I was probably no older than 12 when I first heard Tony Palkovic’s show. I called him on the KSPC request line to talk to him about jazz, perhaps his favorite subject in the world to converse on—though I later discovered he was quite conversant on a wide array of topics. I think he was somewhat stunned to hear such a young kid on the other end of the line. I didn’t know much about jazz at all, and I was ready to bug him about what he was playing and whatnot, but instead, he unexpectedly began peppering me with questions, asking things like, “You say like you like jazz? So, who do you like? What makes you interested in jazz?”
Even in the early 1990s, Tony had a characteristically direct yet careful cadence to his voice; he didn’t sweeten it too much for sake of the kid on the other end of the request line. I thought he sounded like a 1950s film noir police detective, and because I had no idea what he looked like, I sort of envisioned him as such—a jazz detective, maybe.
My pre-teen mind thought I might’ve caught him on a bad day. But moments later into the call, Tony brightened and praised me for wanting to learn about and listen to jazz. I told him I was in the local middle school jazz band, and as someone who was focused on becoming a better musician, I was trying to discover more jazz styles. What I actually discovered was that I had the right person on the phone; Tony was indisputably encyclopedic about his jazz knowledge, though he was always game for learning even more.
I became a habitual listener and taped many of Tony’s shows on my home stereo so that I could play them back and learn more about the music he was presenting. I remember taking these tapes with me on family vacations, so I could listen to Tony’s shows on my Walkman hundreds of miles outside of KSPC signal’s range. (I still have several of these tapes.)
Tony and I interacted a handful of times via the request line after that initial conversation. But years would elapse before I would meet finally him in person for the first time in the latter ‘90s, when I became a DJ at KSPC. He instantly remembered me after I introduced myself, saying that he didn’t receive too many calls from pre-teens about fusion jazz. He didn’t look the part of a film noir detective, I thought at first sight.
I transitioned into a jazz radio show format in the early 2000s, and was placed just before Tony’s time slot a few times. That was great, because it meant that I could see Tony regularly. We would talk about jazz, performing locally, instruments, and life in general. However—Tony being the seasoned interviewer he was—our conversations were usually a lopsided affair, as he’d ask the bulk of the questions. I’d answer, there’d be a long pause or a simple “yeah” as Tony processed my response, and then he’d offer his follow-up questions.
Still, I was able to glean a few tidbits about Tony from our conversations. He grew up in Ohio, attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz and made his way to California to “meet people in the business out here.” He launched his KSPC DJ career in January 1989. He was as serious of a musician as they came. Tony had a day job (“I’m in an office,” he once said), but seemed to maximize his time absorbing all things music—listening, playing, teaching, writing, reading, recording. I very much admired his intense passion and dedication to the craft; as a highly-skilled jazz guitarist, he was usually backed by musicians of his same exacting and professional caliber. It was an impressive show, to say the least.
Tony never got full credit for the talent he demonstrated as a musician, but he told me that there were some current music artists who discovered his albums from the 1980s and were interested in his work. He was able to recently reissue some of his material and I’d like to think the renewed interest in his music offered him a sense of validation and accomplishment in his later years.
His radio shows were legendary and exclusive. He played almost solely musicians’ musicians. Where else might you find two hours of strictly fusion jazz on the Southern California airwaves for over 30 years straight? Who else would dedicate airtime to host in-depth interviews with some of the most respected players in such a specialized genre? His insight and sincerity in these interviews with fusion jazz greats were seamlessly buttressed by his laugh and love for a good story. Tony thrived on delivering a steadfastly genuine conversation with all of his show’s guests. I’ve had many “driveway moments” listening to Tony’s show in my car, when I couldn’t exit the vehicle until the interview concluded. They were, sometimes, that good.
And those signature on-air phrases of his: the www. of website URLs (World Wide Web) became simply “triple Ws,” and his email address prefix of “tpjazz” would be enunciated differently each week, with Tony selecting a new word to represent each initial, replete with pauses—something like, “That’s ‘t’…as in…tomato…and ‘p’…as in…pumpkin.” I truly enjoyed that he did his show his way, eschewing all those traditions and conventions of smooth-talking, airtime-filling, popular-music-spinning radio DJing. Instead, he was focused on championing the genre of fusion jazz and all its people, through and through.
And that’s the thing: Tony always had an authentic interest in other people, especially if he liked your music, or even if he’d simply gotten to know you. I’d usually try to steer the conversation to learn more about him, as I frequently curious about who he was playing with, where he was recording, and what sorts of gigs he’d lined up. But he’d always twist the exchange back to ask more questions of me—it didn’t matter if I was 12, or 42.
We’ll really miss you, Tony.
Wal is the host of KSPC jazz radio show “Bop, Drop & Roll.”