only thing in Long Beach that speaks with more deep-toned authority, jazz fans say, is the Queen Mary's hourly foghorn.
Since his California debut on KNOB 38 years ago, Niles has also become Southern California's No. 1 drumbeater for the propagation of the music in Long Beach and elsewhere, jazz musicians and radio colleagues say. The constant theme of Niles' radio broadcasts is that bringing jazz performers and audiences together keeps the music going.
For the last four years, Niles' show has come from KLON, a listener-supported public radio station that is licensed to Cal State Long Beach.
"When I first heard him back in the KNOB days, he always said, 'Get out and hear some live jazz, man,' " says Ken Borgers, Niles' KLON colleague, who has been doing jazz shows for 25 years. "He's always stirred the fires for the clubs."
It's still a frequent refrain when Niles is in the little broadcasting booth on the Long Beach campus from 3 to 8 p.m. weekdays.
His enthusiasm for the jazz scene is irrepressible. "I get so excited on Fridays," he said a few weeks ago, before launching into one of his patented accounts of who's playing where and when. "I mean, going into the weekend with all this live jazz around. . . ."
Off the air, Niles is self-effacing about his importance to jazz in the region. "I don't regard myself as some sort of a pedagogue," says Niles, a former professional sax and clarinet player. "But I used to be on the other side of the business. I had a good taste of being a musician, which might have given me a little more empathy."
In fact, it's often the view from the bandstand--or from the dressing room behind the bandstand--that you get from Niles the broadcaster. In his patter, a musician doesn't play a tenor saxophone, he sits "in the tenor chair." A pianist, a drummer and a bass player are "a rhythm section." A group of performing musicians, even if they're only a trio, are "a band."
A musician who has "chops" is an especially skilled one.
Niles has "chops" as a broadcaster, most musicians say. On the air, he's lighthearted, witty and transcendentally knowledgeable about the music he plays, often throwing in inside information about a composition or a musician.
"I was at Donte's when they recorded that," he told his audience one recent afternoon, conjuring up a scene at a now-defunct North Hollywood jazz club where singer Carmen McRae had given a taut rendition of a ballad.
Niles hunches forward in front of the big broadcasting microphone, one hand holding his earphones in place like an old-fashioned telegraph operator, and ad-libs a few lines for each of the 30 to 40 tracks he plays each day.
"He's No. 1--the best anywhere in the world," says Stein, the former radio personality who was the co-owner of KNOB in its all-jazz years (the nickname came from his radio days during World War II, when he replaced a Chicago announcer named Wide-Awake Widoe).
On the so-called "jazz knob," Stein, Niles and others placed Long Beach and Signal Hill on the jazz map between 1956 and 1968, playing the music of such West Coast innovators as Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, as well as the be-bop standards from New York.
In the early 1960s, Stein hosted a radio show three nights a week from the Strollers, a Pine Avenue club, with live performances by drummer Chico Hamilton, playing rich, soupy jazz melodies with a quintet that included a cello.
The Strollers is long gone. But with a college campus that brims with musicians and jazz aficionados, a bustling downtown entertainment district and widely acknowledged preeminence in the broadcasting field, Long Beach still swings with the music, cool and hot.
"The Spruce Goose flew out and jazz flew in," jokes jazz bassist Jim DeJulia.