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Jazz connoisseur, GBH host Eric Jackson, 72

James Bennett
Jazz connoisseur, GBH host Eric Jackson, 72

Eric Jackson, a jazz host who inspired audiences in Boston for decades, died on Saturday morning. He was 72 years old.

Jackson came from music. He was the son of jazz enthusiast Sam Jackson. In a conversation with saxophonist Leonard Brown for GBH, Jackson recalled how his father, who he said was the first Black radio announcer in New England, introduced him to the genre at a young age and welcomed accomplished musicians of the era into their family home.

Eric Jackson was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1950. The family moved to Camden, New Jersey, but Jackson returned to New England in 1968 to attend Boston University. As a student, he hosted several programs at the college station, WBTU. Jackson continued on to host at WBUR, WHRB, WILD and WBCN. In 1977, he became a regular host on GBH with Essays in Black Music, a weekly chronology of African American musical history. He found a new role at the station in 1981 after filling in for an announcer who left to play bass on the road for a couple of weeks. When the host didn’t return as planned, GBH offered Jackson a permanent spot. That convergence of events launched what became a mainstay in Boston radio, Eric in the Evening.

Over his decades in radio broadcasting, Jackson became known widely as the “Dean of Boston Jazz Radio.” That title connotes not only his leadership and knowledge of the subject, but also a guardianship of associated departments. Jackson’s departments were radio, jazz and people, whether related by the fraternity of terrestrial and digital broadcasters, or by participation as a citizen of the distinct American art.

“Eric’s hidden talent as a broadcaster was his ability to subtly teach something,” CRB General Manager Anthony Rudel recalled in an internal memo on Sunday morning. “Working with him has been a joy, an exciting experience, and an education.”

Jackson introduced himself to so many people by way of his on-air presence. He entered your home, car or office with his voice, and one felt as if one knew him.

Colleagues and friends sharing their memories of Jackson reflected on this ability to connect and educate audiences.

Dr. William Banfield, a composer, professor emeritus and founding director of Black Music Culture Studies at Berklee College of Music, met Jackson while studying at the New England Conservatory. He pointed out that Jackson’s relationship with jazz went beyond the notes on the records. For him, jazz was an extension of Black accomplishment, and he championed jazz as a way to also point out the artistic and cultural triumphs of the people.

“He wasn’t just Eric on the air,” said Dr. William Banfield. “He was Eric in the streets with jazz, and he was walking and talking and living and planting the seeds.”

“Anybody that knew anything about jazz music heard it from Eric,” said Tessil Collins, who met Jackson through the college radio station network before both came to GBH. “Eric is one of the last of a breed of radio personalities. It’s like a chapter being closed on a generation of radio announcers who really were pioneers in the industry, especially in the Boston market. He’s been a mainstay for over 50 years. It’s a great loss, and GBH was very honored and very blessed to have had him on the air.”

CRB’s Ron Della Chiesa remembers Jackson from their days at WBCN.

“His shows were like symphonies, starting quietly and building through an arc for hours,” he recalled. “There was always a sound in his voice that was comforting, always there no matter what was going on in the world.”

“It’s like a chapter being closed on a generation of radio announcers who really were pioneers in the industry.”

Even though New England was his home, Jackson’s influence and personality was not geographically confined.

“He was known way beyond Boston,” said Sue Auclair, a marketing and entertainment promoter who worked with Jackson. “I used to go to some of the jazz conventions out of town in New York or D.C. or whatever and everybody knew Eric.”

Over the course of his decades on air, Jackson interviewed thousands of musicians, both established legends of the scene and local musicians who were still building their presence.

Laszlo Gardony, a friend of Jackson’s, was one such musician. Born in Hungary, he moved to the United States, on a scholarship from Berklee. Naturally, he bent his ear to Jackson.

“It was clear from the beginning that he had amazingly, masterfully curated sets of excellent jazz, which made us hear things that we haven’t heard before,” he remembered. “I also realized that he passionately promoted New England musicians and music.”

Jazz pianist Yoko Miwa also found a friend in Jackson. She can’t remember when she first met him because, like so many others, that first interaction came via radio. She’s been a guest on his show, and has played several live performances with GBH.

“He was one of the biggest supporters of my music, he even came to my shows — he did this for everybody,” said Miwa. “He was such a beautiful person. He educated everybody. He was a treasure of the jazz scene.”

Others can’t imagine what their music trajectory would have been like without Jackson. In an email to GBH News, singer, saxophonist and songwriter Grace Kelly, whose first interview on Jackson’s show came when she was just 13 years old, said up-and-coming artists “were able to break into the Boston jazz scene because of his influence.”

Jackson’s devoted fanbase came out to support him when GBH scaled back its jazz programming in 2012 amid an expansion of NPR content. After the station announced it would move Jazz on WGBH with Eric Jackson from weekday nights to weekends, the jazz community — from musicians to listeners to fellow broadcasters — made their outrage known through a protest styled after a New Orleans-style funeral.

Six years later, GBH celebrated Jackson’s 40 years with the station, designating April 22-29, 2018 as “Eric Jackson Week” — complete with brunches, live broadcasts and a concert series. Both the cities of Cambridge and Boston proclaimed “Eric Jackson Days,” April 23 for the former, and April 25 for the latter. Sen. Elizabeth Warren issued a National Citation “acknowledging Jackson’s role in jazz culture and his illustrious career.“

The best teachers have such a strong passion for their subject that their enthusiasm radiates to their pupils, who can’t help but share in the delight. The dean taught his listeners so much and equipped them to share a musical gospel to those yet unacquainted. He wished pleasant dreams for his listeners. May he now find the same.

A memorial service is being planned.

James Bennett II is an arts and culture reporter for GBH News.

CRB, Eric in the Evening, Eric Jackson, GBH, jazz radio