Chuck Niles was the voice of jazz radio in Southern California for more than 40 years -- and, some might say, its heart and soul.
Niles, 76, died Monday night at Santa Monica--UCLA Medical Center of complications from a stroke. He had been on the air until Feb. 25, the day before he suffered the stroke, said Judy Jankowski, president and general manager of KKJZ-FM (88.1), the station where Niles had worked since 1990. He had undergone quintuple bypass surgery in July 2001.
Jankowski said that Niles’ importance to the station and jazz in Southern California was immeasurable.
“He lived and breathed jazz and was a living jazz historian,” she said Tuesday.
“Chuck had the perfect deejay’s attributes -- a marvelously mellifluous voice, a great sense of pacing and an innate, cool dude manner,” said jazz critic Don Heckman. “But what really made him special was his knowledge and respect for the music, his capacity to present it with the sort of rich communicative understanding that could only have come from someone who, like Chuck, was a musician himself.”
Niles spun tracks on a succession of jazz radio stations, beginning with the pioneering jazz station KNOB in Los Angeles and ending on KKJZ-FM in Long Beach. More than an announcer, he was a one--man jazz university, introducing the music and its lore to generations of Southern Californians. He also served as an unofficial jazz ambassador, emceeing countless concerts, memorials and other jazz--related events.
A former colleague, Ken Borges, once called him “the Vin Scully, the Chick Hearn of jazz.”
A musician by training, Niles counted many of the jazz greats among his friends, and was the inspiration for several songs, including “Niles Blues” by Louie Bellson and “Be Bop Charlie” by Bob Florence. That song memorialized one of his several nicknames; he also was known as Carlito Niles when playing Latin jazz and Country Charlie Niles during a brief, unhappy stint on a country music station.
Few people had less country in them than Chuck Niles.
One of the few septuagenarians who could refer to someone as a “cat” without sounding foolish, Niles had a voice that seemed perfectly suited to jazz: a deep, smooth, lilting baritone burnished by a life of cigarette smoking and deployed as a virtual musical instrument. He brought an extraordinary depth of knowledge to his radio broadcasts, which he sprinkled with telling anecdotes, heartfelt tributes and lots of exclamations of “Oh, man!”
He could be found many nights at one or more of his favorite jazz nightclubs, soaking up the music and hobnobbing with friends, and his frequent on--air plugs were credited with helping to keep the Southern California jazz club scene alive. Aside from music, his principal passion in life was acting, and his biggest regret was not having achieved greater success on stage or screen. He appeared in many local theatrical productions in the 1950s and ‘60s, and had a bit part in “Teenage Zombies,” which was released in 1958 and eventually won cult status as one of the worst movies ever made.
“I was just walking around like Frankenstein, that’s all, no lines, just ‘gluergugluergu,’ and I’m pretty good at that,” he recalled in an interview in 2001. The movie, he cheerfully conceded, “was just terrible.”
Niles was proud to have been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although he might have preferred that it be adorned with a camera, not a microphone. Still, he took a journeyman’s joy in his radio work and resented anyone who suggested that it was a fallback career.
“My line is, ‘All I need is my big fat mouth and a microphone,’ ” he said. “And in addition to that, my line is, ‘And there’s no heavy lifting.’ And so when I say I go to work -- that’s work? I buy the best earphones, I’m down there . . . I’m enjoying myself! How lucky can you get? I’m not saying I didn’t play the blues, because I have played some blues, but I’m still a very fortunate cat.”
Born Charles Neidel in Springfield, Mass., on June 24, 1927, he eventually adopted the name Niles because he got sick of people calling him “needle,” rather than correctly pronouncing his name to rhyme with “idle.” He kept Neidel as his legal name.
Theater and music were part of his life from his earliest years. His father, a paper salesman, was an amateur actor in local productions. Niles took up clarinet at an early age and played his first paying gig on saxophone at age 15 --in a brothel.
“As things went on and on, I started playing more often,” he recalled. “I tell you, I was never out of work.”
In 1945, with World War II nearly over, Niles enlisted in the Navy. The war ended while he was still in basic training in Florida. Niles was sent to San Diego and briefly stationed in the South Pacific.
Though largely uneventful, his stint in the military produced some indelible memories. Years later, Niles would recall hitchhiking from San Diego to Hollywood to catch a concert at the Hollywood Palladium, and searching the radio dial for the first sounds of jazz as his ship approached New York Harbor at the end of his service. He even remembered the song that was playing: “Symphony,” by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra.
After the Navy, Niles returned to music full time, playing alto sax in a jazz band, the Emanon Quartet -- “no name” spelled backward. “How hip can you get?” he later mused.
They were hip, in Niles’ recounting. They wore the hippest clothes: white shirts, pegged pants, blue suede shoes and blue cardigans. They played the hippest music: bebop, which was then revolutionizing the jazz world. Jazz styles would come and go over the next half century, but Niles stayed forever true to the straight--ahead jazz of his youth.
Back in Springfield, Niles earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from American International University and, in 1951, landed a job playing music on a local radio station, WTXL. By 1953, growing bored, he drove to Los Angeles. Failing to find work, he drove on to West Palm Beach, Fla., where he quickly found a job on radio station WMVD. He stayed there a year, then did a stint as a television sportscaster and dance show host before another bout of restlessness sent him back to California.
It was 1956. This time, he would stay.
His first job was on KFOX radio, playing rock ‘n’ roll--tinged pop that wasn’t exactly his style. Next came KHJ-TV Channel 9, where he hosted afternoon movies and the “Strange Lands and Seven Seas” program -- “You know . . . some guy goes to Africa, films a herd of elephants, comes back and tells me about it.”
But his real break came in 1957, when Sleepy Stein recruited him to be an announcer on what claimed to be the first all -- jazz radio station in the United States: KNOB, “the jazz knob.” (Jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, head of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said the claim is probably true, but difficult to verify.)
Niles stayed there eight years, honing his craft and creating a close bond with the Southern California jazz community.
In the meantime, he was pursuing acting jobs and hanging out at the Master’s Club, a theatrical club in Hollywood where, he said, he spent “the happiest times of my life.”
Niles landed roles in regional theatrical productions of “Harvey” and “Dial M for Murder,” among others, and played Biff in a summer stock production of “Death of a Salesman.”
He married in 1964, and though he and his wife, Nancy Neidel, eventually separated, they never divorced and remained on friendly terms. Daughter Tracy Neidel inherited her father’s love of music, becoming a pop and blues singer who uses the stage name Tracy Niles.
In 1965, Niles left KNOB for KBCA, another all-jazz station that changed its call letters to KKGO in 1979. KKGO switched to classical music in 1990, and Niles left immediately for KLON-FM, the station of Cal State Long Beach, which had an all-jazz format.
The station changed its name to KKJZ in August 2002.
There, Niles continued to play the music that he loved, introducing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and hundreds of other jazz luminaries to yet another generation.
A public memorial service for Niles will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Church of the Hills, Forest Lawn Hollywood, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive.