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Chuck Niles, 1927–2004

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Longtime KKGO-KLON-KKJZ disc jockey Chuck Niles has passed away, having worked up until quite near the end. In a medium full of empty-headed blowhards and Clear Channel Stepford-jocks, Niles was in every sense an “on-air personality.”

I met Niles a couple of times — it was easy enough. He was a denizen of the local jazz clubs; pop into Charlie O’s on a weeknight, and there was a good chance he’d be there. Last time I spoke with him, I was standing at the bar, and there was that voice: the unmistakable Chuck Niles whiskey baritone. He spun a few stories. Though he didn’t know me at all, as with all great radio personalities you’d swear he was your friend — you’ve spent so many hundreds of hours listening to him. He came off as just a neighborly cat who happened to be the greatest jazz disc jockey in the world.

Niles was quite a supporter of living jazz, plugging local players on his show. And in the clubs, you’d see him approach some young piano player between sets and compliment him on his swing, and the kid could barely keep his imperturbable jazz expression, he was so thrilled. Because Niles had been there; he had that bemused sense that I believe comes from having lived near the beginnings of a cultural revolution — bebop. Niles knew many if not most of the founding boppers; he saw them play, bought their earliest 78s. A lot of stories slipped away when Chuck Niles passed on. We’ll still hear some of those stories, of course, but now they’ll seem like just history instead of experience.

I’m spinning the bop and the straight-ahead for myself now, just wishing that some folks could live forever.