Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunday Brunch: A Page Out of Smooth Jazz History

Throughout the 23-year history of Smooth Jazz radio, the "Sunday Brunch" concept has had an important role. It's given Smooth Jazz stations a chance to deliver a touch of elegance to Sunday morning programming.

The "Sunday Brunch" channel here at is based on the "Sunday Lite Brunch" which originally aired in Chicago on WCLR-FM in 1987. It was the first Smooth Jazz program to air in Chicago and one of the first in the entire country, premiering one weekend after KTWV/Los Angeles, "The Wave," launched the first 24-hour, 7-day-a-week format in the country on February 14, 1987.

I was the original producer and host of the "Sunday Lite Brunch" on WCLR. I remember those days very clearly. In early February of 1987, I found myself making frequent trips to record stores in search of music for the Brunch. I'd scour the Jazz and New Age sections of the store and grab the entire catalogue of the few artists I already knew about (Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson, for example). Then I'd ask someone in the store to point me in the direction of some of their own favorites in those categories. That's how I first learned about the great old Windham Hill and Narada artists that were an important part of the format in the early days. In about an hour I'd be back at the station with a stack of albums (yes, vinyl!) that the Music Director and I would listen to, track by track, on the turntable in her office. It took a couple weeks, but we had the makings of our first Brunch playlist--nearly a hundred tracks.

"The Sunday Lite Brunch" debuted in Chicago on February 22, 1987. Station management opted for a quiet launch, something unheard of today. There had been no promos leading up to that moment, so we took the audience completely by surprise at 8:00 am that day. And surprised they were. Pleasantly surprised. By the time I got through with my first on-air break, where I welcomed listeners to "The Sunday Lite Brunch, a brand new program on WCLR," all my phone lines were ringing. I answered the first call. It was a woman saying she liked the idea of the new show. I took a second call. Another encouraging, positive comment. I took a third. Same thing. On and on it went, call after call. As I played more and more music, listeners continued to call in. Around 9:00, the hotline in the studio rang. It was WCLR's General Manager, Chet Redpath, asking what kind of reaction we were getting to the Brunch. I couldn't get it out fast enough: "It's unbelievable, Chet--people are LOVING the music!"

Through the spring and summer of 1987 the warm reaction we were getting each weekend grew into a white-hot buzz. Positive calls and letters to the station numbered in the hundreds without a single complaint. We offered a free program guide to the show ("The Sunday Lite Brunch Menu"), and we had a thousand requests by the end of the summer. Ratings on Sunday morning were rising. Clients were lining up to sponsor the show. Dan Miller of Crain's Chicago Business and Robert Feder of the Chicago Sun-Times surprised us with positive reviews that were most welcome, with Robert even describing the Brunch as "being as close to perfect as any radio show." The entire WCLR braintrust and I agreed: in all our years in the business, we'd never seen a reaction like this to any new show we'd been part of. When WNUA finally hit the air August 3 with their full-time format of the music we'd been playing on Sunday morning, they would be trading on the unprecedented amount of goodwill that had been built up toward the format in the listening community the past six months. If Sunday morning was any indication, listeners adored the format. And in Chicago they have--for 23 years and counting.

Over the years, the mixture of music that both the Sunday Lite Brunch and WNUA started out with evolved, as radio formats always do. What began as a blend of 30% contemporary jazz, 30% New Age and 40% pop/rock/folk/R&B vocals in 1987 was nearly a 50-50 blend of contemporary ("smooth") jazz and pop vocals by 2009. The New Age content and the eclectic vocals had all but disappeared. A certain segment of the listening audience that had been drawn to the Brunch and WNUA in the early days because of the rich variety of sounds, textures and colors became disenchanted with the direction the format had taken. Sadly, there was no longer a radio show or station in Chicago catering to their musical preferences. I heard early and often from this part of the WNUA audience while I was working for the station, and I sympathized with them because of my affection for the music that had made the Brunch so popular during its early days. There wasn't much New Age music on WNUA anymore, but I was still enjoying listening to it at home, just as they were. I harbored a wish that someday there would be a place where I could bring back all of those wonderfully unique tunes that were missing on commercial radio.

Fortunately, with the arrival of the internet, variety has returned to the listening landscape. With over-the-air radio being forced to play it safe because of economic concerns, the internet has become home to music that will never see the light of day on the AM and FM dials. Our new Sunday Brunch channel, at, is a good example. In creating the new Brunch, I went back to my original playlists from 1987 to 1993 to build the musical foundation. I then added material that, had we been able to maintain the original concept of the Sunday Brunch with New Age music, we would have automatically added to the playlist along the way.

It is a great pleasure to be able to resurrect the Brunch. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of listening to it as I did gathering up all the old songs from the original show. And, as was always the case with the Brunch, if you have personal favorites you think would be appropriate for our channel, please let me know what they are. List them in the Shoutbox, or drop me a note ( anytime.

Whether you're a former listener from the earliest days of the Smooth Jazz format (I know at least a few of you are still out there!) or someone who's just now discovering the varied musical palette which was the original Sunday Brunch, thank you for listening. It's a glimpse into radio history I hope will never go away again--at least not if I have anything to do with it.

Rick O'Dell
Operations Manager -

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More New Music to Listen For at Ultra Smooth

Look for Dave Koz & Friends to hit the road with their "Smooth Jazz Christmas" again this holiday season.

A few more goodies just added to the playlist:

Boney James - "Touch"
CD: Send One Your Love (Concord)
John Klemmer--remember him?--was a fixture in contemporary jazz back in the '70s. He was a musician, poet, philosopher and something of a renaissance man, a thoughtful artist of many layers. Now, nearly 35 years after John Klemmer caught the ear of the jazz world with his debut "Touch," Boney James reminds us of why so many of us were entranced by the tune in the first place.

Jessy J - "Tropical Rain"
CD: True Love (Peak)
This is Jessy's much anticipated follow-up to her chart-topping debut, Tequila Moon. Jessy's been turning heads the past two summers as one of the focal points of the "Guitars and Saxes" tour.

Paul Jackson Jr. - "Easy Like Sunday Morning"
CD: Lay It Back (Branch)
Paul is one of the busiest first-call studio musicians on the left coast, and no wonder. The late Luther Vandross dubbed him "The Picasso of Guitar" for his uncommon abilities on the six-string. Here, Paul delivers the old Commodores' song that's ideal for our new Sunday Brunch channel.

Jackiem Joyner - "I'm Waiting For You"
CD: Lil' Man Soul (Artistry)
Virtually unknown back when he was touring with Marcus Johnson and Bobby Lyle from 2001 to 2004, Jackiem is establishing himself as a rising solo star of Smooth Jazz. This is his breakthrough CD.

Dave Koz - "And Then I Knew"
CD: Dave Koz Greatest Hits (Capitol)
You won't want to miss the Smooth Jazz concert event of the year, Dave Koz & Friends' Smooth Jazz Christmas, playing various cities starting November 27. Dave will be joined by the original group that accompanied him on his first Christmas tour in 1997: Rick Braun, Peter White, David Benoit and Brenda Russell.

Phillip Martin - "Realization"
CD: Realization (Zephryn)
It's new talent coming into Smooth Jazz that will guarantee the future of the genre, and Phillip, a native Hoosier, shows great promise on his latest CD.

Paul Taylor - "Burnin'"
CD: Burnin' (Peak)
Seems like just yesterday Paul was making his Chicago debut at the House of Blues as a member of Keiko Matsui's traveling band. Here in 2009, he's firmly established as a groove master whose live performances have raised the bar for passion and romance.


Rick O'Dell
Operations Manager,

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's New at Ultra Smooth

Just added to the playlist:

Joyce Cooling - "Grass Roots"
CD: Global Cooling (Group 2 Productions)
One of my favorite musicians (and people) in Smooth Jazz, Joyce has done it again--put together a recording brimming with sunny, inviting melodies. This is the seventh CD for one of our genre's most consistent artists. Of "Grass Roots," Joyce writes, "Touching down lightly in the Caribbean, 'Grass Roots' mixes just a hint of reggae with bluesy guitars and a horn section to create a track that swings like a shuffle with an island twist."

Nick Colionne - "The Big Windy Cat"
CD: No Limits (Koch)
It was only a matter of time before Nick penned a composition with this title. It seems whenever he's on the road, another musician will refer to him as "the cat from the Big Windy." Without a doubt, Nick is a worthy Smooth Jazz ambassador for the city, bringing a dash of Chicago cool to wherever he performs.

Andrew Neu - "Next Time I Fall in Love"
CD: Try Something Neu (Nu Groove)
Looks like third time's the charm for the saxman from Philadelphia, whose third solo CD ought to be his breakthrough recording. Andrew Neu ("new") has Bobby Caldwell providing vocals on this track. Bobby should be intimately familiar with them, since he wrote the song in the mid-'80s.

Enjoy the fresh, new music!

Rick O'Dell
Operations Manager -

  ©Ultra Smooth Jazz. Template by Dicas Blogger.