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Eric Jackson, virtuosic jazz announcer on Boston radio, dies at 72

WGBH announcer Eric Jackson in 2003.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/file

Choosing jazz selections from thousands of albums at his home and at WGBH-FM, Eric Jackson spent decades crafting programs, calling each one “a musical adventure” that led listeners from the first note to the last.

Like the artists he featured, Mr. Jackson sometimes improvised during his “Eric in the Evening” shows — an unplanned tune here, an impromptu song there. As an announcer and host, he was as masterful as any virtuoso whose music graced his playlist.

“I’ve listened for all my life,” he told the Globe in 1996. “So I’m not just walking into the station totally new at what I’m doing, saying, ‘OK, let’s try this one.’ I have been preparing all my life for the job I do every day.”

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Mr. Jackson, who first dropped a needle onto a jazz record at a Boston radio station 53 years ago, died Saturday at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of long-term health issues and heart complications. He was 72 and had lived in Randolph since 1989.

Upon arriving at Boston University decades ago, he planned to become a psychiatrist. Then he was offered a shift on BU’s radio “and I found I liked it,” he told the Globe. “That was 1969, and here I am.”

Mr. Jackson, who is one of this year’s Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame inductees, “is widely considered the ‘Dean of Boston Jazz Radio,’ ” the organization said when it announced in June that the ceremony would be held Thursday.

Eric Jackson in 1999.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

That title acknowledged Mr. Jackson’s lengthy tenure, his encompassing knowledge, and his singular position as arguably the most lasting and important voice over the past half-century for jazz fans in a city with a storied jazz history.

News of his death prompted an outpouring that reached from social media to tributes posted online by Boston University and the radio station, which is now known as just GBH.

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In an emotional opening, Al Davis — who has been filling in on “Eric in the Evening” — began Saturday evening’s show with a tribute to his friend and mentor, just hours after learning that Mr. Jackson had died.

Eric Jackson.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/file

Davis spoke of arriving at the GBH studio building Saturday to see a giant photo of Mr. Jackson displayed outside. “In Memoriam/Eric Jackson/Dean of Boston Jazz,” the sign said.

“I looked up at Eric and I said, ‘You can’t leave me now, man,’ ” Davis recalled.

For Mr. Jackson’s fans, it seemed his show might last forever. In 2018, GBH celebrated his 40th anniversary at the station. Governor Charlie Baker designated that April 22 to 29 Eric Jackson Week.

At no point, though, did Mr. Jackson contemplate anything that could be called Eric Jackson’s Final Week. Some 15 years into his run with “Eric in the Evening,” Mr. Jackson was asked by a Globe reporter if he ever planned to step away from the gig.

“They asked Duke Ellington when he was going to retire from the road,” Mr. Jackson replied with a laugh, “and Duke Ellington said, ‘Retire and do what?’ ”

Inside the studio and out in the community, Mr. Jackson was more than a radio announcer — a title he preferred to DJ, he once said.

He taught courses in jazz history and African American music at Northeastern University, Simmons University, and the Longy School of Music.

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During speaking engagements at elementary schools, Mr. Jackson played jazz arrangements of children’s songs, such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

“I want you to see that jazz is how you play a piece of music,” he once told pupils in Billerica. “It’s not necessarily the kind of music it is. It’s how you play that song that makes it jazz.”

Born in Providence on Jan. 31, 1950, Eric Jackson was the youngest of three brothers.

His mother, Betty Evans Jackson, was a manager in a New Jersey state agency and was an accomplished Avon saleswoman.

His father, Samuel Jackson, was believed to be the first Black DJ in New England. A jazz aficionado, he worked at a Providence station until Eric was born. To support his family, he left radio’s smaller salaries for an engineering job with RCA in Camden, N.J.

He also shaped his son’s musical education. “I wouldn’t let Eric listen to anything but jazz,” Sam told the Globe in 1996, adding that “he could listen to anything he wanted to — if I wasn’t there.”

Mr. Jackson graduated from Camden High School and attended BU, until he left for a radio career. While in college, he met Linda Trifiletti on the day she arrived for a summer program for incoming Black students.

“He was really cute,” she recalled.

They married in 1975 and had three children. She worked in production for the Little, Brown and Co. publishing house.

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Though Mr. Jackson was honored by music organizations and was known far beyond Boston for his jazz knowledge, “Eric liked a lot of music, and he listened to a lot of things,” Linda said.

Growing up, he had immersed himself in genres such as popular music and rhythm and blues when his father was out of earshot. Years later, when Mr. Jackson and his wife watched “Jeopardy,” he knew the answers to everything in the classical music category.

“Music was his life,” she said.

Before joining GBH, Mr. Jackson hosted FM jazz programs on WBUR and WHRB, was an announcer at WILD-AM, and did a mixed-music show for WBCN-FM.

He also produced a multipart series on Black music history, and initially filled in on WGBH-FM’s “Artists in the Night” before launching “Eric in the Evening.”

His Monday-through-Thursday show included programs devoted to a single artist and interviews with jazz musicians who passed through Boston.

Through his years as a fan and an announcer, Mr. Jackson met Ellington, who kissed him on both cheeks and sent him a Christmas card. He even drove trumpeter Miles Davis to an event, a treat for someone who held Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane in the highest esteem.

“Their music just touched me,” he said in 1996. “It still touches me.”

Each year on the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Jackson wove together the civil rights leader’s speeches and music inspired by those words.

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And on Father’s Day, he cohosted a program with his own father, later inviting his own children to participate in the annual show.

A decade ago, as GBH increased its NPR programing, it cut back on Mr. Jackson’s programs from four weeknights to weekend slots.

Fans and jazz musicians such as saxophonist Ken Field held a New Orleans-style funeral outside the station’s offices after Mr. Jackson’s final weeknight show.

Despite fewer hours, Mr. Jackson remained a significant presence in Boston jazz. He even did a Christmas Eve program this past December, though with no particular playlist in mind for a change.

“Oh my goodness,” he told the Globe then with a chuckle. “I’m an improviser.”

In addition to his wife, Linda, Mr. Jackson leaves their son, Kamal of Quincy; their two daughters, Aisha of Randolph and Taheerah of Dighton; a brother, Ronald of New Jersey; and five grandchildren.

A celebration of Mr. Jackson’s life will be announced.

A spiritual man who appreciated all of life’s gifts, “Eric was the kind of guy who wanted to share that ‘awe’ moment,” his wife said.

“Punishment to me would be going on vacation by myself, because if I look up and see a beautiful mountain and say, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful mountain,’ I want to be with someone. And, to me, that’s what my job is,” he said in the 1996 interview.

“I get to listen to a beautiful piece of music and turn around to an audience and say, ‘Wow, check this out.’ ”


A previous version of this story misidentified Al Davis. The Globe regrets the error.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.