Anyone who was a music fan 20 years ago remembers J.J. Jackson beaming from the television set as one of MTV's original VJs. Many others know him from his three decades on the airwaves for Los Angeles rock stations.
So, steeped in a background of rock 'n' roll, how did he end up spinning smooth-jazz discs at the Wave, KTWV-FM (94.7)? Well, they just called and asked him.
"I was incredibly surprised," said Jackson, who starts Monday as the station's afternoon drive-time disc jockey. "I was just flattered and extremely pleased that they would consider me.
"I'll be learning and trying to develop a style. It's like being new again," said Jackson, who got his start at WBCN, a legendary free-form rock station in Boston. From that he emceed concerts for Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Who, came to L.A. in the early '70s as one of the original DJs at KLOS-FM (95.5), gained even more prominence at MTV and most recently has hosted "The Beatle Years," a weekly syndicated program about the Fab Four, and worked weekends on KLOS. Now he'll be shifting gears, playing Sade, Toni Braxton and Dave Koz from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays.
"It's a whole new genre," Jackson said. "I'm challenged by the fact that there's a lot to learn. I love the fact that there's stuff to learn."
Even though he's most familiar with rock, Jackson said his tastes span all types of music. He said the first records he bought at age 11 were by jazz greats Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. He grew up in a home in which music variety was the rule; his mother attended a Who concert in 1969, and she took the 5-year-old Jackson to see singer Josephine Baker during her last tour.
"We had more diversity, and certainly more than people would think we'd have in a black household," Jackson said. "I like jazz, I like classical, I like country--I'm a Dwight Yoakam fan."
KTWV program director Chris Brodie said she jumped to hire Jackson when she found out he was available, calling him a "musicologist" and citing his demeanor and familiarity with all genres.
"He's such a personable and outgoing guy. He's a fan of the format," she said. "He thinks it's a pretty natural progression. You find very few people in this format who didn't come from other formats."
And that migration among DJs seems to mirror the movement among many listeners who have come to the increasingly popular "smooth jazz" format.
While traditional jazz stations are dwindling to near-extinction, smooth-jazz stations have grown, especially in the past five years, said Carol Archer, smooth-jazz editor of the trade magazine Radio & Records. They've attracted aging baby boomers who are no longer getting what they want from rock and pop radio by playing everything from Kenny G to Booker T. & the MGs. So kids once wowed by the guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen get the same feeling listening to Pat Metheny.
For listeners and air personalities alike, "a lot of people in their middle-aged careers have come from rock, and have sort of grown up and out of rock radio and pop radio, and gone to a different place in their lives, musically," Archer said.
Jackson said a fan of smooth-jazz singer Norah Jones could very well also be a fan of the Rolling Stones. But that same person might no longer be up for a Limp Bizkit concert.
"You're 45 years old, for heaven's sake. You don't want the kid next to you, he's smoking a spliff and it's about to overtake you, and another one is throwing up," he said, laughing. "They're just excited to be there. You're standing there with your wife and maybe your kid, and you're going, 'Who needs this?' "
Even if that couple could stage-dive with the best of them 20 years ago, maybe now they're done with all that. So, Jackson said, "you go across town and you have a really nice meal at a club, and here comes this jazz band that's really deep and soulful."
If fans of Jackson who previously listened only to rock now give smooth jazz a try because he's introducing it, he said he'll be happy. And if they decide they like the music and stay, even better--Jackson said they can then discover and be energized by new artists together. He said he was driving down Ventura Boulevard when he first heard contemporary jazz chanteuse Diana Krall's version of the oft-covered "The Look of Love." At one point, he said, "I got so excited, I said, 'Sing it, lady!' I fell in love with her."
Jackson takes over the afternoon slot occupied by Don Burns for 14 years. With a resonant voice even smoother than the station's format, Burns soothed listeners during their drive home, advised them to "have the kind of night you want to have" and often topped the ratings for his time slot.
"He's replacing someone very highly rated and extremely identified with [the station], one of the true voices of the identity of the Wave," Archer said of Jackson. "Afternoon drive with a recognizable and highly regarded radio figure is a very, very wise move. And with J.J.'s status, he's very well-known and very highly regarded."