Seattle jazz broadcaster reaching fans around world
In a basement room that's been converted into a radio studio at a home near Green Lake, Jim Wilke broadcasts his "Jazz After Hours" show that goes to 70 stations nationwide on weekend nights, and around the world on the Internet. At age 75, in his 30th year of a national jazz show, he has no plans to quit.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In a basement room that's been converted into a recording studio, in a classic Craftsman home near Green Lake, works the coolest 75-year-old in Seattle.
Actually, a cool guy no matter what age group.
Jim Wilke is surrounded by some 10,000 CDs neatly arranged on shelves in alphabetical order by artist, beginning with Cannonball Adderley and ending with Wayne Horvitz's quartet Zony Mash.
Yes, they're all jazz artists, all thousands of them.
In an adjoining room there are more than 4,000 LPs and some 400 reel-to-reel tapes, the latter all one-of-a-kind, high-quality live recordings of such legends as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Byrd.
It is in this basement that Wilke — in a voice variously described as "butter smooth" and "sonorous" — records shows that run Friday and Saturday nights around the country on 70 radio stations, and with the Internet, throughout the world.
The show is "Jazz After Hours," and as writer Jason West put it in the website, All About Jazz, it takes you on a "jazz odyssey."
West went on: "In a media marketplace dominated by shock jocks, focus groups and listener formats, it's both rare and reassuring to turn on your radio and hear a guy who plays music he genuinely enjoys."
From the emails he gets, it's obvious that Wilke has a special bond with his audience.
"I have to tell you how important your show is to me," writes Dane from Baltimore. "I go to bed early on Friday and Saturday nights so I can awake in the wee hours to tune in to Jazz After Hours. For me, your show helps keep alive the romance and excitement of this very important genre ... ."
In other parts of the world, with the time difference, the show actually airs at breakfast time.
From overseas comes this email from C. Kabaoglu, "Here is Turkey, Ankara; thousands of miles away from USA, Seattle. Almost every Saturday and Sunday morning I and many times my wife Gulgun come to our architectural office, where we have high-speed Internet connection, in order to listen to your warm voice, the way you present the program and the beautiful pieces of your jazz music selections. Thanks a lot to you for your perfect program on the web."
In January, it will be 30 years since Wilke started doing a national radio jazz show.
The shows used to run seven hours each night, but, at his age, Wilke says he's slowing down a bit.
And, no, that's not him doing the show live at midnight (it airs midnight to 5 on jazz station 88.5 KPLU-FM, with the last hour being a repeat).
Wilke records the shows onto his laptop usually on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, and then connects his studio to a secure website at Public Radio Satellite Service in Washington, D.C., which then distributes them to subscribing stations.
Not doing the show live at midnight is not because he no longer can stay up that late, says Wilke. He says he can. It's just that the satellite-uplink costs are so expensive.
He breaks down the kinds of listeners he gets.
"I have a lot of listeners who are musicians. They tell me: 'I listened to you driving home from a gig.' I have sort of a role in getting musicians home safely. I don't play sleepy music," says Wilke.
Then, of course, there are the insomniacs.
"And nursing mothers at 3 a.m. And guys in prison," says Wilke. "In Europe, because of the time difference, I'm on from dawn until noon."
"Feels like home"
In Paris, one such listener is Laurie Pessemier, who moved there from Seattle in 1998 with her husband, Blair Pessemier. They're both painters.
In a phone interview, Pessemier says she and her husband listen to the show on their laptop.
"It just feels like home," she says about the show. "It's comfortable."
For a while, the Pessemiers lived in Tunisia, where, she says, " 'Jazz After Hours' became a touchstone for us."
She emailed Wilke to ask if he could play the classic jazz tune "A Night in Tunisia."
"Sure enough, a couple of days later, we were listening, and there it was," says Pessemier.
Nearly every day, CDs arrive at Wilke's home from hopeful artists, some 1,100 to 1,200 recordings a year.
In his show, Wilke mostly plays new releases.
He'll acknowledge the greats, but, he says, jazz has always been evolving. "Dizzy Gillespie didn't make his career playing Louis Armstrong's greatest hits," says Wilke. "He was too busy developing a style of his own."
Being inundated with all those CDs, Wilke says, he ends up sampling them to see if they're worth airing. Otherwise, he says, all he'd be doing all day is listening to all those submissions. He chooses only a few for the show.
You'll also likely never hear Kenny G or anyone else in the "smooth jazz" genre on Wilke's shows.
His is a jazz show for those who have appreciated the likes of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, and the generations of artists who followed them. Wilke is very passionate about that.
"It's simple melodies that are repeated, with no development, very little dynamic or emotional range. It just sort of fills up space. It's very popular with people who don't really like listening to music, but just as an accompaniment to other activities," says Wilke.
In this area, among jazz fans, Wilke also is known for a second radio show he's been doing since 1988 — "Jazz Northwest" — which airs Sundays on KPLU from 2 to 3 in the afternoon.
Its focus is exactly that: Jazz from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland.
Says Clarence Acox, a well-known drummer who's jazz-band director at Garfield High School and co-director of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, about Wilke:
"There is no one on the Seattle jazz scene who's done more for the local jazz music scene. People have started to make more CDs to get their music played. That would not have happened if not for Jim Wilke. He's the real deal."
As for that treasure trove of reel-to-reel live recordings, they were mostly done from 1962 to 1968, as a private, hi-fi phone line connected The Penthouse, the legendary jazz club at First and Cherry, to King Broadcasting on Dexter Avenue North. The special line could deliver a full frequency range that made for remarkable quality.
At that time, Wilke was operations manager for KING-FM (he worked there for 16 years, until 1977), during a time when the station, known for classical music, also aired jazz, folk music and even theater plays.
As musicians such as John Coltrane, Stan Getz or Wes Montgomery played at The Penthouse, most agreed to have their Thursday night shows broadcast live for half an hour. It was Wilke who set up the mixing equipment, did the announcing and ran the control board.
Jazz fans would hear the show, says Wilke, and drive down that same night to the club to take in the second set.
For now, the tapes stay unplayed for the public. But Wilke says there has been interest in releasing the recordings.
"I want to make sure all the rights are taken care of, and the musicians or their estates are compensated."
No retirement plans
Wilke says he has no plans of retiring the show. Why? He obviously enjoys what he's doing, and loves radio.
In a way, he's come full circle as he brings jazz to his worldwide listeners.
That's how his love for this music form started for Wilke, when he was an Iowa farm boy in the 1950s, and at night in his bedroom he'd tune in radio station WWL in New Orleans. Beaming from 900 miles to the south came a midnight jazz show called "Moonglow with Dick Martin."
The teen Jim Wilke began listening and was hooked forever.
You know, how many guys can remember that they were the ones who met, introduced and aired live Duke Ellington?
Remembers Wilke: "I thought, 'Duke Ellington! Man, Duke Ellington!' "
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org