The jazz slinger

Paul Conley

photo by Larry Dalton

KXJZ (88.9 FM) morning jazz announcer Paul Conley literally rode into radio on a plate of prime rib. His family has operated restaurants in Stockton for 30 years and Paul cut his broadcasting teeth on commercials for his parents’ Prime Rib Inn. He became a full-time announcer at KXJZ in 1991 and applied his expertise as hospitable steak-house host to interviewing such artists as Dave Brubeck and Jackie McLean. As independent producer he has completed nine one-hour documentaries for National Public Radio’s “Jazz Profiles” series hosted by singer Nancy Wilson. His portrait of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson airs Sunday, June 24, at 2:00 p.m.

What’s it like working with a founding member of Heart?

To tell you the truth [laughs], I’m more an Ann Wilson fan. Seriously though, it’s surprising how many younger people are aware of the “other” Nancy Wilson, the legendary jazz and pop singer. She made a ton of records in the ‘60s and ‘70s and she’s still recording. Touring too, like crazy, which makes recording her narration a bit of a challenge.

Speaking of challenges, what does it take to put one of these shows together?

Each show involves research, of course, and about 10 hours or more of interviews with colleagues, experts and the artist being profiled, if he or she is still living, plus obtaining and selecting the right music to represent that artist. Without doubt the biggest challenge is cooking all of that down into 54 minutes: 27 minutes of music and 27 minutes of talk, including narration. Then comes the challenge of describing not only the historical significance of the subject, but also his or her personality. That, hopefully, will make the show interesting to everyone, not just the die-hard jazz fan.

You’ve profiled such artists as Kenny Burrell, Paul Desmond and Mel Tormé. What drew you to Bobby Hutcherson?

I’m a longtime fan, and when his name popped up on the list of prospects, I jumped. Plus he lives in Northern California, which made the interview process a whole lot easier.

Any huge surprise surface during your research?

I guess the biggest surprise was learning Bobby had lost a portion of his right index finger during a freak lawnmower accident. You’d never know it from his recordings.

Has NPR turned down any of your pitches?

Until recently, I had never pitched them. They presented a list of prospects and I got to choose. But now the series is going beyond biographies and [is] starting to explore themes. I proposed a two-parter on the relationship between jazz and film and jazz and television. Looks like those are the next shows I’ll be doing.

Announcer or producer? Where does your true love lie?

As a DJ, I love sharing the music with others, and I feel privileged to be able to do so. But I must say, nothing compares with creating an hour-long documentary from start to finish. There are so many variables, and so much room for creativity. It’s an incredible challenge and incredibly fulfilling.

Your first profile was on Erroll Garner, who most people know for his classic ballad “Misty.” Have you had any “Play Misty for Me” experiences as a radio personality?

Well, yes, sort of. When I was working nights on KXJZ, I struck up a phone friendship with a woman who used to call often. She seemed really interested in the music, was pleasant to talk to, and, well, she was single and so was I. We agreed to meet, and when she gave me her address, I couldn’t believe it. It was my apartment complex! Whoa. Anyway, it didn’t work out. But at least I saved on gas money.

You travel a lot doing these profiles. Do you have a road anecdote or horror story to share?

For the show on Erroll Garner I traveled to Vancouver, B.C., to interview Erroll’s brother Linton. After we spent four hours together in a hotel room, all that was left was for Linton to sign the standard NPR release form. He wanted to run it by his manager. Fine. I went back to Sacramento and a week later I got this weird letter stating that Linton required compensation for use of the interview. Well, that’s not how NPR works. So I couldn’t use the material.

Miles Davis said that the greatest feeling he ever had in his life—with his clothes on—was when he first heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker play together in 1944. Have you had a similar jazz experience?

Meeting Dizzy Gillespie at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1991 was a thrill. I’ve been so fortunate to meet and interview so many jazz greats. Recently, I got a chill watching Dave Brubeck perform with a 100-plus chorus, full orchestra and his quartet at UOP in Stockton, which we broadcast live on KXJZ. He was on stage for three hours and every minute was incredible.

You’re from Stockton. Have you crossed paths with native son Chris Isaak.

The closest I’ve come to meeting Chris Isaak was seating his uncle at Table No. 8 at the Prime Rib Inn. The name on the credit card was my first clue. The unmistakable Isaak profile was the clincher.

I can never remember. Are you supposed to serve from the left or the right?

Doesn’t really matter. Just get the food there fast and hot.