By Roger Crane
Summer approaches and our patio is very pleasant right now. On the south side near the pool resides an old stump which I have dubbed “Chuck’s Stump.” Noted jazz DJ Chuck Niles, who we lost back in 2004 attended a few of the annual jazz parties Lynne and I hosted and he often sat his lean frame on that stump while chatting with folks such as fellow DJ Will Thornbury or bassist Eugene Wright.
I first heard Chuck when he was with KNOB (the Jazz Knob) and later when he switched to KBCA and ultimately to Long Beach’s KLON. As many of you know Chuck had a deep burnished baritone and was a very informed programmer with tastes grounded in bebop. Unlike some jazz DJs, Chuck loved live jazz and “made the rounds and dug the sounds,” often standing in the back of the jazz venues going unnoticed – – well, as “unnoticed” as a six foot, four inch man can be. As we are wont to do, Lynne and I chatted with him and we developed a casual friendship. One time he said “Man, you guys are everywhere” and, yes, in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s we were.
“Hearing Niles play the music,” pianist Mike Melvoin once observed, “was like having a conversation with your best friend.” Musicians knew and loved Niles and some wrote songs devoted to him, such as “Bebop Charlie” by Bob Florence and “The Hippest Guy in Hollywood” by Horace Silver. Jazz booker and impresario Merle Kreibich once said that “Chuck was more accessible than any of the other guys; he loved to talk to people. He also listened to everybody and he truly cared for the musicians. Just to cite an example when he ran into Sarah Vaughan at Alfonses or some other club, they’d sit together and talk for hours – – just the two of them.
Most of his bosses at the various radio stations learned to leave Chuck alone, but he sometimes told the tale that KBCA’s “Saul Levine had just gotten married and said that he wanted us to start playing Barbra Streisand records.” The order was met with astonished silence, as Levine produced a stack of LPs, loaned by his bride. “Funny thing,” Niles chuckled, “all of those records mysteriously developed deep scratches, making them unplayable.” Levine, by the way, was apparently not the hippest of jazz station managers. One day Chuck and some other KBCA DJs were talking expectantly about the debut of the Buddy Rich Big Band. Levine listened quietly before asking “Who is the drummer in that band?”
Chuck’s friend the actor/writer/DJ Will Thornbury also used to hang in the clubs. He was a KNOB vet but his finest hours were on KCRW from the ’70s to his passing in ’92. (He also spent a little time on Long Beach’s KLON). The non-commercial format allowed the Will to play long sets with commentary which was his strong suit. He knew the history of jazz like few other broadcasters. As an interviewer he was so knowledgeable that his subjects were instantly comfortable. I remember a two-part interview that he conducted with singer Ruth Price (long before her Jazz Bakery days).They met on this show and were later married. Lynne and I were at their wedding and I fondly recall pianist Gerry “The Wig” Wiggins walking her down the aisle while she held her little dog “Presto.” The good-looking Will was also an actor who modeled for Camel cigarette commercials. Ironically and sadly Will died of lung cancer at only 57 years old
Out patio furniture may get changed and reconfigured but Chuck’s Stump will remain.