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Charmed Life

Standard Bearer

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/8/2003

His is a voice slowly vanishing from the airwaves: deep and resonant--authoritative but euphonious. It comes at you polished and assured, but with an undertone of avuncular warmth. Such are the multifaceted vocal stylings of Ken Jackson, a sturdy 70-year-old who has spent nearly 50 years perched behind a radio microphone.

"'Veteran announcers' is what they like to call us old poopers," he says with a chuckle.

These days Jackson's old-school voice is heard Friday evenings from 9 p.m. until midnight on WYPR (88.1 FM). That's when he plays other voices that are slowly vanishing from the radio waves--the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, and Joe Williams. He calls his three-hour sentimental journey In the Mood. During the show he spins "the best of the big bands--and then some." The station is all but deserted by the time Jackson shuffles in for his evening shift, weighed down on this particular night with a cardboard box of CDs from his extensive musical archives. The only light comes from the studio where program director Andy Bienstock is winding down his American Songbook music program. When the top-of-the-hour public-radio news bulletin comes to an end, Jackson gets busy. The on air light winks to life, and the tall senior leans into the mic to unleash his distinctively melodic voice into the Baltimore airwaves. "Let's step into the new year together sharing some music," he says. "We'll begin our Friday-night visit with Artie Shaw." He turns to tap a button on a CD player to his left, and a lilting clarinet begins wrapping around Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine."

Jackson has some idea what songs he wants to slip into the mix tonight, but he's largely winging it--a dash of Nat King Cole, a sampling of Sinatra, a bit of Benny Goodman. He casually snatches discs out the box with a seasoned ear for what might sound good together.

"I just never subscribed to rigid formatting," he says. "I always say, 'Let me play music I think an audience will enjoy, and if nobody's listening, you don't have to fire me--I'll leave.' And it's worked."

It worked up until last June, when Jackson resigned from big-band station WWLG (1360 AM), where he'd spent close to a decade as the midday man. The station switched to "voice-tracking," replacing Jackson's seat-of-the-pants radio technique with a totally controlled and prerecorded approach. In other words, Jackson was asked to prerecord his between-songs banter, which a computer would insert amid songs chosen off a rigid playlist. Station heads said it would make the DJs' lives easier. Jackson said, "No, thank you."

"There are no hard feelings, and I wasn't trying to be heroic," he says. "I just enjoy doing it live. I've always been emotionally involved with my profession."

As it turns out, for most of his career Jackson's profession was that of newsman, not DJ. The native New Englander started doing broadcast news on the Emerson College radio station in Boston. That was in 1954. Television was taking off, but Jackson says "radio was still king--most stations had their own orchestras." After honing his on-air skills as a student--and whittling away a Yankee "pahk the cah" accent--Jackson bounced around several Pennsylvania stations before landing in Baltimore in 1962 (first at WCBM, then with WBAL). In 1973, he "burned out on news" and left radio for a while. He was coaxed back in 1979, when WAYE launched a big-band format, and he started both DJ-ing and doing the news. Gigs at WITH and WWLG followed.

His WYPR stint started last fall, and he has free reign to roam through the American standards song book. "I'm a 32-bars-to-a-song kind of guy," Jackson says. "Give me a good melody line, interesting lyrics, and a singer who can tell the story."

That singer can be a great--a Rosemary Clooney or a Tony Bennett--or a newcomer taking on the exalted canon. Jackson champions stylists like Bobby Caldwell, Diana Krall, and Steve Tyrell--younger vocalists whose choice of "vintage" material can keep them off mainstream pop stations, while their new names make them unwelcome at oldies radio, where they only rack the original hits.

"If a young [person] of 22 wants to sing the standards, and does it well, then I'm on their side," Jackson says.

But age is a factor in Jackson's line of work. Whether it's a brassy band bopping through an Ellington tune or a crooner gliding along a Gershwin torch song, "the audience for this type of music is aging, there's no doubt about it," Jackson says. "I don't know if anybody is going to be around to pick up the slack in sufficient numbers. If I and a few others stop doing it, it may be all over."

Sure, the swing revival of a few years back put some old tunes into young ears, but then "nü swing" turned out to be a flavor-of-the-month fad, rather than a lasting appreciation.

"I try and tell the kids that I may be an old man playing old tunes, but it's not bad," Jackson says. "Enjoy your generation's music, kid, but don't overlook this."

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