Every Friday evening, Ken Jackson's basso profundo voice pulls his listeners into their memories.
As the host of In the Mood, a weekly, three-hour show on WYPR-FM that invokes the big-band sound of the 1930s and 1940s -- along with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan -- the courtly, 75-year-old Jackson is keeping alive for his audience a genre of music that to many people is a thing of the distant past.
To Jackson and his loyal adherents, though, there is nothing more enriching than tunes like Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade"; Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are," from Artie Shaw's band; Tommy Dorsey's take on Irving Berlin's "Marie"; and anything composed by Cole Porter.
"I love this music, and I can get lost in it," Jackson says in his studio, his headphones around his neck, as a swing tune more than a half-century old plays over the airwaves. "It's romantic, glamorous and exciting, but there's not that many of us still doing this. Sadly, not many of us even know about this music. We're a victim of our age, of demographics."
Jackson himself seems a vestige of a kinder time -- calm, self-effacing and unfailingly gracious, with upright posture to match. He appears delighted to discuss his passion, which his listeners evidently share. Even after 53 years in radio -- the last five at WYPR -- Jackson remains proud that he has fans and keeps letters they send him.
"I like his relaxed manner," says Stephen L. Atlas, a 62-year-old Parkville resident and author who wrote recently to Jackson. "Everything is so fast-paced, and Ken slows down. You get the feeling that he's talking to each person. He makes the start of the weekend really special for me."
Another fan, Herbert D. Howard, took fountain pen to paper in his Mount Airy home to write that Jackson's playing in December of "Christmas Eve in My Home Town," by Kate Smith, had "brought back a flood of memories."
"I tell everyone about your show and even call them just before it begins to remind them," wrote Howard, who, like many of Jackson's fans, included a song request -- Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, with "I'm Making Believe."
Jackson always obliges.
"Can't your music be on the radio more often?" Dick Huppert, 76, a regular listener from Baltimore, wrote earlier this month in a letter in which he reminded Jackson that June 9 was Cole Porter's birthday.
Huppert was trying to find a recording of "I've Never Forgotten," but couldn't recall who sang it. Jackson found a 1946 version by Ginnie Powell on an old 78 rpm disc in his vast album collection at his Northwood home, copied it onto a CD and played it on the air. He accompanied it with a detailed explanation of the song's provenance.
Name that tune
Another listener wrote him an e-mail last month to ask for the name of a tune she had heard on his show, and received a thorough reply: "That was Rosemary Clooney singing 'Willow Weep For Me,' backed by the Count Basie Orchestra directed by Grover Mitchell. This CD was released about 6/7 years ago on the Concord Jazz label. There are some other nice (I feel) songs and big band arrangements as well on the CD."
He suggested that she order the recording "via your music store" or online. "Glad you enjoyed it," he wrote. "Thanks for touching base and thanks, again, for listening." After signing his name, he asked that she "please let me know how you make out on this."
"If someone takes a moment to write to me," he tells a visitor, "I feel I should respond."
Andy Bienstock, WYPR's program director, calls Jackson "an old pro" and "the sweetest, nicest guy around." His audience, Bienstock says, "is the kind that still writes letters, instead of firing off e-mails."
In the Mood draws about 7,000 listeners each week, Bienstock says, roughly "in the middle of the pack" of the station's programming. (The biggest show by far is NPR's Car Talk, on Saturday mornings.)
"Ratings are not why we run Ken's show," says Bienstock, who hosts a jazz program four nights a week. "Nobody else was doing what he does in this market and it fits nicely into the jazz thing we do at night. His listeners are loyal because they don't have a lot of places to hear that music."
Tom Taylor, executive news editor of Radio-Info.com, which covers the industry, says people like Jackson "know they're keepers of the flame," although audiences for his brand of music are dwindling.
"People are so hungry for it, but traditionally the problem has been selling it to advertisers," says Taylor, a former radio programmer and on-air host in North Carolina, Kentucky and New Jersey. "It's about how America treats older Americans in terms of marketing to them. We're a youth-obsessed culture."
Jackson, a repository of obscure facts about the music he loves, does not spend much time worrying about the obsessions of youth. When he talks on the air or at retirement homes and private parties, he sticks to music and its history.
"As a child, I remember falling asleep to this music," he recalls of his youth in Lowell, Mass. "I didn't even know who a lot of these people were."
The old tunes trigger more recollections, about musicians, about old movies, about how he met his wife, the "drop-dead beautiful" Anne Campbell, in their French 101 class at Emerson College in Boston. As he speaks, Jackson tilts back in the chair while a Benny Goodman tune, at low volume, emanates from the speakers behind him.
His first date with Campbell, he remembers, was a football game between his old Lowell High School and Haverhill High, in White Plains, N.Y. "She had absolutely no interest in football and probably fell asleep," says Jackson, who doesn't recall the score but does remember the fumble that cost Lowell the game. (His wife confirms that she did indeed fall asleep.) Before their second date, Jackson decided at the last minute to change his trousers. He picked her up, took her to the movie theater and realized -- mortified -- that he'd left his wallet behind. She paid for the movie tickets, he paid her back, and they've been a couple for almost 51 years.
"I definitely married up," says Jackson of their wedding, which took place when they were both still in college. "Trust me, all eyes were on the beautiful bride that perfect September day. She gave up her college career and became the bread earner while this future radio type finished school."
A Baltimore debut
In 1962, they moved to Baltimore, where Jackson had been offered a job at WCBM. His wife went to work at the Northwood Appold Nursery School, and retired five years ago after 35 years as its director. They had three children -- Douglas, Suzanne and David, who died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 46 -- and have seven grandchildren, all but one in the Baltimore area. Jackson brings them up often in conversation, and alludes to happy babysitting duties.
"An exciting night for me is watching reruns of Masterpiece Theatre," says Jackson, who admits to being "a bit of an Anglophile." He doesn't waste much time with commercial television, or with talk radio, although he spent 20 years as an announcer and news reader before focusing on music.
"And I don't get into politics," he says, with finality. In fact, when he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950, during the Korean conflict, "I didn't know what a communist was," he says.
"I wanted to be an aerial gunman but they didn't use them in Korea, so I ended up doing maintenance on airplanes," he says. "They tried to make a mechanic out of me."
Jackson stops talking to change tunes. "Here's Louis Armstrong," he says into the microphone, enunciating every letter of the legendary trumpeter's first name, "with 'Sleepy Time Down South.'" While it plays, Jackson says the choice was inspired by that afternoon's sizzling weather, "like a lazy, hot day in the South."
Even as a teenager, Jackson knew he wanted to be a radio announcer. In his final year in college, in 1958, he got his first paying job on the air. "I entered [the business] at a time when the most you could own was six radio stations and six TV stations," he says, almost wistfully.
Still, Jackson had to conform. His real surname is Desmarais, but a station manager in Pennsylvania considered its French origin too effete and imposed on him a more down-to-earth moniker.
That doesn't mean he withheld his opinions. He dismisses the term "disc jockey" and rejects "robot radio types." He says rap music is "socially injurious" and akin to "cultural deprivation." Jackson has no time for "discordant rock" but likes some R&B;, acknowledges the Beatles' profound legacy and admires the "beautiful stuff" produced by the Moody Blues.
"I really am a man of simple tastes -- sunsets, little children, flowers, I just melt," he says, placing in the CD player a tune by the Ralph Flanagan Orchestra, which he recalls seeing in concert at Lowell's Commodore Ballroom in 1952, while he was home on leave.
"I'm not Mr. Excitement," Jackson says, smiling. "I'm betting on people still enjoying the music I play. I'm not doing this to be heroic. It's a labor of pleasure."
Ken Jackson's favorite five
"Night and Day," Frank Sinatra
"Moonlight Serenade," Glenn Miller
"Roll 'em," Benny Goodman
"Marie," Tommy Dorsey Orchestra
"Our Love is Here to Stay," Steve Tyrell
Kenneth J. Desmarais, March 23, 1932, in Lowell, Mass.
Bachelor's degree in English, Emerson College, Boston, 1958
First paying job:
Announcer, WMRC, Milford, Mass., 1958
Started as news announcer at WCBM in 1962; then worked at WBAL; focused on music at WITH, WWLG and WYPR