Longtime WGBH host Eric Jackson passed away earlier this morning.
Live radio is the most ephemeral of media. But its resonances are unpredictable.
When you are an on-air host, you sit in the studio, say what you think is appropriate or witty or profound into the mic, fire the CD player or the computer file, and wonder. Your words go off into the ether. You never know who is listening. And the later your shift is, the more you wonder if ANYONE is listening.
You rarely think you’re doing something that anyone will remember.
I have been astounded when people I’ve never met before say, “I remember you. What did you call that show? Spaces? I loved that theme song you played.”
It’s been 40 years since I did my last jazz show on the radio, and people still remember my paltry 10 years. How many more people did Eric Jackson touch in his four decades on WGBH?
How many tens of thousands now keep Eric Jackson’s voice alive in their hearts? You’re one of them, aren’t you? You can hear his voice right now if you listen with your inner ear.
In 1971, I was 22. That was the year I first wangled my way into the WBUR studios and sat a few feet from the man who had the late-night jazz shift, 21-year-old Eric Jackson, talking genially to the unseen while the turntables next to him held black vinyl discs, ready to spin after he closed his mic. I remember listening to him work. I remember thinking, “He sounds so easy with this, like he’s talking to some old friends out there.” And of course, at the same time, I was thinking, “If only I could sit there …”
Eventually I did sit in that chair. I worked part-time as a jazz host at WBUR for eight years, and then full-time for two. Back then, WBUR was still small potatoes, and Eric had moved on, to WHRB, and then to WBCN, and finally to the Big Room, that late-night shift on WGBH-FM that brought his voice to every person who cared about jazz all over New England.
The years went on. Week after week, Eric talked to people as they made their way to jazz concerts, and he talked musicians home after their gigs. He was a jazz friend when you needed one, or someone who would listen when you were thinking out loud, or someone who’d play music while you made love, or someone you could cry with when a musician you knew suddenly died.
He hosted jazz for more than four decades on WGBH, season after season, and he always sounded easy in that chair. Even though we knew he had health problems, he always bounced back, he always returned to the air, and he gradually ascended to that golden throne of radio — his listeners came to feel that he would always be there when we needed him. And now …
Others will continue to play jazz on the radio. I have good friends who do it well in other markets, and I envy them a little because I no longer have that beautiful privilege of telling people about music that is worthy of being heard, and then playing it for them. But no other jazz host has ever been blessed in the way that Eric Jackson was blessed — he became the Voice of Jazz in his adopted home, always the first person you wanted to have emcee a jazz concert, always the guy you wanted to interview you when you had a new recording, always the guy to tell you about a new artist who was doing something important, always the guy who put some peace into your heart when you needed it. Here in the land where jazz was born, only a handful of radio hosts have become the Voices of Jazz for their cities, and no one else has ever been a Voice of Jazz as long as Eric Jackson was.
When I did some fill-in work as a classical host at WCRB a few years back, Eric was working just a couple of studios away, because the WGBH umbrella covered both radio stations. While a masterpiece by Beethoven was playing on my side, I might drop by his studio and say hello. We talked the way old stablemates talk – remember so-and-so, what a good show so-and-so had given, I saw you across the room when so-and-so played, what a shame about so-and-so. Every once in a while, I would ask him how he was feeling, knowing that, just like me, he was vulnerable to time. It was always reassuring when he said, “Yeah, I’m fine. Fine.”
I last heard him when he was co-hosting a splendid WGBH in-studio concert by pianist Donal Fox. Since Donal works both sides of the musical street adeptly, and often plays right on the center line, Eric was there to provide the jazz context, playing counterpoint with WCRB classical host Cathy Fuller. He sounded completely at ease, and was as genial a host then as he was when I first heard him work, 50 years before.
There is no guidebook for great radio hosting. The constants — talk to one listener rather than a crowd, keep a smile in your voice, say the right thing and get off the air — don’t tell you much. You learn by doing.
Sometimes you have nights that you think are epic — every word is right, every segue beautiful. Sometimes you want to crawl into the dark and die — every intro is wrong, every tune seems to clash with the one before. Usually your audience can’t tell the difference.
But you know. In your heart you know when it’s working and when it isn’t. I know Eric must have had nights he was proud of, and nights he wished he’d stayed at home. But no matter how he may have felt inside, on the air he was always easy. He made his nights into our nights, and not one of us would take any of those nights back.
We only wish there had been more.
More: Rhonda Hamilton, a major presence in American jazz radio with many years on WBGO in Newark, NJ and Real Jazz on the Sirius / XM satellite radio channel, credits Eric Jackson with inspiring her at the beginning of her long career. She sent to the Fuse this link to a 2018 interview she conducted with Eric on WBGO, which contains some anecdotes Bostonians may not have heard, and concludes with a heartfelt and eloquent tribute from her.
— Steve Elman
In the summer of 2012, WGBH dramatically reduced its jazz programming. “Jazz on WGBH With Eric Jackson’’ no longer ran from 8 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, airing only from 9 p.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday. At the same time, after running a jazz show for 27 years, Steve Schwartz was fired from the station. On July 5, 2012. musician Ken Field organized a well-attended “Jazz Funeral for Jazz on WGBH.” Unfortunately, no resurrection ensued. Art Fuse commentary.
I wrote not long ago: “I consider the 2015 passing of trumpeter Clark Terry, a stalwart of the Tonight Show Orchestra, as a symbolic marker of the end of the 60-year relationship between big band jazz and mainstream television.” Unfortunately, the same parallel holds with the passing of Eric Jackson. Just as late-night talk shows moved away from jazz, on the radio, jazz has been almost entirely relegated to stations of low wattage with small coverage areas.
The shift in the consumer audio environment has been dramatic, of course. Given the brave new world of streaming, the AM and FM radio dials can seem almost archaic. There are apps that will find you jazz radio stations anywhere in the world at any time of day. But the curtailment of jazz programming on a high-profile, high-wattage station makes a difference. The most obvious: there will be less jazz that people will be able to find on their car radios. Possibly equally important for the Boston jazz scene is that Eric’s high profile — on a station as powerful as WGBH — meant that he assumed the role of a kind of roving ambassador of jazz. Of course, he interviewed many artists on his show, but he (like Steve Schwartz) also emceed events and taught music courses. He made use of his bully pulpit to spread the jazz gospel.
Yes, there are still a number of fine jazz programs in Boston on college radio stations. But the knowledgeable hosts toiling in those vineyards are unlikely to receive the considerable cultural imprimatur that comes with the backing of a station like WGBH. When a major media outlet withdraws its support from a particular artistic activity it is a resonant symbol: the city-qua-city has less of an investment in that activity. The fact that jazz is no longer a foundational element in Boston’s cultural self-image is deeply disappointing.
— Steve Provizer