In Memoriam: Thurston Briscoe, 1947–2021

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Briscoe, right, with Instrumentalist/producer Eric Tait and vocalist Liz Wright in 2011.

(Photo: Courtesy WBGO)

Thurston Briscoe, a former radio producer at NPR in Washington, D.C., and executive at WBGO in Newark, New Jersey, who radiated his enthusiasm for life and people as well as music, made his transition on Aug. 16 at Morris View Health Center, Morristown, New Jersey, after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and throat cancer. He was 74.

Briscoe was born on July 4, 1947, in Great Bend, Kansas, to Magdalene and Alfonzo Briscoe. His father is most remembered for working at the Montgomery Ward’s in Great Bend and coaching local sports. His mother worked at St. Rose Hospital. “My mom never stopped cooking,” Briscoe would say. Aunts and uncles on both sides lived in the Great Bend and Hutchinson area, providing a large, extended family whose stories he loved to tell. He treasured a framed 1886 United States land grant for 160 acres in Larned, Kansas, to his ancestor, Henderson Briscoe, and a photograph of his uncles training and owning race horses.

Briscoe graduated from Great Bend High School in 1965. He played drums in the Argonne Rebels Drum and Bugle Corps, and enjoyed traveling to competitions. He attended Wichita State University, where he majored in theater and speech therapy, was drafted by the Army and served in a K-9 unit in Seoul, South Korea, before returning to WSU to complete his bachelor’s degree. As a lover of music on radio stations from Memphis to Mexico since his boyhood, when Briscoe got to college, he hosted classical and jazz shows on the university station KMUW. He also played Othello in a college production and made friendships in Wichita that lasted for decades.

Inspired by his older brother Phillip’s move to the Northwest, Briscoe relocated to Eugene, Oregon, where, beginning in 1976, he hosted a weekly jazz show on KLCC, the local NPR station. Soon he was also reporting on public affairs and got hired as a full-time producer of features and documentaries. In 1980, NPR in Washington, D.C., hired him to join the arts unit of the newly created daily show Morning Edition. He moved on to become the associate producer of the NPR performance series Jazz Alive! and then returned to Morning Edition to head the arts unit.

In 1990 Briscoe accepted a job at WBGO, the 24-hour station with a jazz, news and rhythm-and-blues format. For 23 years, Briscoe served first as program director and then vice president of programming and production. He managed the on-air staff as well as regular and special programming. He championed live remotes and performance series. He was executive producer of NPR/WBGO’s JazzSet, whose host, Branford Marsalis, gave him the affectionate on-air name Thurston Briscoe the Third. During Briscoe’s tenure, WBGO — one of the most-listened-to jazz radio stations in the country — reached out from Newark to the world via wbgo.org. The station began to webcast its programming and launched a stream of new releases by young artists entitled the Jazz Bee.

Throughout his career, with his natural friendliness and interest in people, Briscoe mentored many new public radio producers and managers nationwide, including and especially African-American producers. He was a role model with legendary warmth and presence. Jon Schwartz, who hired Briscoe at KLCC, recently said, “Most of all I remember how his face would light up when he would see you.”

He is survived by his partner of 20 years, New Jersey State Senator Nia Gill; his brother Phillip and sister-in-law Louise Allen Briscoe of Seattle; and cousins Elsie Wickliffe of Hutchinson, Kansas, and Mickey and Pat Gomez of Wichita, Kansas. Briscoe’s marriage to Louise Cook ended in divorce. Donations in his memory may be made to Jazz House Kids in Montclair, New Jersey. DB



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