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Borgers Celebrates Three Decades of Jazzing It Up at KKJZ

Published: December 15, 2009

If loving your job is rewarding, then Helen Borgers is doubly fortunate. Not only did she celebrate her 30th anniversary this year as a deejay for CSULB’s KKJZ (KJazz) 88.1 FM radio station—the nation’s top jazz station—she also satisfies her love of theater by being co-artistic director of the Long Beach Shakespeare Company.

With her warm, theatrically trained voice, sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz music, Borgers is so highly regarded in the jazz community that a host of jazz greats came from across the nation on Nov. 15 to fete her 30th anniversary by putting on an all-star concert at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood.

“Oh, my gosh, I couldn’t believe it,” Borgers beamed while naming many of the evening’s performers whom she’s befriended over the years. “Everybody who was there were people I listened to all my life and with whom I’ve had a personal relationship for years, like Jack Sheldon, who is probably my closest friend in the jazz business. He and Ernie Andrews and I go way back. Ernie goes back to the Jazz Safari here in Long Beach with Al Williams,” as does Poncho Sanchez.

“Poncho was one of the first musicians to become a member of KJazz when we changed our format,” she said. “And over the years I’ve become close to people like Terry Gibbs and Frank Capp. It was sweet of them to be there Kenny Burrell came, and he’d written a song for me! Here’s a guy who got a Grammy for writing a song about Ella Fitzgerald and he wrote a song for me. Barbara Morrison performed it and she had everybody in the place sing along. It was absolutely fantastic. Tierney Sutton wrote special lyrics to ‘Cherokee’ for me, and performed it. Then Sally Kellerman, with whom I’ve become friends over the last few years, did a song that made me cry terribly, called ‘The Time of Your Life,’ from her latest album. It was so personally directed and wonderfully delivered that it just knocked me out. I was a happy, weeping mess.”

Other performers included John Clayton, Scotty Barnhart, George Bohanon, Tamir Hendelman, Bill Henderson and CSULB alumnus Josh Nelson. “These guys are my heroes. They’re people I grew up listening to and it never dawned on me that I would ever know them personally,” Borgers remarked.

It’s no surprise that she chose a life in entertainment. Her father was a professor of radio and television at USC and her mother worked in radio in New York City, so she and her brother, Ken, developed a love of music and theater at an early age. The family came to Long Beach in 1958.

“I had this room in the garage of my parents’ house that had been soundproofed because we were all noisy kids who liked to play music loudly,” she recalled. “My parents despaired; they had no idea what was ever going to become of me because that’s all I liked to do. I didn’t realize then that I was practicing to play music very loudly in a small, dark room,” she laughed.

But her first love was theater, inspired by seeing Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Los Angeles as a child. “I loved the sound and pageantry,” she remembered. She came to CSULB to major in dramatic literature and history, where her studies included doing radio dramas on the campus KSUL radio station. Meanwhile, her brother became involved in Long Beach educational radio station KLON, and when he needed help with deejay duties, he called on Helen. Ken was the architect of the full-time jazz programming when the station changed licensees.

The rest, as they say, is history. Borgers became a mainstay in the KLON program lineup even before Cal State Long Beach acquired the station license from Long Beach Unified School District. (The station changed to the call letters KKJZ in 2002.) Early on, she became the station’s music director and developed its vast musical library. When her sister-in-law—“a woman of real style”—gave her a beret, it became Borgers’ signature look to this day.

Helen Borgers
Photo by David J. Nelson
Helen Borgers

In the early 1990s, Borgers became program director of a radio service called Eurojazz that enabled her to travel overseas and live in London for awhile, but the lure of the L.A. area brought her back to CSULB.

Her musical relationships and knowledge were built in part from hosting two interview shows, “The Artist’s Corner,” and more recently, “Sittin’ In With Helen Borgers,” which airs on Sunday nights.

“Over the years I’ve talked with everybody,” she said. “I talked to Max Roach, which was a fascinating three hours. He had just done an album in which he was paying tribute to the American Indians and I didn’t know then that I was going to grow up and live with an American Indian—he’s been my significant other for 18 years.” Roach later asked to use excerpts from the interview for a book he was writing. “I couldn’t believe it; I was just starting out as an interviewer and that was so validating,” she said. “I talked to Ellis Marsalis shortly after he and Wynton had reduced Arsenio Hall to jelly,” on Hall’s TV talk show. “I had watched the night before because everybody had warned me that Ellis was a no-nonsense guy and I got terrified.” To her relief, the interview went well. “I even made him laugh,” she said. Since then, she’s interviewed all of the music-playing Marsalis family. “I’ve talked with Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason and Ellis. Each was challenging; each was entertaining.”

Borgers continues to share her knowledge to advance jazz music and theater education in area schools. “It’s very encouraging to be involved with the educational process because I work with a lot of the schools in a number of different capacities. I work with Los Alamitos High School and emcee their Class Notes, which is their big annual fundraiser,” she said, noting that several area schools have excellent programs that are developing fine young musicians. “Even these young middle school kids are into it. They have the world’s greatest teachers teaching them,” many of whom are professional musicians. The students “have marvelous instincts and are learning how to solo. They’re playing the great arrangements from people like Gordon Goodwin and Tom Kubis and others.

"These kids are getting into jazz early, so by the time they get into college, if you check out the California State University, Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra or the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, those guys really know what its all about. They know how to solo, they’ve got a lot of confidence in their own personal voice, and a lot of these people are already getting professional gigs.”

Technology has enhanced the station’s reach since Borgers joined it in 1979. It then broadcast only in 1,200 watts but today, KKJZ is a 30,000-watt giant and with the advent of the Internet, is now heard around the world. In 2008, the station’s Arbitron ratings placed it as the No. 1 listened-to jazz station and among the top five public radio stations in the U.S. Among the stations most popular fundraising premiums are iPods loaded with jazz CDs in cooperation with music labels. Moreover, deejays update their playlists online so that listeners can identify songs they like.

When she’s not on-air, Borgers works with the Long Beach Shakespeare Company to mount classic as well as contemporary theater productions at their venue on Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls. “I get to do two things that introduce me to fabulous people,” she said. It’s a rewarding life, indeed.

To hear Helen, tune in to KKJZ 88.1 FM weekdays from 1 to 5 p.m. or visit www.jazzandblues.org and www.sittininjazz.com.