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RADIO | Around the Dial

Jazz Will Now Come Via AM Too

May 04, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On March 27, Southland jazz fans started stumbling into straight-ahead jazz pouring out of their AM radios--programming ranging from Miles Davis and Charlie Parker in the '50s to current stars Joshua Redman and Terence Blanchard--creating a kind of audio heaven of jazz.

Just as unexpected was its source. The station had been KGIL-AM (1260), until then the home of show tunes and classic pop music.

Despite the longtime presence of the first-rate jazz programming of KLON-FM (88.1), the Long Beach public radio station, jazz listeners--delighted to have more than one choice--have been enthusiastically tuning in to this new music source ever since.

But how did this new station, now appropriately renamed KJAZ-AM, suddenly arrive on the Southland radio horizon?

Chalk it up to a meeting between two longtime jazz advocates--radio personality and programmer Lawrence Tanter and radio entrepreneur Saul Levine.

"I had been thinking for several years that L.A. needed a commercial jazz station," Tanter says. "But it was hard to see how it could be done. With entities out there owning as many as 800 or 900 stations, with radio being driven by Wall Street, the major players are not likely to do a format driven by jazz or classical, because those formats don't produce the quick returns they're looking for."

Levine, an independent and the owner of classical station KMZT-FM (formerly KKGO-FM 105.1, with its new call letters celebrating the name Mozart), had other ideas.

"We were formerly a jazz station," Levine says. "But we dropped jazz to go classical in 1989. The advertising community wasn't ready then to support a full-time jazz station in Los Angeles. But times have changed, and we now feel there's an opportunity."

Getting KJAZ-AM up and running, however, has been a one-step-at-a-time process. Until last week, the station's music had been delivered via a satellite broadcast from WFMT in Chicago.

This week, after the virtual construction of a new facility in Westwood, much--but not all--of the programming has switched to local production. Tanter, who is celebrating his 29th year in broadcasting and who is the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers at the NBA team's home games, does the afternoon drive segment from 1 to 5 p.m., with local broadcaster Mark Morris starting in the mornings at 7. Other on-air personalities include Nick Tyler from L.A. and Nancy Serena from Boston.

The move toward local programming, which will include two live deejay segments (Tanter's and Morris') on weekdays and two (with Tyler and Serena) on weekends, is part of what Tanter says is a multilayered process of bringing KJAZ up to full speed.

"The first layer was simply getting on the air," he says. "Starting local live programming has been our next major step. The next layer will probably be a month or two down the pike, when I'll add another person or two. . . . By the fall, KJAZ in Los Angeles will be operating at full throttle."

Some jazz observers, aware of Tanter's history as one of the creators of the "smooth jazz" format, are concerned the station might move in a more commercial direction. But Tanter insists that pure jazz--not instrumental pop--will remain front and center.

"No way will we become a smooth jazz station," he says. "There's too much other fine music that's not being played.

"For the most part," explains Tanter, "the body of music will cover five decades. The vocals will be by jazz singers--Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams. But we'll also play material that features, say, Cyrus Chestnut with Anita Baker doing 'Summertime' or 'My Favorite Things.' Al Jarreau doing 'Take Five' or 'Blue Rondo a la Turk.' Diana Krall, Tony Bennett, Dianne Reeves, Ann Hampton Callaway, Karrin Allyson. And, of course, Frank Sinatra.

"Instrumentalists? Bird, Miles, Trane, Dizzy and Monk from the '50s, of course. The more contemporary stuff will include Benny Golson, Jimmy Greene, Russell Malone's new album, Jackie McLean, Charlie Byrd's tribute to Louis Armstrong. Kenny Barron, Eliane Elias, Roy Haynes, Pat Metheny. We'll play some big bands--Duke and Count as starters. This is going to be a station that jazz lovers will enjoy but that music lovers will enjoy too."

Can such programming succeed in this competitive radio market, especially given that KLON-FM offers similar selections?

"KLON is . . . well-programmed with excellent talent," says Tanter. "But they're an NPR affiliate, and we're one of 82 other facilities in the No. 1 radio market in the world in terms of revenues. We're vying for revenue and rates, they're vying for audience.

"What it all really comes down to is the fact that the music will be our primary landscape," says Tanter. "We're just the gardeners, so to speak, keeping the soil tilled and the weeds out."

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