There are music historians who profess that Jazz is America’s only native art form. They will get no argument from me. To understand the state of Jazz in America today, I’ll recount a story I read a few years ago in a local newspaper.
The f.y.e. (For Your Entertainment) store in a nearby mall received complaints that adult videos were being openly displayed on shelves where they could be easily viewed by minors or other customers who might be offended by their content. The solution? Move them next to the Jazz section, because, as the manger explained, “Hardly anybody ever goes back there.” The sad thing was that the statement was true. How can it be that there is not one 24-hour Jazz station in New York City? It has not always been so. Once upon a time there was a shining beacon of Jazz in New York that went by the call letters WRVR.
The station had a history deeply rooted in the community surrounding Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, where it broadcast hard-core Jazz for over 17 years, before moving to Woodside, Queens and updating its format to include more crossover styles of Jazz and jazz-related music. The philosophy was that the new format would appeal to a larger audience while exposing them to more traditional styles of Jazz.
For those of us who became fans of the station, we were immensely loyal, but the hybrid never grew the audience needed to make the station financially viable, so without warning, at 12:00 P.M. on September 8, 1980 Jazz station WRVR became country station WKHK. Like every other fan, my car and home radios were locked into WRVR, so when they mysteriously disappeared, I desperately twisted and turned the dial trying to figure out WTF was going on. The station was deluged with calls from irate listeners. WKHK which went by the name Kick-FM, sure felt like a kick in the ass to the abandoned fans of WRVR.
The departure left a huge void for Jazz fans. For several years WJAZ in Stamford, CT broadcast Jazz 24 hours, frequently hosted by bassist Rick Petrone. WBGO in Newark, NJ is still broadcasting and comes closest in style and mission to the Riverside Church broadcasts. The emergence of the smooth jazz format brought CD101.9 to the New York market and its playlist was representative of some of the crossover artists you might find on WRVR during the years they broadcast out of Woodside, but it lacked the personality and edge of my beloved station and was a bit too formulaic for my taste. However, if you were a fan, and miss the station, it’s now available streaming here:
To get a flavor of the WRVR sound, you can search for audio clips or clones on the various streaming services. Here is a sample playlist:
As great as the music was, the deejays at WRVR were a big part of the emotional connection with the New York audience. The names at the bottom of the program list, Herschel, G. Keith Alexander, Batt Johnson, and especially the signature voice of the station, Les Davis, were true characters. They were funny, dedicated to the music, and genuinely loved their work and their listeners.
I still hold out hope for the resurgence of Jazz as popular music in America, and for an environment to spawn the WRVR for future generations of Jazz fans.