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DJ, Southern California's 'Voice of Jazz'by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
A number of years ago, Horace Silver dubbed Chuck Niles "the hippest cat in Hollywood". Bob Florence named his composition "Be-Bop Charlie" after his favorite jazz DJ, and Southern California's Latin jazz community knew him as "Carlitos Niles" (NEE-lays). Niles, who spun jazz on American radio for more than fifty years and was renowned for his mellifluous voice and vast knowledge of jazz history, died at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center on March 15, 2004, at the age of 76. He had suffered a stroke on February 26 and never regained consciousness.
Niles was born Charles Neidel in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a paper salesman and amateur actor who put the love of the arts into his son. Chuck's first instrument was the clarinet; his earliest gig was playing sax in a brothel at age 15. As a young man he changed his surname to Niles because too many people pronounced it "needle" instead of "nydel".
Niles enlisted in the Navy in 1945; the war ended while he was still in basic training. He was shipped off to San Diego and served briefly in the South Pacific. While in Southern California his interest in jazz really began to blossom; at times Niles would hitchhike all the way from San Diego to L.A. to catch jazz concerts.
After his Navy service ended, Niles briefly played alto in a bebop band called the Emanon Quartet. He eventually returned to Springfield and graduated from American International University with a degree in sociology. In 1951 Niles got his first radio job at a local AM station, WTXL. Two years later he headed to L.A. to find work, but ended up in West Palm Beach, Florida. Niles DJ'd at WMVD and also worked as a TV dance show host and sportscaster before giving Los Angeles one more shot. He arrived back in L.A. in 1956 and remained there permanently.
Niles was hired by KFOX-AM to play rock and pop tunes, which didn't sit well with him (although it beat his earlier gig as Country Charlie Niles, spinning country hits). He soon moved to a television job at KHJ, presenting afternoon movies and a travelogue program. In 1957 Niles got his big break: a slot at KNOB, the first full-time jazz station in America. During his eight years at "The Jazz Knob", Niles became close with the cream of California's jazz tribe and began building up his unfathomable store of jazz knowledge.
Also in the late 50s, Niles got involved in acting again. He performed onstage in local theatrical productions like "Harvey", "Death of a Salesman" and "Dial 'M' for Murder". Perhaps his least auspicious job was playing one of the title characters in a 1958 low-budget horror film, "Teenage Zombies". When Niles finally earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, becoming the first jazz DJ to ever receive that honor, it certainly wasn't for his movie career.
In 1964 he married his wife, Nancy, who opted to use Chuck's given surname, Neidel, instead of the adopted Niles. The following year Niles moved to KBCA, where he remained for twenty-three years, long after the call letters were changed to KKGO. The station eventually boasted an excellent lineup of jazz DJs including Laura Lee, journalist Zan Stewart, the late Jim Gosa, and the charming, resonant voice of Niles himself. During that era Chuck Niles became a regional ambassador for jazz, acting as an MC for festivals, club gigs, memorial services, and other events. He became "The Voice of Jazz" to all who knew and loved him.
In 1990 the management of KKGO decided to change to a classical format. Niles immediately packed up and headed for KLON (later called KKJZ), the FM station based at Cal State, Long Beach. The station welcomed him with open arms, recognizing him as an essential resource with a fond anecdote about almost everyone in the business and an encyclopedic knowledge of the music. Niles remained at KKJZ until he suffered the stroke that claimed his life.
KKJZ-FM station manager Judy Jankowski characterized Niles as "a living jazz historian... he lived and breathed jazz". Bassist/bandleader John Clayton said, "More than any other radio personality, Chuck influenced my taste in jazz. I was introduced to music by the greats via his programs. Chuck's taste became my taste. He loved to share the things that excited him and I soaked in his joy, making it mine. He was my favorite DJ. He was my friend. He loved to laugh and I loved to laugh with him. His voice rings in my soul where I am filled with a mixture of the happiness he gave me and grief, understanding that he has moved on."
Chuck Niles is survived by his wife, Nancy Neidel (the couple separated but never divorced) and their daughter, singer Tracy Niles (Neidel). A public memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 20, 2004, at Church of the Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, in Hollywood.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.