Station celebrates milestone
A man with a foot-long beard and giant turban walks into the studio and suddenly the florescent lights, the modern box of a room with its laptops and new technology, somehow feel like they fade away. He is the heyday of jazz, the smoky, dim club, the smooth talking man who makes each person he meets feel like they’re the only ones in the room. He’s got the jazz vibe, and he brings it with him wherever he goes.
“These guys are very old school, when you meet them they look at you, they shake your hand,” Kayonne Riley said.
And sometimes he’s even smooth enough to pocket the Sharpie you gave him to get his autograph, Riley remembered with a laugh.
The musician was Dr. Lonnie Smith, known for his amazing jazz organ skills, a forefather of “acid jazz,” and a sound and vibe as funky as his signature turban. He’s just one of hundreds of jazz musicians to grace the University of Central Florida’s WUCF-FM radio station with their innovative, skillful jazz playing over its 35 year history, said Riley, WUCF’s director. They’ve seen legends Ira Sullivan, Christian Tamburr and Alain Bradette in their studio for concerts, which happen each month and are broadcasted live for listeners.
It’s like watching imagination, instant inspiration come to life.
“Jazz musicians, they have a history, a characterization, they are just so cool, they see the world in such a different way in most cases. They see the world as a beautiful place to create great things,” WUCF program host Alan Rock said. “They have this humorous outlook on life, and this incredible, incredible desire to create.”
The FM station, which began in the days when UCF was FTU — and was also once named WFTU — celebrated 35 years on Sept. 12. It was a small student-run operation that spent years housed in the darkness of the campus library’s basement. Riley has been at the station for 20 years, and remembers those days of huge equipment that needed a DJ’s touch constantly. Nothing was automated. If a song ended, a host better be there the second that happened to change to the next tune. She had a stack of CDs 2 feet high next to her, piled in order of play. Even in 1994, the studio felt like the old days. Imagine a 1970s sitcom set, she said.
“It was like the 1970s; there was shag carpet on the walls, it was green and yellow … and it was in the basement of the library so it was like in a bomb shelter, just gnarly,” Riley said.
Now, in its new location in the school’s communication building, it’s known as one the first local stations to broadcast HD digital and is the nation’s highest rated full-time jazz station. Its state-of-the-art studio has been guest host to interviews with Al Sharpton — who ate a salad while talking on air like he just didn’t care — and world record skydiver U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger.
The station’s mission is to offer the community enlightening, educational and cultural content with the NPR cultural and talk programs, and transitioned to include jazz every day in 1994. They made the change because they found their most dedicated listeners, their most popular shows, were jazz. And there’s no other local resource out there to hear this great music, Riley said.
“It’s such an American art-form, I mean this was invented here in America … jazz was born right here and is a part of American history so it’s really great to be able to continue it,” she said. “And it has kind of influenced our whole musical history in America; it really does, the blues and everything that it’s based on has shaped rock ‘n’ roll and caused it.”
The program hosts at WUCF are jazz’s biggest fans. It doesn’t take long for Riley to thumb through the station’s record collection — likely one of the biggest in the area, with albums lining a shipping container-sized room floor to ceiling, wall to wall — to find one of her old favorites: a 1950s Benny Golson record. She lightly places it on the player, skimming the grooves with her finger and dropping the needle skillfully on the old disc as it spins away. A 1950s song pumps through the modern speakers, fitting for a genre that has fresh, contemporary versions of century-old songs played by new artists all the time.
“To me, that’s creativity, and if you like creativity, especially spontaneous creativity because you’ll never hear it the same way twice, you’ll understand what jazz is all about,” Rock said.