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Eric Jackson, longtime jazz broadcaster in Boston, dies

Eric Jackson
c/o WGBH
/
Eric Jackson, longtime jazz radio host

Eric Jackson, who was a fixture on Boston’s airwaves for more than 50 years, died on Saturday, September 17. He was 72 years old. No cause of death was given.

After joining WGBH as a broadcaster in 1977, Jackson would go on to host “Eric in the Evening” on the station beginning in 1982. Widely considered the “Dean of Boston Jazz Radio,” Jackson had an outsized presence in the Boston jazz community, yet wore that profile with considerable humility and grace. Knowledgeable about the music’s past, present and future, Jackson developed a passionate and devoted audience for his nightly show. For many years, he also hosted trips for WGBH listeners and jazz fans to events like the Newport Jazz Festival at which he would often emcee sets. “Eric Jackson really was the dean of jazz radio hosts nationwide,” says Ed Trefzger, publisher of JazzWeek, an online publication and organization devoted to jazz radio. “He was respected and loved by everyone who knew him.”

Born on January 31, 1950 in Providence, R.I., Jackson grew up in Camden, N.J. His father Sam Jackson worked for 20 years for RCA, which had headquarters there. The elder Jackson was the first African-American radio announcer in New England, going on the air with a Providence radio station in 1947 and remaining there until 1950. He was also a vocalist, who came in first in a talent show in Washington, D.C., edging out a young Billy Eckstine.

Eric Jackson on his father Sam Jackson, jazz radio pioneer

“I grew up in a household where jazz was there,” Jackson told Irene Lee in a video interview for JazzTimes taped backstage at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival. “My father had control over the music in the house and that’s what was played. I still don’t know anything about classical music because there was no classical music played in my house. There was just jazz.”

He came to Boston to go to college at Boston University. “I thought I would go to med school and become a psychiatrist, but I decided I wanted to do something to work around music,” he explained to Lee. After seven months in Boston, Jackson went on the air at WTBU, Boston University’s AM station, for which he did an R&B show. Picking up more shifts, he did what he called “mixed music” shows that reflected the diverse sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, playing Traffic, Sly and the Family Stone, Herbie Hancock, et al. He ended up doing four shows a week there, later moving over to the Boston University’s FM station, WBUR, for whom he took over a Friday night jazz show.

After hearing John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album, Jackson personal and professional interest narrowed to jazz. “My sophomore year in college, I carried that album around with me and if you invited me to your dorm room or apartment, and I was there for maybe 15 minutes, I’d say, ‘Could you put this on, please?’" Jackson told Lee. "I became a jazz snob. I didn’t want to hear any other kind of music but jazz.”

Eric Jackson on his introduction to jazz and radio

Jackson did a short stint doing a jazz show for the commercial rock station WBCN, which had an enormous impact on Rhonda Hamilton, WBGO's longtime host who recently retired. She first encountered Jackson during that short run at WBCN and it changed her life. “Eric Jackson was an inspiration to me as he was to so many others,” she explains. “I wouldn't have the career I've enjoyed for almost five decades had I not met Eric while I was a student at Boston University and got an internship at WBCN where Eric had a nightly show. I used to listen to his show every night so I was excited to meet him and learn about what he was doing and how he did it. Eric invited me to his wedding and I was seated at a table with Charlie Perkins who was WBUR's Program Director at the time. He asked me if I knew anything about Jazz because he was looking for someone to host a show on Saturday and Sunday mornings. After Charlie hired me I found out that I didn't know as much about jazz as I thought I did but I began to immerse myself in the history of the music. I listened to recordings all the time and read as many books about the jazz masters as I could. This was during my senior year in school and after I graduated I was hired to work full-time, five nights a week. Then in 1979, I made the transition to WBGO when they first started broadcasting as a jazz radio station.” Hamilton would go on to a 40+ year career as one of jazz radio's foremost hosts. Jackson mentored many people during his career, but few as accomplished as Hamilton.

Sometime after his foray into commercial radio, Jackson joined WGBH as a host in 1977 and five years later, he started hosting a nightly jazz show called “Eric in the Evening” that became a popular and iconic program, thanks in no small part to his relaxed on-air presence. “Eric approached his craft with a deep sense of love: love for the music, love for the artists, and love for the listener,” says Trefzger. “There was just such a genuineness and care in his presentation and curation of the music.” Jackson also worked with Tessil Collins on a 24/7 streaming service for jazz from WGBH.

In an email to WBGO, Jackson’s protégé Rhonda Hamilton tried to sum up his unique gifts and influence as a jazz radio broadcaster. “Eric set a great example and I always admired his ability to present the music in a way that was entertaining and informative,” Hamilton explained. “Listening to him I knew that it was important to learn as much about the music as I could and also get to know the artists who were creating it. I think he set that example for our generation of jazz broadcasters and for those who have come behind us who had the good fortune of hearing him on the air. Eric was someone we treasured and we will never forget his kindness, his generosity, and the way he shared his expertise in his signature easy-going manner and his melodious voice. Eric Jackson loved the music and presented it in such a way that anyone listening would fall in love with it too.”

"Eric Jackson was a kind man, and he was a jazz expert - an aficionado of the highest order," Terri Lyne Carrington told WBGO. "I’ve known him my whole life because my father knew him well. In fact my father got him his first radio gig in Boston doing a jazz show on the Black station WILD. So Eric was in the fabric of my life early on. He will be missed terribly by all that knew him, but his dedication and contribution to jazz and to Boston will be remembered forever.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”