by Jeff McCord
He held down the early afternoon slot at KUT/X for eighteen years and first walked into the doors of the station back in 1978. Though he will stay on to host Sunday Morning Jazz, Jay Trachtenberg has officially retired from KUTX. For those of us that have been friends with Jay for decades, it’s a difficult concept to grasp.
But Jay didn’t always live in Austin. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Jay first arrived here to attend graduate school at UT.
“I did college radio after I graduated, in Santa Barbara on KCSB. I worked there for three and a half years. So I had some experience, I did an aircheck of one of my final shows in Santa Barbara. And the day after I arrived in Austin, I found KUT and went in there to give them a tape. I really didn’t know what they were airing. We didn’t have NPR in Santa Barbara. So I was really kind of unfamiliar. I just knew it was the radio station on campus.”
Jay ended up doing sporadic fill-in shifts for Larry Monroe and Paul Ray, and in 1982, he started a jazz show on KAZI the week they went on the air.
“I left Austin in the spring of 1984, Mary and I traveled around Europe and North Africa and the Middle East and ended up in Jamaica. We were on the road for about almost nine months. I came back to Austin a couple of days before the election in ‘84. An opening came up to do an overnight jazz show on Friday night on KUT. I think they were going to give it to this other guy who worked there. But Larry really lobbied for me, so they offered it to me. I started on February the 1st, 1985.”
The midnight Friday to 5 am Saturday program, which Jay would host for ten years, was first called Overnight Jazz, and at some point, the name was changed to Jazz, Etc. While hosting this show, he was employed 8-5, as a social worker at the Brackenridge Children’s Hospital, and was best known in Austin for his work for the Austin Chronicle, which he squeezed in on weekends. Jay had met the future editor and publisher of the Chronicle while doing some work for the Daily Texan (he also met Jody Denberg there). Though he had no background in journalism, he had been coaxed to write about music for the Santa Barbara weekly.
“I was in Santa Barbara. I was doing my radio show and there was a weekly or bi-weekly paper. Somebody over there said you should write some record reviews. And then, I interviewed Etta James and I interviewed Willie Dixon when he came to town. I interviewed Bob Weir of the Dead, stuff like that.”
In Austin, Jay continued this pattern of three jobs and little sleep until 1995, when KUT offered him the much more favorable time slot of 8pm Wednesday nights. He would host that shift another seven years, until he took over the afternoon jazz program from Paul Ray. At first, it was a one-hour shift.
“I remember it was an hour because at the time I had an hour of jazz and an hour of reggae on KGSR, and an hour of jazz on KUT. I was the 60-minute man.”
AS KUT evolved, Jay was asked to transition away from jazz in the daytime. He adapted easily. Jazz wasn’t his first musical passion.
“My first love was, you know, rock and roll. Blues. R&B, hardcore country stuff. I was into rock, 60s rock was, whether it was Cream or Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin all the cool bands were essentially blues bands. So I developed a taste for blues, and then from there R&B was mixed up. L.A. had a great blues and R&B scene, and R&B was all the saxophone, you know, piano and saxophone breaks. I remember going to a friend’s house, our connection was the blues. He was like a mentor to me. He puts on like one of those first Ornette Coleman albums, you know, and it was just way over my head. He goes, ‘Can’t you hear the blues in that?’ I’m like, ‘What’s he talking about?’”
“You’re in your 20s, you’re hanging out at a radio station with all these other music nerds. And you’re into blues and you’ve got you guys who are into jazz. And, you know, the jazz guys were so cool. I would volunteer to do overnight shifts at the station. So I would just stay up all night and pull jazz out of the stacks, just play it and kind of discover. And I’d be listening to the jazz shows that these guys were doing. I had a roommate one summer, he was a Coltrane fanatic so Coltrane was on all the time. Again, it was over my head. But I was at least absorbing it.”
“I go through these phases. When I came to Austin, I was really in a country phase, wanting to see all these country guys because we didn’t get to see that so much in California. I reviewed Willie Nelson’s picnic in 1980 for The Daily Texan.”
So transitioning into the music Jay was eventually playing on the radio was not difficult. In one form or another, until the pandemic disrupted everything, Jay was the voice of the afternoons on KUT and KUTX.
I ask him if he’s looking forward to retirement.
“You know, everybody who retires loves it. So I guess I’ll get used to it at some point. I’m certainly going to miss seeing people and just being a part of what KUTX is, whether it’s hanging out the studio one day or just shooting the shit with everybody, just being in that environment; needing to be on your toes and sharp and, you know, and being part of a winning team. I’ll still be part of it, but I won’t be there day-to-day.”
I remind him a lot of what he’s describing doesn’t exist right now.
“Yeah, exactly. It’s strange. In a sense, the last six months have been a warm-up to retirement.”
Asked for his proudest moments, he thinks for a minute.
“Overall, just turning people on to music they might not or probably weren’t aware of, whether that was jazz, whether it was the Skatalites, whether it was some obscure blues record, just being a curator. There’s so much out there. And unless you’re a real nerd like all of us are, most people out there just kind of take in what they take in.”
What moments stand out?
“Interviewing Allen Toussaint the first time he came in, when he was in town. There were just a handful of us in the studio.” (One of them was me, I had coaxed my friend Jeff Cook to bring Allen in).
“And another time was early in South by Southwest, their first few years. Guys like Cosimo Matassa and Huey Meaux and Rufus Thomas would just be hanging out. Matassa owned the only recording studio in New Orleans from the 50s into the 70s. So he recorded everybody: Fats Domino, Little Richard, Guitar Slim. All the hits that came out of New Orleans. Plus, he did a bunch of jazz stuff. I brought him up to the studio on a Friday night during one of those early South By’s. And we sat for two hours and we played Little Richard. We played Fats Domino. We played Guitar Slim. We played all this jazz stuff and he just talked about it. He could talk for days, right? He had all these stories. He stayed till two o’clock. I walked him outside. I put him in a taxi. And then at three am, this band, The Rhythm Rats, came in with a saxophone player named Clifford Scott, who is originally from San Antonio. He’s been around forever. I used to see him in L.A. So we set up the drummer was in the hallway, we set up a guitar, bass, and the saxophone in that old skinny studio control room off the CMB lobby. And they played from 3:15 am to a quarter to 5:00 in the morning. And Clifford Scott just wailed his ass off. So that’s my favorite show of all time.”
Yet a more recent session brought Jay back to his California days.
“Jesse Colin Young came in around 2004 when George W. Bush was up for reelection. I remember when I was in Santa Barbara, Young was like, the women just loved this guy. He had long flowing hair. He was in that group called the Youngbloods. I’d shown Melanie, our live music producer, who booked Young on KUT, pictures of him, and he came in and with hardly any hair at all. Melanie didn’t even recognize the guy. He played he was a good interview, you know, mature guy, been around. You know how those guys are, easy to interview. And then at the end, he kind of gives this intro, not really political, but implying about the upcoming election and all this stuff. And then he goes into that song, “Get Together – ‘Come on, people, now. Smile on your brother.’ And all of a sudden I flashback to 1969. A huge Vietnam War march in San Francisco, which ends up in the polo grounds, Golden Gate Park. A half a million people in the park and the Youngbloods come on and they sing that song. And here I am, 35 years later, and he’s singing it to me. Sitting 10 feet away from me. It was surreal. Who’d ever thunk, you know? I had chills running down my spine.”