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Denver is the home of two radio broadcasters--KUVO-FM 89.3 and KHIH-FM 95.7--that promote themselves as jazz outlets. Which is why it's something of a surprise that the best three hours of jazz on the local airwaves can be found on a rock station.
The jazz show on KBCO-FM 97.3, heard on Sunday nights from eight to eleven o'clock, has been a staple on the Boulder-based station for nearly fifteen years. It was most often hosted by Richard Ray, a longtime KBCO jock who allowed the music he played to veer so far from jazz that the program should have been called Highlights From the New Age. But when Ray left KBCO last fall to become the program director of KKYD-AM 1340, a station with a children's music format, things started to change. Ray's apprentice, 22-year-old George Abbott, took over and instantly placed the KBCO show's focus on the music--pure, unadulterated jazz. So dedicated is he to his goal of making jazz hip to a new generation of listeners that nothing--not even a chance for a live, on-air interview with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder--can distract him.
Abbott laughs while recalling his telephone conversation with Vedder, who called KBCO on the last Sunday in November following the cancellation earlier that day of the third of three scheduled Pearl Jam concerts set for the University of Colorado's Balch Fieldhouse. "Yeah, he called right in the middle of the jazz show," he says. "I was doing an all-big-band evening. Of all the people in the world to call then."
Vedder wanted Abbott to temporarily preempt his big-band tribute so that the singer could offer his explanation of why Pearl Jam wouldn't be playing that evening. But even though the call constituted a scoop, Abbott would have none of it. "I told him I couldn't possibly put him on the air, because I was doing a jazz show," Abbott remembers. "I had to keep him on hold for about ten minutes while I got things together and went into the newsroom and taped the interview with him while my show ran." Abbott's conversation with Vedder wasn't heard by most KBCO listeners until the next day.
Despite his tender years, Abbott's dedication to jazz runs deep. He first got involved with radio four years ago through a stint at KUCB-AM/FM, the CU campus station, which at the time could be heard only by Boulder cable subscribers or those in the university's student dormitories. The small listenership didn't dim Abbott's enthusiasm: He inaugurated the station's first jazz show and was so eager to interview saxophonist Wayne Shorter at the 1989 Telluride Jazz Festival that he willingly stood in the rain and waited for his opportunity as the vast majority of fans ran for cover. He was a young man with a jazz mission and a professional attitude that led veteran scenesters to label him "the youngest forty-year-old around."
This nickname is appropriate, given that Abbott builds his radio shows around music by honored members of the jazz family who most people under the age of forty don't know. He plays Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He plays Al Grey. He plays Zoot Sims and Bill Evans. He plays what he calls "the old young lions--the guys who were in their twenties back in the Forties and Fifties." And he avoids playing the shlocky Muzak that other Denver jazz stations embrace.
"I never will play Kenny G," he vows. "I don't hate his music--but KHIH plays it. I don't have to compete with them. I think it's much more interesting to play Joe Henderson. Plus, I've never had a request for Kenny G. That's not the direction that I want to take the jazz show. I'm open to any requests, but ultimately there's a certain shape and a certain color I'm trying to create every night. It's always blue and green. We don't get into yellows very often."
Even though he's revolutionized KBCO's jazz show, Abbott staunchly refuses to criticize his old mentor Ray. "Richard was trying to make jazz accessible," he notes. "Heck, even I won't go out on a limb and play Don Cherry or Ornette Coleman. I don't want to lose listeners. I don't want to pull anyone's teeth. The whole approach is to create some kind of mood and expose people to the music."
Abbott's caution means that adventurous jazz artists such as Steve Turre, Jeanne Lee, Material and Nicky Skopelitis aren't getting anymore airplay on KBCO than they did during Ray's era. Still, the quality of the jazz show is already higher than ever--and the energy Abbott is bringing to the program holds the promise of attracting new fans to the music. "I think young people want to get into jazz," he says. "They don't necessarily understand it, but they like the way it feels. For lack of a better word, they think it's cool.