Bobby Jackson’s ‘Roots of Smooth’ Radio Program

Transcending stereotypes and ditching the jazz police

Bobby Jackson has a new radio show and, suffice to say, he’s excited about it. “I really believe that this kind of show is something that hasn’t happened before,” the veteran jazz radio host says from his home in Cleveland. “I think that the jazz police have really gotten in the way of the music, and people tend to follow them, because they’re punked out. And I ain’t no punk,” he says with a laugh.

“When people think of jazz music, they think of this monolith, but it’s about [the musicians’] stories, it’s about what has influenced them. It’s a gumbo.” Jackson’s new show, The Roots of Smooth, already broadcasting on more than 15 syndicated stations, plumbs those roots by taking a novel approach to the jazz-radio format. A typical episode has much more in common with an episode of This American Life than the free-form programming typical of smooth jazz over the waves. Jackson focuses on the career of one musician per show, interspersing recorded dialogue and interviews from the artist with a diversely appealing set list. A recent show featuring Lenny White spanned the drummer’s career, playing “Spanish Key” from his debut recording date with Miles Davis on the latter’s epochal Bitches Brew right beside a live cut from the recent renaissance of Return to Forever; another highlighting Ron Carter digs into the deep cuts, going far beyond the bassist’s bop and classical roots to his collaboration with hip-hop avatars A Tribe Called Quest. But he also covers acts from the more modern end of the spectrum, including bass phenom Christian McBride and Britain’s Incognito.

Jackson, a longtime broadcaster who has worked for jazz stations across the country for more than 30 years, aims to transcend the limitations and stereotypes of the smooth-jazz program, as the format sees increasing disinterest and criticism from the mainstream jazz market. Loretta Rucker, whose African American Public Radio Consortium sponsors Jackson’s show, says, “Smooth jazz has gotten a bad rap in recent years… [With his show] he’s reviving the original impulses of the artists that initiated this body of work, and identifying for us those artists that built on that legacy. The Roots of Smooth builds a bridge between the aficionados and the casual listeners who just like good music.”

Having in recent years taken on the disparate but daunting challenges of fatherhood, thyroid cancer and cancellation, Jackson is enjoying the freshness of his new environs, and the possibilities they carry. “My intention is to be more far-reaching, to be that rapper or that preacher, not just talking about music but talking about life and using that lens of the music to illuminate life. That’s something that’s missing in radio. In African culture, music was not the king’s music, or the music of the tavern, where people said things over and over again. It was like CNN, like the black preacher in a church…these people that make this music have something to say; they are living in the world and talking about their lives.”

Jackson has promised that future programs will spotlight whole communities of musicians, as well as touching on holiday music and world music. “You do what you have to do in this life,” he says. “Music is my life, it truly is, and not just jazz. In my playpen, in my sandlot, I’m building some castles, I’ve got some glue, and I’m doing it on my terms.”

For more information on The Roots of Smooth, including station carriage and playing times, visit The Roots of Smooth.