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Latin Jazz Conversations: Jose Rizo (Part 2)

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Some people are simply meant to be involved in their passion—they are pulled with a magnetic force towards their final goal. These type of people don't see challenges as roadblocks to their dreams; they simply look past them and find an alternate route towards their destination. Life may consistently attempt to turn them in a different direction, but their inner navigation works magic, redirecting them towards their interests. These are the types of people that constantly inspire us, reminding the world that there's always a way to connect with the things that drive you. Destiny moves them forward with a ferocious velocity, keeping them attached to the things that feed their soul.

Radio personality and bandleader José Rizo developed a strong passion for Latin Jazz and radio, consistently being pulled towards the two worlds. Growing up in Oxnard, California, Rizo heard a variety of music in his youth, ranging from popular music like James Brown and Tower Of Power to Glenn Miller. He played trumpet in high school band, but didn't find a passion for jazz until he reached college. Inspired by Carlos Santana, Rizo dug deeper into artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane as he attended University of California at Santa Barbara. Discouraged by the representation of the Latino community on the radio, Rizo actively pursued a position as a disc jockey despite a lack of experience. He soon was learning on the job at local pop station KIST, hosting a public affairs show. He gathered a number of people with a similar interest, creating Radio Chicano, an organization where Rizo shared his growing knowledge about radio. The group spread back to the UCSB campus, where Rizo began taking an active part at their radio station KCSB. Music started steadily creeping into Rizo's public affairs program until he started an all-music show, Barrio Salsoul. In addition, he began producing live concerts on campus and dedicating more of his time to music. This eventually drove him to leave school, getting a job at an electronics firm to support his wife's continued schooling. Despite encouragement from musicians, Rizo stayed away from radio, focusing upon his financial responsibilities and eventually returning to school to finish his degree. As he listened to local Latin Jazz shows though, he noticed a lack of attention to the honest mixture between jazz and Latin styles. Dedicated to bringing a more authentic approach to Latin Jazz onto the radio, Rizo approach KLON about producing a regular program. After an audition, the station enthusiastically invited him onto the airwaves, and his show Jazz On The Latin Side became a huge hit. Rizo became a mainstay at the station, continuing Jazz On The Latin Side, expanding to traditional jazz programing, and eventually becoming music director. Even with jazz radio in decline, Rizo remains an important presence both on the airwaves and behind the scenes, guaranteeing a regular dose of quality jazz to the listening audience in Los Angeles.

Whether it was a lack of experience or other life obligations, nothing kept Rizo away from spreading the word about Latin Jazz on the radio. As a result, his passion touched countless people, as the Los Angeles jazz community became excited about the mixture of Latin rhythms. Musicians and fans alike enthusiastically supported Rizo on the radio, a trend that would continue when he became a bandleader. In Part One of our interview with Rizo, we looked at his connections with music as a youth, his brave jump into public radio, and his transition into music programming. Today we dig into the creation of his popular radio show Jazz On The Latin Side, his growth in music director at KJAZ, and the current state of public radio.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: So much of the history of Latin music is written around New York, and much of that includes important radio figures such as Symphony Sid—were there any radio personalities on the West Coast that were influential to you in the same way?

JOSÉ RIZO: In my early stages of forming Radio Chicano, when I started doing radio, there was not really one person that inspired me. I kind of just tried to figure it out on my own. Eventually in my mid-twenties, I read this article in a Latin magazine about Chico Sesma. I thought, “This guy did radio too and he's Latino, so I'll read about him." I did more research on him and found out that he was the one that started English language radio programming on Latin music. He was the first one out here on the West Coast to play Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, and all those early bands. But he did it in English. Later he worked on a jazz station doing the same thing, way back in the late forties and early fifties. He was a legend. He was the one that set up all the Hollywood Latin holidays. He was the first to bring Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Beny More to the West Coast. He would do these amazing concerts at the Hollywood Palladium once a month. When I learned about that, I had never really heard him and I wanted to know more about him. Eventually in my trips to L.A., I finally tracked him down and I met him. Since then, he became my mentor; he would sit me down and talk to me about music and life. I learned a whole lot from him. I'm still in touch with him. Whenever I bumped into Tito Puente or Celia Cruz, we'd have conversations and they were always telling me to say hi to Chico. He meant a lot to them.

When I started doing radio, people that came from L.A. directly would tell me, “you've got to listen to this guy, his name is Richard Liles." By that time, I had already figured out what I wanted to figure out and I started getting deeper into Latin Jazz. I had pretty much developed myself as to how I felt comfortable on the air. I went back and I finally looked for a cassette of this guy, because I wanted to see what he sounded like. They finally gave me a cassette and to me it was no big deal—this guy was fumbling on the air and all he was playing was salsa. He wasn't playing any jazz at all. But they grew up with that, so it was really important to them. I wasn't all that impressed with what he was doing, and I thought that I was doing O.K.

If there was one jock that I could pinpoint that really influenced me that I heard on the air, it was probably Chuck Niles. Chico was an influence because of his accomplishments, definitely. I listened to him a little bit, but it was later, after I was already doing my thing. While I was at UCSB, I would listen voraciously to KBCA and KGGO in L.A. whenever I could catch them. I would catch as much as I could—I would always listen to Jim Gosa and Chuck Niles. So the jazz jocks were my idols.

LJC: You started your Jazz On The Latin Side program in 1990—how did you get from KCSB to KLON?

JR: At UCSB, I got so deep into the music that I left my studies. I was an electrical engineering student, but I couldn't study anymore. Music always occupied my mind. So I told my wife, “Let me get a job at a nearby electronics company; I'll put you through school and then we'll figure it out." So I did; we moved into student housing and my wife finished her teaching credential. I was working at a little electronics firm, just trying to make a living and help her through school.

Then all of a sudden, my first boy was born. I looked at that little face and I thought, “I've got to get this together." I felt like I couldn't screw around anymore and I had to focus on getting my engineering degree. So my wife got a job here in East L.A. and I decided to go back to school to finish my engineering degree. That was our plan. We stuck to it.

I really knew Poncho from my UCSB years—during that time he would come do gigs, visit me on the air at KCSB, and more. I was living in East L.A. while I was going to school and he would always call me up and ask, “Aren't you ever going to get back into radio?" I would say, “No, man, I'm focused. I'll hang out and listen to music, but I've got to finish this." Through the years that I was here in East L.A., he would come around. “Hey, Jose, I'm playing near, I'm going to pick you up." So he would pick me up and we'd hang out. It would be the same thing with him and Ramon Banda—"Don't you miss it? Don't you want to get back into it?" I would say, “No, I just don't feel it."

Then I started listening to some of the programming on KKGO. The guy that was doing the Latin Jazz show was playing all instrumental salsa; he had no knowledge of jazz at all. I thought to myself, “The library must be amazing there, but he's just playing instrumental salsa!" So already in my mind, I was making notes of things that would work for a Latin Jazz show. I wanted to play all the great jazz artists that brought in Latin percussionists and all that kind of stuff. Plus there was the music that was going on with Tito and Jerry Gonzalez. I thought, “If I could put all this together in one show, it would sound pretty cool." The bug was growing.

Then one day, it just hit me that I had to get back into it. That other show was driving me nuts. So I finally went to KLON—that was really my favorite station. They were playing the real stuff while KKGO was starting to get a little commercial. I called up Ken Borges and said, “I used to do Latin Jazz in Santa Barbara; I know the jazz end and I know the Latin end. I could help you with a Latin Jazz show." He said, “I've got a few audition cassettes here, but people are playing salsa. We don't really want to go there; we want jazz from a Latin point of view. We just don't know if that exists." I said, “I think that I could help you. I'll come in and do a demo."

So I went there and did a demo on a cassette. I was bringing all my Arieto and Egrem albums—I was deep into Afro-Cuba, Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdes. People here had never even heard of these guys before. I was pulling all these gems into what I thought a Latin Jazz show should have. I left a demo and he called me the next night. He goes, “Where did you get all this incredible material—what is this?!?" I said, “It's what I think a Latin Jazz show should be." He said, “You've got jazz knowledge, these artists are amazing . . . When do you want to start?"

Then I called Poncho and said, “Guess what? I'm going to be back on the radio." He said, “Where, where?" “I'm going to be at KLON." He said, “I've got to call them up, I've got to let them know that they're doing the right thing. I've got to make sure that they know that they found the right person!" Then Ken called me and said, “You know Poncho Sanchez? He gave you raving review—now I know I made the right choice."

When I was in college, that was my dream—to come to Los Angeles and do this with a larger audience. At that time, there really was no definition of what a Latin Jazz show was, so I played with it, put different pieces together, and got really into it from the jazz point of view. I was able to do that and mix it together with music from Jerry Gonzalez, Poncho, Tito, and Tjader. I also got into Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis and Hubert Laws, the Jazz Crusaders, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and all the music from that end; I wanted to make sure that was all there. It was beautiful that I was finally able to present that whole package to an audience that totally had never heard anything like that before.

LJC: Was the jazz community into your show?

JR: Oh yea. They brought me in thinking that I was going to connect directly with the Latino audience. But it didn't work that way. I connected really strongly with the African-American community. They were my hugest supporters at the beginning. That surprised me. In the first membership drive, it was good, but there were no Latino names coming in on the pledges. That shocked me—this was all new to me. The jazz audience had open arms though; they were eating this up. They had never heard jazz from that point of view before. They had never heard Chucho Valdes, Emiliano Salvador, or Arturo playing with that versatility. All the stuff was totally alien to the listeners, but there were amazing musicians. They were just eating it up—they were listening to it and they were supporting it.

LJC: You grew that into a full time gig, eventually becoming music director . . .

JR: I've been there 23 years now. As with anything, you evolve. After many years, they saw me as the Latin Jazz disc jockey. When they finally needed people to fill in on the jazz shows, they said, “Oh, but you only know Latin Jazz." I said, “You guys don't know my other side. In fact, I learned jazz before I learned Latin Jazz; that was something that I picked up later." So I started sitting in on the jazz shows, and they were saying, “Wow, you know this stuff!" But everybody looked at me and saw the Latino, so I was the Latin Jazz guy. Eventually, I earned my respect there on another level, as a jazz person. Then when the new management came in, KLON became KKJZ, I started taking care of the music and helping with all the new releases coming out; so I became music director.

I dealt with the same thing with The Grammys. I've been serving for 18 or 19 years on screening committees, but they always had me on the Latin committee. I always had to deal with that thing—I'm jazz; just because I'm Latino, you don't have to put me in this Latin category. But that's how it's always happened. Five or six years ago, they put Latin Jazz back in the jazz category, so they included me in there. So now I'm part of the nomination committee for jazz.

LJC: Public radio has long been a lifeline for jazz, but things are different today due to the internet. Do you think that jazz radio is healthy or worse off?

JR: Jazz radio used to take up full stations, but that's not the case anymore. There's only five full-time jazz stations left in the whole country. That's pretty serious—that's in the whole country. So maybe ninety-nine percent of the country can not drive around their town or city and listen to jazz full time. They have to wait for certain jazz programs on public radio and college stations to be able to listen to jazz. Or they have to find it online. Full-time jazz stations are incredibly rare. There's KCSM in the San Francisco Bay Area, KSDS in San Diego, my station KKJZ in Los Angeles, KUVO in Denver, and WGBO on the East Coast. That's it—those are the only full time jazz stations left in the country. As far as jazz over the air, that's a serious problem. Now people are picking it up on satellite radio and there's a lot of web shows now that do jazz. So jazz is surviving one way or another. But when you're talking specifically about jazz radio, we're in a pretty serious point in terms of it going away all together—maybe even in the next few years if it's not supported.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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