Video interview: WBGO Afternoon Jazz host, Keanna Faircloth

“Grown folks music.” It’s a phrase proudly used more and more these days to describe styles of music that are otherwise deemed commercially irrelevant if not embraced by the hotbed demographic of 18 – 34 year olds. Thankfully, there is life after thirty-four and that moniker proclaims, “Hey, we’re here too and you young’ uns can have ‘your’ music, we’ve got our own.”   But is there really such a thing as “grown folks music” or for that matter, “young people’s music?” Can’t what you like be more about exposure and simply what moves you both literally and figuratively regardless of age? 

Jazz is certainly one of those genres that, for the most part, lives within the arena of “grown folks music,” but no one told a young Keanna Faircloth that when she fell in love with the music. “I was introduced to jazz probably when I was eleven years old,” says Faircloth. The recently tapped Afternoon Jazz host at fabled jazz radio station WBGO, grew up playing classical piano, but admired the sounds of jazz she heard early on. It’s something her parents astutely recognized and gladly fostered. “I was kind of a weird kid. I would just want to sit around and listen to jazz. The first album I remember I fell in love with was Miles Davis’, Kind Of Blue. I remember being in middle school, just sitting and studying that record,” she recalls as the album cover hangs prominently on the wall behind her. “My parents really did just nurture my love of jazz and I think I loved jazz even more than they did. And they would take me to clubs. I was the only kid in Blues Alley in DC where I grew up.” She even remembers having the chance to play for legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck when she was 12. “I got to play (acclaimed track) “Take Five” or at least my attempt at playing “Take Five” for Dave,” she jokes. “I really love all types of music. I find beauty in almost every genre of music, but jazz is near and dear to my heart.” 

Music: “I Wish I Didn’t Know” by Jaleel Shaw from the album The Soundtrack Of Things To Come

Keanna Faircloth doesn’t necessarily represent a changing of the guard at WBGO, but more the inclusion or the embracing of a new perspective. Equipped with ideas and skills successfully honed during her long tenure at jazz station WPFW in DC, Faircloth, who has also written for NPR Music and worked for Radio One, brings a knowledge of tradition while also an excitement for the emerging players on the scene whose sound harnesses an eclectic blend of present day influences. 

Recent articles about WBGO suggest that, like the very music they champion, things had been changing, shifting, challenging. And what it is or should be seems to have varied in opinion from those both outside and in. That seems common for most long established and cherished institutions that are tasked with moving forward without abandoning what and who made them what they are. But what has likely been established as a shared desire or need actually, is for the leading jazz station in the nation to continue to be, thrive and engage new listeners while honoring its history.  Faircloth clearly believed she could help them check all those boxes and she was right, however it took a couple of knocks at the door before they ultimately opened for her at the station. As she had already experienced at the beginning of her career, timing is everything. “I had come up from DC probably about three times to audition,” recalls Faircloth. Those visits started in 2017 when BGO had taken notice of the rising talent while at WPFW. “After those three or four visits they decided to go in a different direction. I guess at that time they weren’t ready for a new energy, we’ll say. I think a part of that is a lot of people in jazz, in particular, have a tendency to feel that you might not have enough under your belt in order to be able really know and express a love for this music. So I think at that time they weren’t necessarily ready for me.” Needless to say, that feeling changed in 2019 and after making contact with those at the station again, as she says, “the timing was right,”and with it acknowledgment that bringing her into the fold would be a good stone to place on their path forward. 

You can say Faircloth’s entry into radio was both a result of her love of jazz and happenstance.  She actually got her first taste of it while in high school acting as part of a soap opera on a local hip hop station. Fast forward to entering into college at the prestigious, historically black, Howard University, or as she proudly reps, “HU!” where she majored in music history including jazz and minored in classical piano. She had already become a fan of her local jazz station, WPFW, and one day decided to take a long trek there in hopes of talking to someone about internships. As it happened, her timing (there’s that word again) was perfect because not only was there one, but as she recalls, “the music director at the time actually said, you can start now if you want to.” She started with a small segment called Jazznotes, talking about jazz artists and doing public service announcements until an unforeseen circumstance provided, a surprise opportunity. “Somebody didn’t show up on a Tuesday I was there,” says Faircloth. “The host of midday jazz wasn’t able to make it for some strange reason so I literally got thrown in! So that’s how it all got started!” And she adds what was even more strange, but perhaps destiny, “For some reason the host of that show never came back so it became my show!” That happenstance became a successful sixteen year stay with the station while building a solid rep on the jazz scene. It was a rep that eventually caught the attention of where she now host in Newark, NJ, on WBGO.

“I never took BGO off my mind. It never stopped being a goal of mine.” Faircloth asserts. “For me, I looked at BGO and I still look at BGO like a beacon. It’s the mecca! It is jazz radio at its finest. I’m so honored to be on the air at BGO because I really am living my dream and I’m so glad that I did not give up or put BGO out of my mind. I said, you know what, this is for me. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But I know it’s for me. I’m just glad I didn’t give up.” 

For great insight from Keanna Faircloth about being at WBGO, engaging new listeners, and what jazz is, be sure to check out the accompanying video above! 

Bert Caldwell

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