Bo Leibowitz 1945-2019

The KRCW Strictly Jazz disc jockey was uncompromising when it came to programming

Bo Leibowitz
Bo Leibowitz (photo courtesy: KCRW)

Bo Leibowitz, whose 40-year tenure as a disc jockey at KCRW radio made him a staple of jazz broadcasting, first in the greater Los Angeles area and then around the world, died June 3 in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 74 years old.

His death was announced by his family in a June 3 statement on social media and confirmed by the Los Angeles Times.

Leibowitz had hosted Strictly Jazz, a weekly overnight program that aired 3 to 6 a.m. every Saturday, since 1979. His insistence on programming acoustic, straight-ahead jazz both past and present distinguished him, and the Santa Monica-based radio station, at a time when the “smooth jazz” genre was ascendant in southern California. The rise of the Internet enabled a following for Leibowitz and Strictly Jazz that spanned the globe, with fans across the United States as well as in Europe and Asia.

“People who say ‘jazz is dead’ just aren’t listening,” Leibowitz told the Pennsylvania Gazette, the alumni magazine of his alma mater the University of Pennsylvania, in April. “It will never die. It just needs exposure.”

He made his final broadcast of Strictly Jazz on February 16.

Alan Leibowitz was born April 25, 1945 in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of the former Frieda Greenwald, a homemaker, and Indianapolis Times columnist and editor Irving Leibowitz. The elder Leibowitz passed his love of swing and bebop jazz onto his son via the record collection that Alan found in his basement. Transferring his allegiance from rock & roll, the teenager began soaking up the sounds and history of jazz, even teaching himself to play piano.

Matriculating at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, Leibowitz never completed his degree but did spend four years absorbing fraternity life and spending time and money at Philadelphia’s jazz clubs—a frequent first stop for New York-based jazz musicians touring outside the Big Apple. He also gained his nickname of “Bo,” derived from “Leibo”—itself derived from Leibowitz—when there proved to be too many Alans in his fraternity to keep track of.

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Leaving Penn in 1967, Leibowitz divided his time between New York, where he covered jazz for FM Guide magazine, and Boston, where he helped run BoJo Records in Harvard Square and began broadcasting on Boston University’s radio station WBUR and MIT’s WTBS.

These radio gigs were the basis of an audition tape that he gave in 1979 to Tom Schnabel, a friend of a friend who had just become music director at tiny KCRW-FM in Santa Monica. Seeking to counteract the west coast’s new smooth-jazz trend, Schnabel hired Leibowitz, who moved to Los Angeles and took a day job as a court reporter so that he could work without pay at KCRW.

Over the years the station grew to become one of the flagship outlets of National Public Radio, as well as a major U.S. music broadcaster that streamed its content around the world on the Internet. Even as they gained international audiences, however, Leibowitz’s broadcasts changed very little—concentrating on mainstream, acoustic jazz by the musicians he referred to as “keepers of the flame,” as summarized in his longtime theme song, Warne Marsh’s “Easy Beat.”

“Bo never compromised,” Schnabel recalled in a remembrance posted on KCRW’s website. “[He was] a true jazz purist. His knowledge of the genre was encyclopedic. Whenever I went to him with a question, he had the answer. I never ceased to be impressed by him.”

Recently, however, Leibowitz had endured unspecified health problems, which interfered with his broadcast routine—culminating in a recent incident in which he slept through much of his shift. He retired after his February 16 broadcast with little fanfare, telling the Pennsylvania Gazette that it was “Better to go out swinging.”

Leibowitz is survived by his wife, Rose, a son, Evan, and two siblings, Dennis Leibowitz and Marilyn Zeidner. The family plans to hold a memorial event on July 16 in Santa Monica.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.