November 2013, Vol. 29, No. 11
Jim Wilke: Ear to What’s Here
Jim Wilke photo by Daniel Sheehan. Taken at Tula’s Restaurant and Jazz Club during the 2013 Earshot Jazz Festival.
By Steve Griggs
“Music is a form of communication without words,” Jim Wilke says. “I commune with musicians through the sounds they make. It’s an arrangement of sounds and tones over time that isn’t necessarily a story, but I accept it as language.”
In Wilke’s more than five decades of jazz radio broadcasting, his musical communing continues to expand. He has hosted more than 4,000 jazz shows and adds three or four every week (200 live shows on KING-FM, 3,000 Jazz After Hours on PRI, 650 Jazz Northwest on KPLU, 60 live commercial recordings, dozens of liner notes and countless concert introductions).
The Jazz Journalists Association took note of this record, nominating Wilke for the Willis Conover–Marian McPartland Award for Broadcasting ten times. His dedication, patience and longevity paid off when Wilke won the award this year. This publication inducted him into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993.
Wilke started in radio at the University of Iowa, where he also played saxophone in a jazz group. He developed his listening style and conceptual understanding by playing with other musicians on stage and soaking up as many tunes as possible. “If I could think it, I could play it,” Wilke explains. “It just takes attention.”
His start in Seattle jazz radio began in 1961 at KING-FM. Wilke produced “Showcase of the Lively Arts” with partner Don Shannon. The hosts invited local artists of all disciplines to dinner and recorded informal conversations with microphones hanging above the dining table. The first live broadcast with music was Compline services from St. Mark’s cathedral.
In 1962, the Penthouse jazz club opened at the corner of First Avenue and Cherry. Top artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Blakey performed there, typically starting on a Thursday night and playing nightly for two weeks.
The American Federation of Musicians allowed 30-minute live broadcasts from clubs that employed union members and the phone company installed a special line from the club to the radio station. Wilke set up a mixing board near the piano and four microphones on stage. Seattle singer Ernestine Anderson was the first artist to be broadcast.
One particular night, September 30, 1965, stands out for Wilke. Saxophonist John Coltrane was on stage for his first and only engagement in Seattle. Coltrane was best known as a sideman on Miles Davis’ top selling album Kind of Blue from 1959. By 1965, Coltrane was touring the world and his latest recording A Love Supreme was DownBeat magazine’s jazz album of the year. The gig in Seattle was one of the first public performances where Coltrane turned away from his popular quartet format to add more musicians, sounds, and rhythms. Coltrane paid local sound engineer Jan Kurtis to capture the new direction. Wilke’s broadcast happened simultaneously with the live recording.
Wilke remembers, “That was a wild night. There were the house mikes, my radio mikes and Jan Kurtis was taping with his mikes. Musta’ been twenty mikes on stage! This was the night Live in Seattle was taped. I remember they played about two and a half hours non-stop! During the live broadcast portion, John came off the stage, sat down beside me and listened to the mix on headphones for a few minutes. Then he nodded his approval and leaned over to me and said, ‘this may run longer than half an hour...’”
In 1966, Wilke joined with bassist Chuck Metcalf, lawyer and talk show host Irving Clark and jazz broadcaster Sonny Buxton to combat the British rock invasion killing gig opportunities for regional jazz artists. They formed the Seattle Jazz Society, enlisted Rainier Brewing as a sponsor and produced concerts at Seward Park. They paired local musicians with national acts on Sunday afternoons when clubs closed because of Blue Laws.
These days, Wilke works out of a basement studio in his Greenlake home. The room’s walls are covered floor to ceiling with CDs and more CDs fill rows of shoulder high bookcases, leaving narrow paths between his desk and the basement stairs. He listens to new music constantly, rarely returning to any particular recordings. He works at a desk with computer and microphone to piece together weekly radio shows. A black-and-white photo of his days as a jazz saxophonist is pinned up next to his aging musician’s union card.
Wilke leans in to the studio microphone as the music tapers to silence in his headphones. He announces the title, recording, and musicians. The vowels resonate in a baritone gravel and the consonants tick by crisply. He starts the next cut. Tune in to KPLU Sundays at 2pm to catch the latest Seattle jazz that Jim heard.
Jim Wilke joins a panel at the Royal Room, November 15, 6:30pm, and at the MOHAI Compass Cafe 7-8pm, November 21, to discuss Seattle jazz history. History Cafe is free to the public and is co-presented by MOHAI, KCTS 9, The Seattle Public Library and HistoryLink.org.