Chuck Niles: Voice of L.A. Jazz Radio

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Chuck ‘Be-Bop Charlie’ Niles, who was regarded as the voice of L.A. jazz radio, died March 15 at Santa Monica/UCLA Medical Center of complications from a stroke. He was 76. A resident of Marina del Rey at the end of his life, Niles had a great love for the beach and thoroughly enjoyed the 18 years he lived in Pacific Palisades (1966 to 1984). ”’Chuck had the perfect deeJay’s attributes’a marvelously mellifluous voice, a great sense of pacing and an innate, cool dude manner,’ said L.A. Times 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 Borgers, 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 ‘Carlitos Niles’ when playing Latin jazz, and Country Charlie Niles during a brief, unhappy stint on a country music station. 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 that he 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!’ 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. 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. Born Charles Neidel in Springfield, Massachusetts on June 24, 1927, Niles began playing clarinet at age 7 and was playing professional jobs on the saxophone by age 14. He broke into professional radio at WEAT in West Palm Beach, Florida. ”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 was briefly stationed in the South Pacific. After the Navy, he 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. Back in Springfield, Niles earned a 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, 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 & 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.’ In the meantime, Niles was pursuing acting jobs and hanging out at the Masquers Club, a theatrical club in Hollywood where, he said, he spent ‘the happiest times of my life.’ He 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.’ 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. He is survived by his wife, Nancy Neidel, and daughter Tracy Neidel, who inherited her father’s love of music, becoming a pop and blues singer who uses the stage name Tracy Niles.