WBGO Celebrates 40 Years


Carla Thomas (left), Dee Dee Bridgewater, Steven Bernstein, Craig Handy and Natalie Cressman onstage at the WBGO gala on Nov. 6 in Manhattan

(Photo: Jonathan Chimene)

On Nov. 6, Newark’s jazz public radio station, WBGO, marked a milestone by throwing itself a 40th anniversary party. The Champions of Jazz gala was held in Manhattan, at Capitale, a high-end events space situated in an 1893 Beaux Arts building designed by Stanford White. Several hundred station members and friends sipped and mingled over a pre-show buffet, then filed into the grand 15,000-square-foot ballroom.

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein, whose groove-rich, blues-tinged concept of hardcore jazz aptly signifies the WBGO soundtrack, led a band through repertoire associated with the career of Dee Dee Bridgewater, one of the evening’s two honorees. (The other was André Ménard, co-founder of the Montreal Jazz Festival.)

Bridgewater imprinted her personality on the proceedings, offering hugs and warm encomia to the singers. At about the 60-minute mark, she placed a winning bid ($4,500) for a signed guitar that Pat Metheny had donated to the auction. The event raised $325,000.

“I thought if people saw that an artist who’s been involved with WBGO was willing to pay that kind of money, they’d perhaps be inspired to contribute,” Bridgewater said. Her popular radio show, Jazz Set, which she inherited from Branford Marsalis in 2003 and hosted until 2016, originated with WBGO, as does Simon Rentner’s The Checkout, an hourly music magazine, and the Christian McBride-hosted Jazz Night in America.

“I consider WBGO part of my extended musical family,” Bridgewater continued. “They’ve broadened their musical horizons beyond just straightahead jazz, but it’s still, in my humble opinion, our premier jazz station.”

During the past decade, WBGO—which covers the entire New York metropolitan area—also has broadened its programming reach to operate on a global playing field via digital and streaming platforms.

“We’ve been innovators and risk-takers,” said WBGO President and Chief Executive Officer Amy Niles, who took her post in 2014. During her tenure, WBGO’s membership has numbered about 14,000 with an operating budget of $5.5 million. The station employs a staff of 46.

“There’s no bigger concentration of jazz music in the U.S. than where I’m sitting right now,” Niles said by phone from her office. A former singer and actress who stepped away to raise a family, she grew up in a Greenwich Village apartment building whose tenants included guitarist Jim Hall and jazz journalist Nat Hentoff. Now a Newark resident, she discussed how WBGO addresses its international audience while maintaining roots in her adopted home, where Sarah Vaughan and Wayne Shorter grew up.

Niles emphasized that she continually exhorts WBGO’s on-air programmers—among them veterans Michael Bourne, Gary Walker and, until recently, Rhonda Hamilton—to nurture an intimate relationship with their listeners.

“I always tell them, ‘Every time you turn on the mic, you don’t know who’s going to hear something,’” Niles said. “We may broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people, but we do it one person at a time. Everybody’s experience with us is personal, whether they’re in Thailand or Brooklyn or Newark. Our community is Newark and our community is the music, and we endeavor to honor both always, because both are essential to who we are.” DB

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