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James Janisse Signs Off

The March 7 firing of 14-year veteran KKJZ broadcaster James Janisse has generated strong reactions in the L.A. jazz world. Both the deep-voiced African-American DJ and station manager Sean Heitkemper have declined to comment on reasons for the dismissal, but musicians and fans have plenty to say.

“I think James is as vital a part of the local jazz community as was the late, great [DJ] Chuck Niles,” says saxophonist Chuck Manning. “Without him, KKJZ may as well be broadcast from Newark.”

The reaction among African-Americans has been especially angry. The eminent bassist and composer John Clayton, who has appeared on many station fund drives, calls Janisse “the most soulful jazz programmer that KKJZ had going.” Saxophonist and bandleader Dale Fielder goes further: “If you listen to KKJZ, you’d think black people don’t play jazz at all in L.A. And now the firing of the only black program host in L.A. jazz radio? The other DJs don’t play local black artists.” Jeffrey Winston, co-director of the World Stage in Leimert Park, calls the dismissal “catastrophic and clueless. As a charismatic MC at countless venues, Janisse is a tireless ambassador for jazz.” Veteran drummer Washington Rucker adds, “We need to protest this, even if it means picketing the station.”

Station manager Heitkemper, however, asks listeners to check out Janisse’s replacement, John Phillips: “He is African-American, a veteran, knowledgeable about jazz and a longtime member of the Southern California Jazz community” — arriving via the San Diego jazz station KSDS.

To many, canning Janisse is just KKJZ’s latest misstep. There has been a trend toward safer programming: “How you can go so many days without playing Charlie Parker?” asks bassist Trevor Ware. The chatty but jazz-lite morning hosts brought in recently have been unpopular with the longtime audience. And bassist John Heard gets livid about the failure to announce the names of session players: “If all jazz stations were run like KKJZ, no one would ever know who Red Garland or Scott LaFaro or Elvin Jones was.” KKJZ has long defended the programming and format changes as necessary in today’s radio market.

As revealed in the Long Beach Beachcomber and amplified in All About Jazz L.A., the station has taken a financial hit as a result of a previous firing: A December L.A. Superior Court decision awarded a former program director $780,000 for revenues lost when he was improperly dismissed.

As of now, the only evidence on the KKJZ Web site that James Janisse ever existed is in the playlist. Toward the end of his shift on the morning of March 6, Janisse played some Darek Oles, some Modern Jazz Quartet and some John Coltrane. Then he signed off, apparently for good.

But he’ll still be around. Longtime promoter Ozzie Cadena says, “Being cut from a station is just part of being a jazz DJ — it happened to all the best, from Symphony Sid to Chuck Niles. The great ones, like James, always wind up back on their feet.” And you’ll see him this summer. Michael Dolphin, co-producer of the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, says emphatically that Janisse will again emcee the fest, to which KKJZ will also be invited as a sponsor.

What would happen if James Janisse walked onto a stage draped in KKJZ banners? Now, that would be interesting.