Jim Wilke takes a walk through almost 65 years of broadcasting
Please join me and all the staff at KNKX in a very big congratulations to Jim Wilke on his retirement.
Jim has been a part of the fabric of this radio station since nearly the beginning of being a jazz, blues and NPR station. First, as host of Jazz After Hours for American Public Radio which KNKX (previously KPLU) aired, and he hosted for 30 years. Jim has also been the sole host of Jazz Northwest, producing the weekly program for KNKX since 1988.
As a legendary broadcaster, jazz ambassador and archivist of live recordings of regional and national musicians, he has made a lasting and meaningful contribution to the growth and health of the jazz eco-system in our region and in the country.
The Jazz Northwest episode on August 27 will be the last hosted by Jim, a professional who I have had the pleasure of calling my teacher (literally in college), a mentor and fellow jazz broadcaster, and overall lovely human being. We invite you to send him your farewell wishes and congratulations on his retirement to FarewellJim@knkx.org.
Click "Listen" above to hear my conversation with Jim as he looks back over his storied career, or read the transcript below.
Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
KNKX Music Programming Director Carol Handley: Okay, Jim, you're sitting here at the end of a very long broadcasting career that I think anybody who loves music and loves sharing it with people would be envious of. You are certainly known for being a Seattle broadcaster and jazz ambassador. Where were you before you came to Seattle, because you're not from Seattle.
Longtime KNKX Host Jim Wilke: I was on a station in Sacramento for two years. But my eyes were really on Seattle, I really wanted to end up in Seattle. I had visited here between high school and college and decided at that point, this is where I wanted to live. So after finishing my education at University of Iowa, I made a beeline for the West Coast.
Handley: So was there much of a music scene at the time for you? You know between jazz and classical and, you know, in that timeframe, FM was just barely getting started. So what did the broadcast side of things look like?
Wilke: There was a couple, two or three different possibilities at that time. FM was still a secondary thing in the '60s. As FM was just beginning to come on as the dominant medium, AM was still the most popular medium. Someone in Seattle suggested there was a station in Sacramento I might try. And as long as I was going down to Sacramento, I also tried San Francisco. It was my first choice, but it was also the first choice of 8300 other jazz DJ would-bes in San Francisco. So someone said to me in San Francisco, he says, “Do you have any other job offers?” And I said, “Well, there's a guy willing to pay me as music director for a buck and a half in Sacramento.” He says, “Take it, no one's paying more than $1 an hour in San Francisco”.
Handley: You say a buck and a half today, it has a whole different meaning. And when you first came here, was it because you had an opportunity to work for KING FM?
Wilke: Yes. Dan Shannon was that at KING FM at the time. He had been at KLSM, which was a classical music station at that point. It was owned by what we called in those terms, hobbyists, people who were into Hi-Fi or something like that. And I think he had a Hi-Fi shop, or something like that, and started an FM station too. So it was part of a chain of things in play.
Handley: And when you started at KING FM was it classical?
Wilke: Yes, but it was not entirely classical at first. We had some other variety programs. I was coming out of an educational radio background. And there was a Broadcasting Foundation of America that was distributing a lot of foreign festivals, and stuff like that, the Salzburg Festival, Vienna Festival, and things like that.
Handley: And then you started an evening jazz show?
Wilke: As you might expect, the audience was tapering off late at night. And I thought, well, I'll just put in a jazz strip at 11 o'clock. That was the beginning. It was called Jazz till Midnight at that point, and then became Jazz After Hours when it moved to after midnight, which later became a network show.
Handley: So glad you had the opportunity to create Jazz After Hours and have your passion for the music shared nationally, especially with your deep knowledge of the musicians. And you were Jazz After Hours hosts for 30 odd years?
Wilke: 35 years. I think it was overall.
Handley: And now you're becoming nationally known again. Because of some incredible recordings that you did right here in Seattle, at The Penthouse.
Wilke: Yeah, they were live broadcasts. And I had a studio recorder making a tape of the live broadcast because I was just learning the art of doing live mixing. And I used it to evaluate the job I was doing and learning from that, you know, so the tapes were saved. They were not to be rebroadcast. But the tapes were saved. And we had a good supply of raw tapes. It wasn't a big concern. So I'm glad they were saved because eventually the word got out to record producers that there was this cache of tapes in Seattle, some 200 live broadcasts of major artists, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, all sorts of wonderful people. So they got in contact with me, I think through a jazz conference someplace.
Handley: Well for one of those recordings, I want to say congratulations at least, for being named “Best Historical Recording” from Downbeat magazine in the July issue of this year, for the recording of Ahmad Jamal and his trio, an album called Emerald City Nights, Live at the Penthouse 1963 to 1964. Check it out, folks, if you haven't done that yet. So tell me about what the Seattle jazz scene was and the vibe during the time that you are making those recordings in the '60s.
Wilke: There just really wasn't a lot happening. There was not much opportunity for local musicians. We formed a nonprofit organization with a group of like-minded individuals called the Seattle Jazz Society. So the purpose of the Seattle Jazz Society, we would make a deal with a bar or restaurant or something like that, where if we hired a band and paid the band, and collected a cover charge. So that worked for in a number of cases. And there were several places like in Pioneer Square that we did that. It helped bring some attention to the regional jazz musicians, which was the whole purpose of the Seattle Jazz Society. There was the New Orleans Creole restaurant that that was there before, but we utilize that. John Dimitriou was just getting started. There was the Pioneer Bank, which was the vault underneath the corner of First and Yesler. Just like a half of flight down, it was a great underground jazz hang kind of place, you know.
Handley: Another layer of your career that's a little bit less known. Unless you were in the broadcasting orbit, is that you taught broadcasting at Bellevue College. And as a matter of fact, I was your student.
Wilke: Yeah, it's a very satisfying thing as a teacher to see people who have been in your classes go on to a professional career, realizing not all of them will be and some of them will just become educated listeners. And that's good too, because we need listeners. Same thing with with people who teach music. I think, you know, the goal is not to turn out all professional musicians in the class, but to increase the level of jazz education and experience.
Handley: Well, and I guess I can say for my part, it worked.
Wilke: Great. It's sure did with you. And I’m proud of you guys.
Handley: Thank you. It’s nice to know, I did you proud.
Wilke: I was already doing a little teaching in Cornish College of the Arts, a jazz history class. And I also taught a jazz history class for a while at Bellevue Community College. But the classes were unrelated and one was semesters, and the other was quarters. And so the classes never aligned. It's like I had these two totally separate classes I was teaching every week and they were never in alignment with each other.
Handley: There's so many artists that have come through the Northwest region since you have been a supporter of the scene, a participant in the scene broadcasting, and as somebody archiving a lot of performances. You know, going back to artists like Buddy Catlett and Floyd Standefer. Today's players that are just way too many to name. Sometimes regional artists, they get sort of thought of as local.
Wilke: Yeah. That's something I have worked to dispel my entire career. I think there's, I think it was Freddie Hubbard who said to me in an interview, one time he says "everybody's local somewhere. Everybody's got to come from somewhere." And who was it, JJ Johnson? who said, "Indianapolis? Why Indianapolis? Why not Indianapolis." But very few of the famous so called, "New York musicians" were actually born and grew up in New York City.
Handley: So will you miss doing radio?
Wilke: Oh, not particularly, you know, I've been sort of fading to silence over several years, you know. From from a peak of doing Jazz After Hours and then Jazz Northwest simultaneously and doing nightly programs at different times. And you know, in the last few years, I've been sort of tapering down a little bit. And I think I'm done now. 35 years with Jazz After Hours in particular, which has been really, the biggest focus of my career and reached the widest audience of any of the programs that I've done. As far as being available over a wide geographical area, because we've had stations from New York to Florida, to Southern California to Upper Midwest, and so on and so forth, caring it. And then a lot of those stations, once they started streaming to the internet, brought us an international audience and we've been hearing from people on other continents. I think we've heard from everybody except Antarctica.
Handley: What's up Antarctica, no reception? Well, on behalf of the jazz community, I am just one voice among the thousands that want to thank you so very much for the contribution that you have made in your career in your life, both professionally and personally. It has been deeply felt.
Wilke: Oh, my pleasure, loved having the opportunity to do it.
Handley: Maybe my career will last as long as yours
Wilke: I wish the same as long as you wish, as long as you want it to, anyway.
Handley: Thank you so much for getting mine started. Okay.
Wilke: You're very welcome. I'm glad I did that.
Handley: Thanks, Jim.