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Rhonda Hamilton Discusses Her New Show, 'Sunday Spotlight,' and Her Return to WBGO


One year ago, WBGO bid a reluctant farewell to Rhonda Hamilton, whose voice has been a beacon for our audience since Day 1. 

Rhonda, a legend in broadcasting, was the longtime host of Midday Jazz, and the voice of nationally syndicated programs like NPR’s JazzSet and Toast of the Nation. She can still be heard on the Real Jazz channel at SiriusXM satellite radio — and, we’re thrilled to announce, back on WBGO, with a special program that will air every Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. 

I recently spoke with Rhonda about her new show, which begins on Aug. 16, with a personal take on the musician profile.


What is the name of your new show?

That was a big thing, to come up with the name. We settled on Sunday Spotlight, and I like it. It’s simple, and self-explanatory. I’m shining a light on different artists, with a focus on particular recordings.

That feels like a great fit for you, and a welcome addition.

People have often asked me, you know: “What records should I buy? What do you recommend? What do you like?” So I thought that might be a concept people would appreciate. Like how they have “The Essentials” on Turner Classic Movies. But it’s from my perspective: some of the recordings that I really enjoy, by artists who have made major contributions to the music. These are albums that really inspired me to dig deeper into jazz and become a more serious listener.

Credit WBGO

There are touchstones for each of these artists — that handful of canonical recordings. And then there are personal favorites. I’m sure there’s significant overlap between those two categories, but it sounds like the second is more where you’re coming from with this show?

Yes, it’s more personal favorites. And I only have two hours, so that limits how much ground I can cover. So I’ll mostly concentrate on one or two albums by an artist. One of the things that people have told me over the years is that they appreciate my taste in music. And what I’ve done on the radio is, I’m always thinking of the listener first, and what they might want to hear. So I’m approaching it from that perspective. This is music that hopefully everybody will enjoy. And I think it will help to broaden listeners’ appreciation of the music.

I’m sure it will.

And we’ll deal with legendary artists at the beginning. But as time goes on, I also want to feature people who are here, the younger artists making more contemporary art.

Well, he’s not a younger artist, but Ahmad Jamal is thankfully still with us, and playing just beautifully. He’s your first Sunday Spotlight artist. What are some of the qualities in his music that you’ll aim to capture on the show?

Well, what impressed me when I first listened to him was his use of dynamics. You know, how he can go from something quiet to something intense within a single song. And his approach to standards — bringing something new, not playing them in a way that you might traditionally expect to hear, and bringing an emotional content that makes you feel something. I first heard him when I was 14 years old. That particular album, The Awakening, is the first one I’m highlighting. The title is appropriate, because it kind of awakened my love for the music, even though I had been a listener and my parents played jazz in the house. This was the one where I said, “OK, now I want to go out on my own and explore this music.”

And not only is The Awakening a great recording — it’s had this fascinating afterlife as a https://youtu.be/Caxwob1iKX4" target="_blank">cornerstone sample source in hip-hop. It has stayed relevant through multiple eras and musical styles.

That’s interesting, because it was a friend in high school who introduced me; he was studying the piano and had gotten this record. He was trying to duplicate what Ahmad was doing. We’d play it over and over and try to figure things out. I’m not as well-versed in the hip-hop connection, but I know that as with a lot of jazz artists, Ahmad has been sampled widely.

Who else will you be featuring in the coming weeks?

After Ahmad, I’ll spotlight Louis Armstrong. Then Wayne Shorter, followed by Horace Silver. After Horace Silver, it’ll be Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose song “I Talk With the Spirits” was my closing theme in the early days, when I was working at night. In September I’ll feature Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, then Duke Ellington with John Coltrane — commemorating the anniversary of those recordings.

Since word got out that you would be back on the air at WBGO, we’ve heard enthusiastic feedback from a lot of listeners. What do you look most look forward to about reaching our audience again?

Well, that’s the thing that I’ve missed. And having been a part of the radio station since the beginning, really. You know — for more than half of my life, I've been connected with WBGO. So it was strange, not being there. But I still felt that connection to the staff and to the audience. And, you know, there's some people who have sent me emails, so it's great to be able to connect on a on a deeper level with people again. And I really appreciated it that people reached out when I was leaving and said that they would miss me. And now, you know, people starting to say that they’re happy I’m coming back. That means a lot to me. And I think that's one of the reasons why I have stayed with WBGO for so long. I love the music. I love presenting it to people — and presenting it in a way that I hope will enhance their love of the music.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.