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Local jazz scene celebrates 30 years of ‘Eric in the Evening’

Eric Jackson has hosted his evening jazz program on WGBH-FM since 1981, and is being celebrated this week with two events. Eric Jackson has hosted his evening jazz program on WGBH-FM since 1981, and is being celebrated this week with two events. (Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff)
By Bill Beuttler
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2011

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“Let’s take a listen.’’

If you had your radio dialed to 89.7 FM most any weeknight over the past three decades, you probably heard the mellifluous baritone of Eric Jackson intone that signature phrase. This week Jackson, 61, celebrates 30 years hosting his jazz program, “Eric in the Evening’’ (changed a couple of years ago to “Jazz on WGBH With Eric Jackson’’), with events tomorrow and Friday at Scullers and Arlington’s Regent Theatre, respectively.

The New Jersey native let us pay a visit to his studio one recent evening, fielding questions for an hour or so with breaks to do his job and announce selections from some of the dozens of CDs he had wheeled in from home that afternoon. Jackson wore a dark red cardigan over a black JazzBoston T-shirt and gray slacks, and appeared in good health after having been on medical leave for a month last summer. A snippet of the night’s conversation follows. Let’s take a listen.

Q. So you got your start in radio about a dozen years before “Eric in the Evening’’ began, as a student at Boston University?

A. I had come to Boston wanting to go to med school. I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and I started listening to ’Trane [John Coltrane] and Miles [Davis]. It was like, “Forget that stuff!’’ I started on the air in February of ’69, just about two weeks after my 19th birthday. It was something that I thought would be fun to do while I was in school. I certainly wasn’t thinking about it as a job. There was an ad in the campus paper. It said “no experience necessary.’’ I said, “OK, this would be fun to do.’’ Then, as I started doing it more and more, I thought, well, why not? If I can do this, why not do this? I also, at that point, knew I wanted to work around music. That was definitely clear, that med school was gone. Music was definitely the occupation of choice.

Q. Those early years of yours were lean times for jazz. Did that make you wonder is jazz solid enough to make a career out of?

A. No, I’ve always been an optimist when it’s come to music, because I’ve always just thought that the music stays around. What’s in trouble about the music is the economics. The music’s not in trouble. There are still people who want to play this music, and I don’t see that going away.

Q. You’ve conducted an estimated 3,000 on-air interviews since launching “Eric in the Evening.’’ Were any especially memorable?

A. Dizzy Gillespie was a great one, and his was almost funny. Somebody this day decided that they were going to do me a favor, and they brought Dizzy in 15 minutes early. Dizzy looked like he was high as a kite. I mean, he looked like he could barely talk. I’m sitting there actually getting upset. Then 9 o’clock came, and it was almost like somebody had said, “Showtime, Diz!’’ He was wonderful after 9 o’clock. I remember asking him a question: “Dizzy, I’m going to name some trumpet players. Why don’t you give me a response to them?’’ I started in the 1890s, with Buddy Bolden, and I think I said Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard. He saw exactly what I was doing, and he picked it up and went through the whole lineage of the jazz trumpet. Just amazing. The next day, I got a call from his manager, and he said, “Look, I’ve been working with Dizzy for 25 years, I’ve never known him to do this: He wants a copy of the interview.’’

Q. Are you glad that you junked med school and this is where you wound up?

A. Oh, extremely happy. First of all, it’s working around the music I love. I’ve met so many people that I just thought were great, and not only the musicians, but even just the fans, the people that love the music. In addition, besides the direct opportunities to do the job here, all the stuff that I call “spinoff stuff’’ — getting the chance to teach at Northeastern University, or write a chapter in Leonard Brown’s book on Coltrane that just came out in September. Those kinds of things are the spinoffs that keep this job exciting and fresh. There’s something new coming up all the time. So yeah, it’s great. I still love it, and I think I probably would have gone crazy myself had I gone into psychiatry. But it is interesting: I’ve told a number of people about the psychiatry, and they’ve said, “You know, you’ve probably been very good for the mental health of Greater Boston.’’ So I guess it worked out.

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.

FOR ERIC, EVENING I

With Danilo Perez, Cecil McBee, Rebecca Parris, Terri Lyne Carrington, Donal Fox, Bill Pierce, Dominique Eade, Walter Beasley, Grace Kelly, and many others.

At: Scullers, tomorrow, 7:30 p.m., $5 suggested donation. 617-562-4111, www.scullersjazz.com

FOR ERIC, EVENING II

A screening of rare video footage of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and others will be preceded by a reception with Jackson and jazz historian Hal Miller.

At: Regent Theatre, Arlington, Friday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $7 advance, $10 day of show. 781-646-4849, www.regenttheatre.com