The Swing Shift

Each week, Ken Jackson brings songs of an earlier, gentler time to the radio airwaves

June 19, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,sun reporter

Every Friday evening, Ken Jackson's basso profundo voice pulls his listeners into their memories.

As the host of In the Mood, a weekly, three-hour show on WYPR-FM that invokes the big-band sound of the 1930s and 1940s -- along with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan -- the courtly, 75-year-old Jackson is keeping alive for his audience a genre of music that to many people is a thing of the distant past.

To Jackson and his loyal adherents, though, there is nothing more enriching than tunes like Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade"; Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are," from Artie Shaw's band; Tommy Dorsey's take on Irving Berlin's "Marie"; and anything composed by Cole Porter.

"I love this music, and I can get lost in it," Jackson says in his studio, his headphones around his neck, as a swing tune more than a half-century old plays over the airwaves. "It's romantic, glamorous and exciting, but there's not that many of us still doing this. Sadly, not many of us even know about this music. We're a victim of our age, of demographics."

Jackson himself seems a vestige of a kinder time -- calm, self-effacing and unfailingly gracious, with upright posture to match. He appears delighted to discuss his passion, which his listeners evidently share. Even after 53 years in radio -- the last five at WYPR -- Jackson remains proud that he has fans and keeps letters they send him.

"I like his relaxed manner," says Stephen L. Atlas, a 62-year-old Parkville resident and author who wrote recently to Jackson. "Everything is so fast-paced, and Ken slows down. You get the feeling that he's talking to each person. He makes the start of the weekend really special for me."

Another fan, Herbert D. Howard, took fountain pen to paper in his Mount Airy home to write that Jackson's playing in December of "Christmas Eve in My Home Town," by Kate Smith, had "brought back a flood of memories."

"I tell everyone about your show and even call them just before it begins to remind them," wrote Howard, who, like many of Jackson's fans, included a song request -- Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, with "I'm Making Believe."

Jackson always obliges.

"Can't your music be on the radio more often?" Dick Huppert, 76, a regular listener from Baltimore, wrote earlier this month in a letter in which he reminded Jackson that June 9 was Cole Porter's birthday.

Huppert was trying to find a recording of "I've Never Forgotten," but couldn't recall who sang it. Jackson found a 1946 version by Ginnie Powell on an old 78 rpm disc in his vast album collection at his Northwood home, copied it onto a CD and played it on the air. He accompanied it with a detailed explanation of the song's provenance.

Name that tune

Another listener wrote him an e-mail last month to ask for the name of a tune she had heard on his show, and received a thorough reply: "That was Rosemary Clooney singing `Willow Weep For Me,' backed by the Count Basie Orchestra directed by Grover Mitchell. This CD was released about 6/7 years ago on the Concord Jazz label. There are some other nice (I feel) songs and big band arrangements as well on the CD."

He suggested that she order the recording "via your music store" or online. "Glad you enjoyed it," he wrote. "Thanks for touching base and thanks, again, for listening." After signing his name, he asked that she "please let me know how you make out on this."

"If someone takes a moment to write to me," he tells a visitor, "I feel I should respond."

Andy Bienstock, WYPR's program director, calls Jackson "an old pro" and "the sweetest, nicest guy around." His audience, Bienstock says, "is the kind that still writes letters, instead of firing off e-mails."

In the Mood draws about 7,000 listeners each week, Bienstock says, roughly "in the middle of the pack" of the station's programming. (The biggest show by far is NPR's Car Talk, on Saturday mornings.)

"Ratings are not why we run Ken's show," says Bienstock, who hosts a jazz program four nights a week. "Nobody else was doing what he does in this market and it fits nicely into the jazz thing we do at night. His listeners are loyal because they don't have a lot of places to hear that music."

Tom Taylor, executive news editor of, which covers the industry, says people like Jackson "know they're keepers of the flame," although audiences for his brand of music are dwindling.

"People are so hungry for it, but traditionally the problem has been selling it to advertisers," says Taylor, a former radio programmer and on-air host in North Carolina, Kentucky and New Jersey. "It's about how America treats older Americans in terms of marketing to them. We're a youth-obsessed culture."

Jackson, a repository of obscure facts about the music he loves, does not spend much time worrying about the obsessions of youth. When he talks on the air or at retirement homes and private parties, he sticks to music and its history.

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