Like most employees caught in a change of management, longtime DJ José Rizo worried about his future when a new boss took over earlier this year at L.A.'s only full-time jazz station, KJZZ-FM (88.1). What would it mean for his 17-year run as host of "Jazz on the Latin Side," a weekly show spotlighting the best in Latin jazz from across the world? Rizo, 50, worried that his program might lose its prime Friday night slot. Then he took a call from the station's new general manager, Saul Levine.
"I want to shock L.A.," Rizo remembers his new boss saying.
"How are you going to do that -- take my show away?" countered the affable announcer with the mellifluous voice.
"No, I want to have Latin jazz every day, not just once a week," said Levine.
In a move some considered broadcast folly, the show went daily and moved to the afternoon drive-time slot, from 5 to 7 p.m. Putting an ethnic program in prime time was a gamble that even Levine came to question when some listeners started to complain about an overdose of Latin jazz. "I had faith in this," Levine told me this week, "and sure enough when the ratings started to come out, they showed that 'Jazz on the Latin Side' daily is one of the most listened to programs in L.A., and is probably the foremost program on KJZZ in terms of audience."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, September 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
KKJZ-FM: In some editions of Saturday's Calendar section, an article about radio station KKJZ-FM (88.1) misidentified the call letters as KJZZ.
Rizo, who's also the station's interim program director, says he doesn't like to brag about his success.
People seem to genuinely like this soft-spoken former engineer with a salt-and-pepper goatee who works by day coaching math teachers in an L.A. public school. He also serves as manager and den mother for a band that was generated from a jam session on the 10th anniversary of his program in January 2000. The Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars have been recording and performing ever since, featuring some of the area's top players, including Poncho Sanchez, Alex Acuña and a recent addition on drums, Marvin "Smitty" Smith from "The Tonight Show" band. On Tuesday, Smitty hustled over from the talk-show taping to join the All Stars for a free concert in the courtyard of Hollywood & Highland Center, the mall adjacent to the Kodak Theatre. It was more like a family reunion than a gig, as musicians and fans greeted the radio personality with backslaps, hand clasps and calls of, "Hey, my man."
"That's why we do this -- for the friendships and the people that share your passion," Rizo said as the band settled in to play. Latin jazz -- that explosive mix of Afro-Caribbean percussion and jazz harmonies -- has roots in multicultural musical fusions dating back to 19th century New Orleans and flowering with the milestone collaboration between Cuban conguero Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie in postwar New York.
That diversity is reflected in the makeup of the All Stars, with Latinos playing alongside whites and African Americans in what Rizo calls "probably the most culturally mixed band in L.A." The mix is also in his playlists, with tracks from stalwarts such as Cuban pianists Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba as well as numbers from the "Latin side" of mainstream jazz greats such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt and many more. In fact, Rizo estimates, more Latin jazz has been produced by non-Latin artists than by Latinos themselves.
"I also get a lot of great stuff from Japan, Germany, Holland, Africa," he says, "and it sounds wonderful, with a whole different twist from their cultural backgrounds."
The music's cross-cultural appeal is one reason the station took a chance with the genre. Levine says he was struck by the reaction of fans at jazz concerts.
"As soon as a Latin band started playing, the whole audience got excited and just danced and sang," says the veteran jazz broadcaster. "And I saw everybody getting up, it wasn't just Latinos. Everybody loves it."
Any remaining doubts about the wisdom of the station's decision to expand the show were wiped out during the recent fund drive. Rizo collected $7,000 in a single hour, a record for the listener-supported station. This kind of success still takes some getting used to for a Mexican immigrant born in Guadalajara and raised in Oxnard, where he played trumpet in high school.
"Yes, it's been a shock," he says. "A wonderful shock."
José Rizo's Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars, with special guest guitarist Kenny Burrell, perform at the 17th Annual Jazz at Drew Festival, at 3 p.m. Oct. 6 at Charles R. Drew University, 1731 E. 120th St., Los Angeles. General admission is $45 in advance, $50 at the gate. For information, call (323) 563-9390 or go to www.jazzatdrew.com.
Quetzal breaks for a busy sabbatical