From Computer Geek to Jazz King
Everyone told him not to do it.
When Keith Roberts -- an IT manager at a software development company who had tired of a stressful workplace and Boston's endless winters -- decided to move to the California desert, he got the predicted chorus of boos.
"Friends told us we were crazy," Roberts, a soft-spoken man of 54, says from his bright, open Palm Spring home. "They said California would drive us nuts. But we just did it. We quit our jobs; we sold our condo."
Next to his longtime partner, Tom, the most important thing Roberts brought with him was his collection of jazz CDs. The music became the nucleus of an internet radio station, Forever Cool, which is now one of the most successful of its kind: Channeled through iTunes, ranked No. 4 on its platform, Live365, the station draws more than 245,000 listening hours per month.
Roberts is playing an art form that broadcast radio -- both commercial and nonprofit -- has all but abandoned.
His collection leans heavily toward West Coast jazz of the 1950s -- music made by artists like trumpeter Chet Baker and pianist Dave Brubeck that seems the aural equivalent of sunny, mid-century-mad Palm Springs.
The station's bread and butter, known in its day as cool jazz, is "the whole laid-back style," Roberts says. "It's about chilling, taking it easy. Whenever I hear 'Take Five,' I imagine riding in a big old convertible with the top down."
"Forever Cool has an appealing playlist," says Ted Gioia, author of West Coast Jazz and, this month (May), a new edition of Oxford's The History of Jazz. "It knows what it wants to do, and does it well."
Party Mix Fever
Cool Jazz Essentials:
Keith Roberts shares some of his favorites
1. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
2. Time Out, Dave Brubeck
3. My Funny Valentine, Chet Baker
4. Getz/Gilberto, Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto
5. Explorations, Bill Evans
6. Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, Vince Guaraldi
7. Smokin' at the Half Note, Wes Montgomery
8. Black Orchid, Cal Tjader
9. Poinciana, Ahmad Jamal
10. Midnight Blue, Kenny Burrell
For more, visit his essential albums page.
Even during his years laboring at computer keyboards, Roberts was the kind of dedicated music fan whom friends used to tell "You should run your own station." He assumed it would never happen.
But the best part of his life in Boston was the dinner parties he'd thrown for friends: Some were into music, but most came for the conversation and food. He spent a lot of time putting together the music and had a strict rule: "It if interrupted conversation, it got pulled off the playlist. I know the artists would be very insulted to hear me say that. But it was supposed to create a mood, an atmosphere."
His internet station -- which he began in 2002, about a year before moving to California -- is an offspring of those parties.
Two years after landing in California -- he and his partner became boom-era real estate agents, showing retirees and urban exiles the low desert's sharp-edged modernist houses -- his station got a big break: iTunes discovered Forever Cool, which made it far easier to find, and became one of iTunes' top 50 stations. The station's current traffic is roughly 20 times what it was before he moved to California.
The explosion in listeners pressured Roberts to expand the music in rotation, and an easier lifestyle gave him time to do it. He knew he couldn't just play old chestnuts. So he researched the West Coast tradition, reading up on its late-'40s to early-'60s heyday, and haunted record stores, and later online sources, adding new vintage recordings.
He also featured lesser-known figures -- guitarist Barney Kessel -- as well as musicians who were not literally West Coast artists but who resonate with the style, such as the mellow-toned guitarist Wes Montgomery and brooding pianist Bill Evans. (Forever Cool is long on guitar and piano trios.) He also throws in some bossa nova.
Not once, though, did he consider budging from his favorite style. Roberts' niche is not an obvious one: Most jazz radio stations, on the internet and otherwise, are dedicated to "smooth jazz." Roberts calls his station the jazz purist's alternative to that gooey, synthesized style.
It angers him that many observers -- whether music critics or documentarian Ken Burns -- overlook or diss the cool school. "They think it's some aberration," he says. "To me, it's the culmination of everything that came before it. A lot of these guys had classical training and brought jazz to it."
Says Gioia: "I suspect that a lot of fans first came to jazz via the cool school -- think of it as the 'gateway drug' that leads people to try out other more foreboding styles of improvisation."
Cool did not last long: Like jazz itself, it struggled for an audience after the Beatles and Bob Dylan captured serious listeners.
"I often wonder how long cool would have lasted if there had been no Elvis or rock 'n' roll," Roberts says. "And it didn't help that about half [of the cool musicians] were on heroin."
The California Jazz Scene
Now, the station allows him to connect more deeply to the music, especially important since Palm Springs offers few places to see live jazz and meet other fans. His work as a real estate agent satisfies him, but his life wouldn't be the same without his moonlighting gig in music.
The audience for jazz today is far slimmer than it was during the mid-century period Roberts celebrates. He thinks the genre killed itself with the dissonant style called free jazz. And in California, even in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's hard to find more than shadows of cool's heyday.
But Roberts' station is working not only to appeal to longtime fans like him, but to keep the flame burning.
"I hear from people who've never heard anything like this," he says. "Their only experience was smooth jazz. They discover it can be something other than elevator music. So I'm able to bring people onboard."
SecondAct contributor Scott Timberg writes about music, the arts and film from Los Angeles. He runs the West Coast culture blog TheMisreadCity.