[Dixielandjazz] Chuck Niles Obituary
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Wed Mar 17 14:36:48 PST 2004
Chuck Niles, 76; Voice of L.A.'s Jazz Radio
By Mitchell Landsberg, Times Staff Writer
Chuck Niles was the voice of jazz radio in Southern California for more than
40 years - and, some might say, its heart and soul.
Niles, 76, died Monday night at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center of
complications from a stroke. He had been on the air until Feb. 25, the day
before he suffered the stroke, said Judy Jankowski, president and general
manager of KKJZ-FM (88.1), the station where Niles had worked since 1990. He
had undergone quintuple bypass surgery in July 2001.
Jankowski said that Niles' importance to the station and jazz in Southern
California was immeasurable.
"He lived and breathed jazz and was a living jazz historian," she said
"Chuck had the perfect deejay's attributes - a marvelously mellifluous
voice, a great sense of pacing and an innate, cool dude manner," said jazz
critic Don Heckman. "But what really made him special was his knowledge and
respect for the music, his capacity to present it with the sort of rich
communicative understanding that could only have come from someone who, like
Chuck, was a musician himself."
Niles spun tracks on a succession of jazz radio stations, beginning with the
pioneering jazz station KNOB in Los Angeles and ending on KKJZ-FM in Long
Beach. More than an announcer, he was a one-man jazz university, introducing
the music and its lore to generations of Southern Californians. He also
served as an unofficial jazz ambassador, emceeing countless concerts,
memorials and other jazz-related events.
A former colleague, Ken Borgers, once called him "the Vin Scully, the Chick
Hearn of jazz."
A musician by training, Niles counted many of the jazz greats among his
friends, and was the inspiration for several songs, including "Niles Blues"
by Louie Bellson and "Be Bop Charlie" by Bob Florence. That song
memorialized one of his several nicknames; he also was known as Carlito
Niles when playing Latin jazz and Country Charlie Niles during a brief,
unhappy stint on a country music station.
Few people had less country in them than Chuck Niles.
One of the few septuagenarians who could refer to someone as a "cat" without
sounding foolish, Niles had a voice that seemed perfectly suited to jazz: a
deep, smooth, lilting baritone burnished by a life of cigarette smoking and
deployed as a virtual musical instrument. He brought an extraordinary depth
of knowledge to his radio broadcasts, which he sprinkled with telling
anecdotes, heartfelt tributes and lots of exclamations of "Oh, man!"
He could be found many nights at one or more of his favorite jazz
nightclubs, soaking up the music and hobnobbing with friends, and his
frequent on-air plugs were credited with helping to keep the Southern
California jazz club scene alive. Aside from music, his principal passion in
life was acting, and his biggest regret was not having achieved greater
success on stage or screen. He appeared in many local theatrical productions
in the 1950s and '60s, and had a bit part in "Teenage Zombies," which was
released in 1958 and eventually won cult status as one of the worst movies
"I was just walking around like Frankenstein, that's all, no lines, just
'gluergugluergu,' and I'm pretty good at that," he recalled in an interview
in 2001. The movie, he cheerfully conceded, "was just terrible."
Niles was proud to have been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,
although he might have preferred that it be adorned with a camera, not a
microphone. Still, he took a journeyman's joy in his radio work and resented
anyone who suggested that it was a fallback career.
"My line is, 'All I need is my big fat mouth and a microphone,' " he said.
"And in addition to that, my line is, 'And there's no heavy lifting.' And so
when I say I go to work - that's work? I buy the best earphones, I'm down
there . . . I'm enjoying myself! How lucky can you get? I'm not saying I
didn't play the blues, because I have played some blues, but I'm still a
very fortunate cat."
Born Charles Neidel in Springfield, Mass., on June 24, 1927, he eventually
adopted the name Niles because he got sick of people calling him "needle,"
rather than correctly pronouncing his name to rhyme with "idle." He kept
Neidel as his legal name.
Theater and music were part of his life from his earliest years. His father,
a paper salesman, was an amateur actor in local productions. Niles took up
clarinet at an early age and played his first paying gig on saxophone at age
15 -in a brothel.
"As things went on and on, I started playing more often," he recalled. "I
tell you, I was never out of work."
In 1945, with World War II nearly over, Niles enlisted in the Navy. The war
ended while he was still in basic training in Florida. Niles was sent to San
Diego and briefly stationed in the South Pacific.
Though largely uneventful, his stint in the military produced some indelible
memories. Years later, Niles would recall hitchhiking from San Diego to
Hollywood to catch a concert at the Hollywood Palladium, and searching the
radio dial for the first sounds of jazz as his ship approached New York
Harbor at the end of his service. He even remembered the song that was
playing: "Symphony," by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra.
After the Navy, Niles returned to music full time, playing alto sax in a
jazz band, the Emanon Quartet - "no name" spelled backward. "How hip can you
get?" he later mused.
They were hip, in Niles' recounting. They wore the hippest clothes: white
shirts, pegged pants, blue suede shoes and blue cardigans. They played the
hippest music: bebop, which was then revolutionizing the jazz world. Jazz
styles would come and go over the next half century, but Niles stayed
forever true to the straight-ahead jazz of his youth.
Back in Springfield, Niles earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from
American International University and, in 1951, landed a job playing music
on a local radio station, WTXL. By 1953, growing bored, he drove to Los
Angeles. Failing to find work, he drove on to West Palm Beach, Fla., where
he quickly found a job on radio station WMVD. He stayed there a year, then
did a stint as a television sportscaster and dance show host before another
bout of restlessness sent him back to California.
It was 1956. This time, he would stay.
His first job was on KFOX radio, playing rock 'n' roll-tinged pop that
wasn't exactly his style. Next came KHJ-TV Channel 9, where he hosted
afternoon movies and the "Strange Lands and Seven Seas" program - "You know
. . . some guy goes to Africa, films a herd of elephants, comes back and
tells me about it."
But his real break came in 1957, when Sleepy Stein recruited him to be an
announcer on what claimed to be the first all - jazz radio station in the
United States: KNOB, "the jazz knob." (Jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, head
of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said the claim is
probably true, but difficult to verify.)
Niles stayed there eight years, honing his craft and creating a close bond
with the Southern California jazz community.
In the meantime, he was pursuing acting jobs and hanging out at the Master's
Club, a theatrical club in Hollywood where, he said, he spent "the happiest
times of my life."
Niles landed roles in regional theatrical productions of "Harvey" and "Dial
M for Murder," among others, and played Biff in a summer stock production of
"Death of a Salesman."
He married in 1964, and though he and his wife, Nancy Neidel, eventually
separated, they never divorced and remained on friendly terms. Daughter
Tracy Neidel inherited her father's love of music, becoming a pop and blues
singer who uses the stage name Tracy Niles.
In 1965, Niles left KNOB for KBCA, another all-jazz station that changed its
call letters to KKGO in 1979. KKGO switched to classical music in 1990, and
Niles left immediately for KLON-FM, the station of Cal State Long Beach,
which had an all-jazz format.
The station changed its name to KKJZ in August 2002.
There, Niles continued to play the music that he loved, introducing Charlie
Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Ella
Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and hundreds of other jazz luminaries to yet
A public memorial service for Niles will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at
Church of the Hills, Forest Lawn Hollywood, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive.
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