Long Beach's KJazz Radio Keeps the Jazz Flame Burning

The Mighty Mojo Prophets play the first-ever KJazz Indie Blues Night at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach.
The Mighty Mojo Prophets play the first-ever KJazz Indie Blues Night at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach.
Photo by Danielle Price for KJazz

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Follow him on twitter and also check out his archives.]

KJazz is L.A.’s greatest life hack. Forget sushi gems stashed in strip malls, secret parking spots or meditation gurus: Few things reduce municipal stress levels more than KKJZ (88.1 FM), beaming 24 hours from the campus of Cal State Long Beach.

In a city with interminable commutes and Darwinian drivers, the 34-year-old station offers a psychic oasis — musical programming as escape hatch. Adjust the dial and the urban slop of modernity morphs into the art deco noir of the imagination.

Maybe that’s over-romanticized, but for a city inclined to face-lift its land-marks, there is something powerful in real or mythic memories of when Central Avene still swung and blues bar Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn still breathed.

“There’s something timeless to it,” says Stephanie Levine, the station’s manager. “Artists like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald still elicit a major response. Music always has trends, but some things never change.”

Of course, rock, hip-hop and dance music have long eclipsed jazz and blues in popularity, but none of those genres can boast such a bedrock foundation. Part of what makes KJazz essential is its devotion to exploring the music’s rich subgenres and tributaries: blues, swing and bebop to 1970s fusion and Latin jazz, big band to modern vanguards such as Robert Glasper.

As you might expect, the demographics skew grayer than the 18- to 49-year-olds most stations court. My first exposure to its call numbers came via my grandfather, a jazz acolyte who spent the last years of his life in Marina del Rey, staring at yachts from his window while nodding off to Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington solos.

I didn’t quite get it at the time. Maybe jazz just makes more sense with age, as the desire for raucousness becomes a quest for tranquility. Or maybe humanity cannot live on the turn-up alone. Either way, I’ve found myself among the most ardent of the station’s approximately 400,000 monthly listeners (the most of the five full-time jazz stations — not counting the “smooth jazz” format — still extant in the United States, according to Levine).

 

KJazz volunteer Doris Felix in the stations's massive jazz CD library.
KJazz volunteer Doris Felix in the stations's massive jazz CD library.
Photo by Danielle Price for KJazz

While officially owned by the California State University, Long Beach Foundation, KKJZ’s broadcast operations are in the hands of Global Jazz Inc., a local family business that has run jazz stations since the 1950s. A significant portion of its funding come from donations — and as with most places supported by philanthropic whim, the station exists in a permanent state of fiscal anxiety.

“It’s definitely a struggle,” Levine says. “The decline of record sales and the closure of jazz clubs show that jazz isn’t as popular as it was. But there’s wonderful in-terest from younger people. Our job is to foster more of that.”

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The last several years have spawned a local jazz revival, especially within the hip-hop community. Contemporary fusion from Madlib, Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus and the artists on Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint have reignited interest in the deceptively durable form. There’s Canadian trio BadBadNotGood, which records for local label Innovative Leisure, and devises psychedelic tinctures of jazz and hip-hop. Meanwhile, rap enfant terrible Tyler, the Creator hails Roy Ayers as a primary inspiration.

It leaves you hopeful that something will remain once the final originators fade away, and opens the possibility that someone can replace them. KJazz is more than an exquisite time warp; it’s a free education. We can live easily without another landmark, less so without a linchpin.

“When a format goes away, it doesn’t come back. People rarely resurrect them,” Levine says. “We have people listening from other cities where they’ve lost the format, and they’re always saying not to take it for granted. But we have so much to be grateful for. There are all these great talents who are alive. We just have to make sure that we move into the future, so they have somewhere to be heard.” 


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