In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. For the past 22 years, this winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 6:00 -10:00. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.
"It's rare that I don't want to get up and come in to work in the morning. I really love this job, and I don't think everyone can say that." Walker declares with satisfaction. He's probably right in that assumption. But listeners preparing for work each morning with Gary on the radio will no doubt admit, he makes it easier to head off to work no matter how we feel about it.
His love of jazz is apparent, and he says it's a feeling that began during adolescence growing up outside of Detroit in the mid 1960's. He remembers his dad bringing home a new radio with an FM band.
"This was pretty new at the time. Almost all of radio was on AM," recalls Walker. "There were only two stations on this new FM band, and one played jazz. They often broadcast live from a club known as the Twenty Grand, and though I can't remember the artists, I will never forget the feeling of that music. It seemed that the musicians and the crowd were having such a great time. I just wanted more of that feeling."
His next recollection is of an occasion when his mother dropped him off at the record store. He had planned to buy a novelty pop album that day. However, amid the display posters and album covers promoting new releases, Gary noticed an album by Henry Mancini entitled Music From Peter Gunn. He sampled a few cuts in the listening booth, and enjoyed what he heard. It was the first jazz record he would buy.
"I didn't know it was jazz, I just knew I liked it," he says. "Frankly, I believe most of us approach jazz that way - we discover it by accident."
Though he may have learned about jazz by accident, his interest in the music grew deliberately. While his peers were listening to rock and roll, Gary aggressively sought jazz. He listened to Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis and other cutting-edge artists. He was a finance major at the University of Texas at the time. He remembers passing the campus radio station, and noticing that everyone had so much fun. He soon abandoned finance and graduated with a degree in Mass Media. He continued his studies at the University of Akron in Ohio where he was a radio announcer on the school's jazz radio station. He continued to hone his broadcasting skills, and became proficient at the technical aspects of radio production.
Soon he moved to New York City with plans to broaden his career endeavors. Within five weeks he landed an announcer's position on Saturday mornings at WBGO. The station was new then, but Gary remembers it as a special place.
"My first day here, I ran into Mercer Ellington (Duke's son)," recalls Walker. "I couldn't believe it...one of the greatest band leaders around, and he was sitting right here. Around the same time other great artists would drop by regularly. I met Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw and Dexter Gordon."
After 24 years with WBGO, legendary artists continue to visit the studios, many to join Gary during Morning Jazz. He believes their visits are part of what set the station apart from other jazz stations. However, he also believes that other jazz 88 announcers, producers and programming staff contribute to the distinction of the station.
"I think we're the best jazz station in the country, perhaps the world," he says plainly. "I think that because of the knowledge we have here, the fun we have here and the music that is created here. No one else does what we do."
No matter how gratifying Gary finds his work, nothing brings him as much joy as his 20 year old son, Nate. From early visits to Jazz 88 with his dad, his son became a first year trombone player in the school band. Gary says, "Nate knew I was going to interview Wynton Marsalis and told me, 'Dad, tell Wynton I'm playing the trombone, but next year I might switch to trumpet.' When I passed this information on to Wynton, Marsalis' response was, 'you tell your son if he wants to elevate his social status, he should make that change as soon as possible!'" Just a note: Nate still has a trombone and Wynton has more social status. Nate's dad has neither, but loves his work at Jazz 88!