They say that the mark of an exceptional radio announcer is that you can hear the smile in the voice. I’m not sure I actually heard Eric Jackson smile, but the smile was what his voice left me with. It had a warm, wood-grain texture, delivered in a relaxed and assuring cadence. It was a voice you could trust, one you wanted to spend time with.
Jackson, who was a beloved fixture of the Boston jazz scene for more than four decades as a radio host of WGBH’s “Eric in the Evening,” died last week at 72. On his show, Jackson played old and new releases, by jazz legends and lesser-knowns, local musicians as well as international stars. He anchored remote broadcasts from clubs and live performances from the GBH studios (with late colleague Steve Schwartz), and conducted thousands of on-air interviews with musicians. You could count on seeing him introduce acts on the mainstage at the Newport Jazz Festival or the annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert in Boston or any number of other local events. That 360-degree engagement is part of what made his radio show the epicenter of the Boston jazz community.
Jackson’s presentation — warm, inviting, vastly knowledgeable, unpretentious — earned him a fiercely loyal audience, which probably accounts for his longevity on the Boston airwaves, even as jazz radio elsewhere in town disappeared and WGBH itself cut back jazz significantly.
Jackson came to Boston University from his hometown of Camden, N.J., in 1968, thinking he would study medicine in preparation for a career in psychiatry. But he began playing music on BU’s student station, WTBU — a mix of jazz-inflected pop and R&B. The station manager kept loading him with more shifts — as many as four 4-hour shifts a week. Jackson didn’t get it: His music was out of sync with the ruling rock and pop of the day. When he asked the station manager why, he was told, “Because I know that when you’re on the air, I get quality radio.” It was the first time, Jackson told me in a 2011 profile for The Boston Phoenix, that he thought, “Oh, so I’m good at this?”
You could say Jackson was born and bred to the job. His father, Sam, is thought to be the first Black radio DJ in New England, playing jazz on a Providence station in 1947. Although young Eric gravitated to R&B, his father nurtured his taste for jazz. Late at night, Sam Jackson would bring home friends like Cat Anderson and Sam Woodyard, from the Duke Ellington band. For 27 years (before Sam’s death, in 2009), the regular Father’s Day feature on “Eric in the Evening” was father and son spinning Ellington discs and talking about them.
Throughout his career on the air, the bedrock of Jackson’s taste was the music he came of age with — the John Coltrane “classic” quartet (with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones), the “second” classic Miles Davis quintet (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams), and just about any and all Ellington. He avoided much of the “smooth jazz” that began to get a commercial foothold in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and didn’t dig far into the jazz avant-garde, though he said that had to do more with listener preference. Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor were personal favorites, he told me, but they were likely to elicit more complaints than requests. He recalled persuading a Cecil Taylor fan to change his request from a 20-minute track to one half as long. The phone lines lit up anyway.
“You’re not thinking about your audience,” one listener told him. “I’m definitely thinking of my audience,” Jackson answered. “The caller asked for a 20-minute song and I talked him down to a 10-minute song!”
Ever attentive to listeners and musicians, Jackson was the subject of numerous tributes on social media from musicians in the Boston community as well as colleagues on radio and in the concert industry.
“To be on Eric’s show was everything in Boston,” said Ken Field of the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, a Boston-based, New Orleans-inspired band. “To have him play your music was one thing, but to be interviewed on his show was that times 10.”
“For Eric, it was all about community,” said Donal Fox, a pianist and composer who was also a frequent interview guest and occasional live performer on GBH. “It was about bringing people together, and jazz as a music that represented all of America.”
In the summer of 2012, GBH cut 18 hours of Jackson’s evening programming (including two hours on Sunday) to nine hours on weekends. “News and information” was the order of the day in the world of non-commercial public radio, and GBH was going toe to toe with WBUR for donor dollars. There was a protest “jazz funeral” outside GBH studios (organized in part by Field, who is now president of the JazzBoston advocacy group). Eric Jackson’s “community” was about more than fans and radio listeners — it was about an ecosystem of musicians, venues, and other professionals as well, in a city with two of the world’s major jazz-education institutions.
Last Saturday night at 9, following the news of Jackson’s death, jazz programming on GBH opened with the old “Eric in the Evening” theme song — Horace Silver’s “Peace,” played by Tommy Flanagan. It was followed by John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” and Aretha Franklin’s “Drown in My Own Tears.” The tribute from Eric’s capable wingman and fill-in Al Davis was warm and emotional. With a bit of a smile.
Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.