Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lend Me Your Ears - The District

From the District Weekly - (3/11/2009)

Public radio DJs are a lot like hip, deadbeat siblings. They keep odd hours, always ask for money and have great record collections. Helen Borgers, KJAZZ’s current weekday DJ and resident cheerleader, has been heard on the far end of the Long Beach dial for nearly 30 years. But unlike so many pleading DJs, Borgers’ passion can charm the bills out of wallets without demeaning herself or her listeners. Through hard work and impeccable taste, she has become the undisputed queen of jazz radio.

Borgers grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where jazz forged a stable home along the wide latitude containing crucial jazz territories New Orleans and Chicago. But like all good American girls, she fell first for the Beatles before being swayed by her brother Ken’s wax. “The stuff that hooked me—Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines. I grew up listening to that music through the walls of my brother’s room,” she explains on a break from the station’s most recent pledge drive. “John Coltrane. Gerald Wilson. Sonny Rollins. But after I discovered Louis, I never looked back. That stuff, as soon as I put it on, gets me just as much as it did then.”

In the late 1970s, Borgers headed west to pursue a theater degree at Cal State Long Beach and eventually found herself working for her brother in the music library under its former call letters KLON. “When I joined the station, you could only hear it across the street. Now our power is greater, and we have a much broader range. It’s a whole new audience.”

In a time when radio stations, both corporate and public, are dropping like flies—and while those remaining strive for faceless Top 40 drivel—it is hard to believe KJAZZ exists. During her rise from the library to the daytime microphone, KJAZZ has grown not only into one of the country’s top jazz radio stations, but one of the top public radio stations worldwide, with a weekly listenership hovering around half a million people.

As if hustling for public radio was not enough, Borgers became the artistic director of the Long Beach Shakespeare Co. a dozen years ago. “My brother told me it was the one thing that made less money than jazz,” she says with a chuckle. But it is clear that Borgers is driven by her passions rather than her bank account. “It’s a joy come true. Those two things have been the guiding light of my life. I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since the age of 7; to be able to work in both fields is wonderful.”

For the company’s upcoming fundraiser, Borgers has combined her passions into one stellar night. To celebrate Caesar’s least favorite holiday, she has enlisted trumpeter Jack Sheldon and the Al Williams Jazz Society to brighten the air with their hard-swinging sound. “My all-time hero,” she says of Sheldon. “The first time I saw him was at Dante’s. When I came in, he was in the middle of doing the ‘To Be or Not To Be’ speech from Hamlet. I sent him a note and he came over to the table. We’ve been friends ever since.”

In between sets the event also promises to provide what Borgers does best: spin records. “We’ll be hearing everything back from the early days like Sidney Bechet, Louis and Buddy Rich. I’ll take it through the swing era to early bebop,” she explains.

Through her innate enthusiasm and selfless dedication, Borgers has found a niche that makes her and her listeners endlessly happy. Even in these trying economic times, Borgers’ daily campaigning has brought in the bucks and allowed KJAZZ to swing another day. Hopefully the same will be said for her upcoming event. Any organization would be thrilled to have her in their corner, and in Long Beach she’s got two.


Lend Me Your Ears - The District

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