The wavy, melodic strains of “Blue Monk” fill Eric Jackson’s WGBH studio in Brighton. Deftly performed by contemporary pianist Eric Reed, it’s a tribute to jazz giant Thelonious Monk. Jackson (CAS’72) follows this up with Monk’s band paying homage to Duke Ellington, another legendary composer and piano player. Jackson gives listeners his signature greeting in a familiar mellow baritone: “My name is Eric. Let’s take a listen.”
For more than three decades, as host of Jazz with Eric in the Evening (recently renamed Jazz on WGBH with Eric Jackson), the dean of Boston jazz radio, as Jackson is widely regarded, has presented listeners with a seamless mix of the well-established with the newest jazz talent. He has aired some 3,000 interviews, with most of the biggest names in jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie to the Marsalis family.
He thinks ahead about only the first recording he’ll play on any given night, Jackson says. He then works with the flow, putting his show together as it’s happening, by sound. He chooses a series of tunes based on “moods, feelings, colors, emotions, rhythms—more than style labels,” he says. With the spontaneity of a jazz soloist, he improvises his set list. “I hope I’ve learned from the musicians I play; I hope there’s a flow to the sets and the whole program.”
Music permeates his life. He’s on the air eight to midnight, Monday through Thursday, and when he’s not, he’s listening to music “pretty much all the time,” he acknowledges. “I’m always reading and learning something that turns me to the CD player. All day long, I listen to music; it’s a physical process—some people would go nuts. But it’s part of me—I grow with it.” A frequent lecturer and an author, Jackson teaches The African-American Experience Through Music at Northeastern University and has also developed exhibitions for the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.
Raised in a music-loving family (father Samuel was a “huge jazz fan” and the first African American radio announcer in New England), he segued from the popular Motown music of his teens to the innovative jazz of Miles and Trane (Jackson calls Miles Davis and John Coltrane “the pillars of their time”) as a college student. In his freshman year at the College of Arts & Sciences, Jackson applied to student radio station WTBU—“no experience necessary” read the ad—and got his start as an announcer in 1969. His first show was R&B, which he soon expanded to three shows, adding jazz and mixed music. When he asked his program director why he was on the air more than anyone else, the director replied: “Because when you’re on the radio, I get quality radio.”
Although Jackson came to BU planning to become a psychiatrist, he says he “fell more and more in love with the music and just decided to do something around the music.” During his next two years at the University, he took on more radio gigs, including a jazz program at WBUR. He left BU and worked at Harvard’s WHRB for the 1971–1972 academic year, then ventured into commercial radio, hosting a Sunday afternoon jazz program at WILD, “sunup to sundown,” he recalls. The next five years announcing at WBCN were key in exposing him to a wide variety of music—“a ton of it,” he says.
Jackson joined WGBH in 1977, and in addition to playing mixed music, he took over hosting a weekly chronology of African American musical history, Essays in Black Music. In 1981, when an evening shift announcer went on the road to play bass for a couple of weeks, Jackson filled in. When the host didn’t return, WGBH offered him a spot and he launched what has become the jazz radio program in Boston, for 30 years and counting.
Last spring, Boston’s jazz community, including impresario Fred Taylor (CAS’51) and radio personality Ron Della Chiesa (CGS’57, COM’59), along with musicians and many enthusiastic fans, gathered for “Eric in Two Evenings,” hosted by the nonprofit JazzBoston to honor esteemed jazz dean Eric Jackson.
This article originally ran in the fall 2011 issue of arts + sciences.
Jean Hennelly Keith can be reached at email@example.com.