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Chuck Niles, 76; Voice of L.A.'s Jazz Radio

March 17, 2004|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Chuck Niles was the voice of jazz radio in Southern California for more than 40 years -- and, some might say, its heart and soul.

Niles, 76, died Monday night at Santa Monica--UCLA Medical Center of complications from a stroke. He had been on the air until Feb. 25, the day before he suffered the stroke, said Judy Jankowski, president and general manager of KKJZ-FM (88.1), the station where Niles had worked since 1990. He had undergone quintuple bypass surgery in July 2001.

Jankowski said that Niles' importance to the station and jazz in Southern California was immeasurable.

"He lived and breathed jazz and was a living jazz historian," she said Tuesday.

"Chuck had the perfect deejay's attributes -- a marvelously mellifluous voice, a great sense of pacing and an innate, cool dude manner," said jazz critic Don Heckman. "But what really made him special was his knowledge and respect for the music, his capacity to present it with the sort of rich communicative understanding that could only have come from someone who, like Chuck, was a musician himself."

Niles spun tracks on a succession of jazz radio stations, beginning with the pioneering jazz station KNOB in Los Angeles and ending on KKJZ-FM in Long Beach. More than an announcer, he was a one--man jazz university, introducing the music and its lore to generations of Southern Californians. He also served as an unofficial jazz ambassador, emceeing countless concerts, memorials and other jazz--related events.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Niles obituary -- The obituary of jazz radio announcer Chuck Niles in Wednesday's California section rendered two names incorrectly. The theatrical club to which Niles belonged was the Masquers Club, not the Master's Club. And the former colleague who was quoted is Ken Borgers, not Borges.

A former colleague, Ken Borges, once called him "the Vin Scully, the Chick Hearn of jazz."

A musician by training, Niles counted many of the jazz greats among his friends, and was the inspiration for several songs, including "Niles Blues" by Louie Bellson and "Be Bop Charlie" by Bob Florence. That song memorialized one of his several nicknames; he also was known as Carlito Niles when playing Latin jazz and Country Charlie Niles during a brief, unhappy stint on a country music station.

Few people had less country in them than Chuck Niles.

One of the few septuagenarians who could refer to someone as a "cat" without sounding foolish, Niles had a voice that seemed perfectly suited to jazz: a deep, smooth, lilting baritone burnished by a life of cigarette smoking and deployed as a virtual musical instrument. He brought an extraordinary depth of knowledge to his radio broadcasts, which he sprinkled with telling anecdotes, heartfelt tributes and lots of exclamations of "Oh, man!"

He could be found many nights at one or more of his favorite jazz nightclubs, soaking up the music and hobnobbing with friends, and his frequent on--air plugs were credited with helping to keep the Southern California jazz club scene alive. Aside from music, his principal passion in life was acting, and his biggest regret was not having achieved greater success on stage or screen. He appeared in many local theatrical productions in the 1950s and '60s, and had a bit part in "Teenage Zombies," which was released in 1958 and eventually won cult status as one of the worst movies ever made.

"I was just walking around like Frankenstein, that's all, no lines, just 'gluergugluergu,' and I'm pretty good at that," he recalled in an interview in 2001. The movie, he cheerfully conceded, "was just terrible."

Niles was proud to have been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although he might have preferred that it be adorned with a camera, not a microphone. Still, he took a journeyman's joy in his radio work and resented anyone who suggested that it was a fallback career.

"My line is, 'All I need is my big fat mouth and a microphone,' " he said. "And in addition to that, my line is, 'And there's no heavy lifting.' And so when I say I go to work -- that's work? I buy the best earphones, I'm down there . . . I'm enjoying myself! How lucky can you get? I'm not saying I didn't play the blues, because I have played some blues, but I'm still a very fortunate cat."

Born Charles Neidel in Springfield, Mass., on June 24, 1927, he eventually adopted the name Niles because he got sick of people calling him "needle," rather than correctly pronouncing his name to rhyme with "idle." He kept Neidel as his legal name.

Theater and music were part of his life from his earliest years. His father, a paper salesman, was an amateur actor in local productions. Niles took up clarinet at an early age and played his first paying gig on saxophone at age 15 --in a brothel.

"As things went on and on, I started playing more often," he recalled. "I tell you, I was never out of work."

In 1945, with World War II nearly over, Niles enlisted in the Navy. The war ended while he was still in basic training in Florida. Niles was sent to San Diego and briefly stationed in the South Pacific.

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