The jazz world lost a fierce promoter this past Monday with the unexpected death of Bobby Jackson, one of the country’s leading jazz authorities and a Cleveland resident. An award-winning jazz broadcaster and educator, Bobby was an intimate of greats like Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and Wayne Shorter. Most recently, he created, wrote, and hosted the syndicated radio program The Roots of Smooth, which he recorded in his westside basement. Prior to that, he was the long-time music director at Cleveland’s WCPN, when that station still favored local jazz programming over NPR talk shows.
Born in the Bronx, Bobby’s radio career stretched back to the late 1970s, when he was a staffer at the University of Georgia’s student-run station WUOG. Between then and the present, he nabbed numerous awards, including the Duke Dubois Humanitarian Award presented to him at the 2010 Jazz Week conference in Rochester, N.Y. Other honors included the Communicator’s Award-National Crystal Award of Excellence, and the Ohio Educational Telecommunications Award for Best Cultural Arts Weekly Series.
Acclaim aside, I knew Bobby mainly as a friend, a husband, a father, and one hell of a dining companion. During the 10 years I served as Scene’s restaurant critic, Bobby — and later Bobby and his new bride Lisa-Jean Sylvia — were frequent guests on my visits to the region’s restaurants. He told me when I first met him — on a media tour promoting one of the revised editions of food writer Laura Taxel’s Cleveland Ethnic Eats — that he thought he must have been Asian in a past life, because he adored the cuisine. After that, he became my go-to guy whenever the job took me to a new Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese or Korean hangout. I knew I could always count on Bobby to order fearlessly, eat with gusto, and critique our meals with honesty and humor.
Plus, he was a great talker, bursting with stories about the inner workings of the industry and sharing keen observations on the state, and fate, of his beloved jazz — which he invariably delivered in a deep, resonant hug of a voice, somewhere between a rumble and a purr. (And he was, in fact, a very good hugger too —a quality I grew to appreciate over the years as our friendship deepened from dim sum and sushi to include everything from bike riding to comparative child rearing.)
Bobby’s passion drew people to him like iron shavings are drawn to magnet — a big, cuddly, dreadlocked magnet, true, but irresistible nonetheless. Since his death on Monday — at home, of natural causes — his Facebook page has been drawing tributes from around the world, including kind words from trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and a poem from Cleveland’s own writer and artist Ra Washington.
If you are one of the thousands of people whose life was touched by Bobby Jackson, consider yourself invited to the two memorials set for Monday, Dec. 16. The first is an 11 a.m. funeral service at the United Methodist Church in University Circle (1919 East 107th St.); the second is what his wife, Lisa-Jean, calls a musical “home-going” at 7 to 9 p.m. at Nighttown, 12387 Cedar Rd., under the direction of Cleveland Jazz Orchestra’s Sean Jones.
Meantime, the Cleveland Foundation has set up a fund for the couple’s 10-year-old son Xavier. Donations can be made by mail to the Bobby Jackson Memorial Fund, KeyBank-Steelyard Commons, 3266 Steelyard Dr., Cleveland, Ohio, 44109, or online at Bobby’s website, The Jazz Mind.