E d Tankus is known as a “smoothie”—not for his engaging interpersonal style, but rather his musical tastes. His passion for smooth jazz is the foundation of Blue Plate Radio, the Hamden resident’s 24-hour-a day, seven-day-a-week internet radio station that currently stands as the only full-time commercial jazz station to be found between New York City and Portland, Maine.
Smooth jazz, also called contemporary jazz, grew out of the rock-jazz fusion pioneered by late 1960s and ’70s artists like guitarist John McLaughlin, pianist Chick Corea and Spyro Gyra. Its current practitioners—like guitarist George Benson, flautist Najee, horn player Chuck Mangione and sax players David Sanborn and Kenny G.—add elements of pop, hip hop and R&B to the mix.
Tankus was first beguiled by jazz as a Los Angeles grade-schooler, when the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s sizzling remake of the pop hit “The ‘In’ Crowd” reached No. 5 on the U.S. radio charts. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing coming out of the speakers, how amazing it sounded,” he says. Later that year, when jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s ground-breaking score for A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on television, he was “in heaven.” But he admits he’s never been all that fond of the jazz artists beloved by purists, like Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk.
“It’s just a matter of personal taste,” he says. “Smooth jazz has more of a beat; it’s catchier, especially when played live. Sometimes I get funny looks from people who insist that it’s not really jazz. But jazz is evolutionary—newer forms are always emerging. Like ice cream, it has a million different flavors. Some people like strawberry; I prefer chocolate.”
By the early ’70s, he was attending Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village and gaining hands-on experience in radio. His electronics teacher had a World War II-era Army Signal Corps transmitter that he helped turn into an operating low-wattage station, with no greater ambition than to broadcast to the school cafeteria. The station, dubbed WRHS, was ultimately shut down, Tankus says, when a local FCC commissioner picked up its signal on his AM band and confronted Housatonic Valley’s principal. “He marched into the office and said, ‘I think this is great; but if you continue, I’ll have to arrest everybody.’”
He spent his early post-graduate years in the 9-to-5 corporate world, devoting after-work hours to serving as “groupie-cum-roadie” for local jazz bands. “I was always behind the scenes, helping out,” he says.
Later, a part-time gig as a music writer led to a chance encounter, laying groundwork for Blue Plate Radio. While attending the 2007 Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz to review a performance, Tankus enjoyed the thrill of dining with one of his favorite musicians, jazz guitarist Joyce Cooling. In conversations with her inner circle, a theme emerged over and over: the near-total lack of jazz radio stations on the east coast. The most prominent at the time, he says, was New York City’s CD109 FM, which played smooth jazz intercut with the soft rock of Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Tankus says he had a “lightbulb” moment. “I did some research and found no full-time jazz radio station anywhere in Connecticut. Yet, after seeing 50,000 people attend the Hartford Jazz Festival, I knew there had to be an audience for one.”
He also learned that dedicated FM frequencies sell for millions of dollars. So he investigated the option that, he jokes, would cost him “literally millions of dollars less”: internet radio. He found a suitable server company, Live365.com, and ran test programs until March 26, 2008, when Blue Plate Radio finally went live—five minutes before he announced its launch while introducing a concert at Southern Connecticut State University’s Lyman Center.
Eight years later, Blue Plate Radio boasts an audience of close to 6,000 unique listeners a month, who tune in to hear programming that’s over 90 percent smooth jazz—though, Tankus points out, the station does incorporate older forms of jazz as well, playing ’70s fusion tracks and tunes by Dave Brubeck (whose son, Chris Brubeck, was just announced as an artist-in-residence for New Haven Symphony Orchestra beginning later this month), Miles Davis and other “trad” artists from time to time. In general, he programs the channel exactly as he pleases, disregarding the influence of artist managers, record companies, promotions people and publicists, who send him up to 20 CDs a week with the hope that he’ll spotlight their tracks. “If I like it, if I think it’s quality, if it fits the format, I play it,” he says. This approach has led to at least one significant discovery: Blue Plate was the first jazz station nationwide to play the recordings of Prospect native Vincent Ingala, a saxophonist who now performs in L.A. with smooth jazz masters David Koz and Peter White and hosts the must-hear weekly jazz brunch at Spaghettini in Beverly Hills.
Crucial to the station’s nature is its accessibility, highlighted by its tag line “Point-Click-Jazz!” Unlike Pandora, Spotify and certain other streaming radio services, Blue Plate doesn’t require listeners to create accounts or pay fees. It broadcasts at 64kbps, which, Tankus says, “gives CD-quality stereo sound” to standard mp3 tracks. Last year, Radio & Internet News (RainNews.com)—the preeminent reference site for streaming radio—named the station one of its “Best Single Stream Webcasters” for 2014.
Still, there’s always room for functional improvement, which is Blue Plate’s primary goal this year. Plans include enhancing the server to accommodate more than the 700 simultaneous tracks it does now, and incorporating state-of-the-art scheduling software—a strategy that will allow the station to develop more of the precisely timed block-style programming that radio-wave broadcasters do.
Up until now, Tankus has experimented with such shows in a limited way, most notably in his “Talking Jazz Live” interview series, which he slots into the schedule on Monday and Tuesday nights at 9. (His guests have included award-winning contemporary jazz artist Boney James and composer-producer “Mo” Pleasure, a Hartford native who served as Michael Jackson’s music director.) With block programming, Blue Plate will be able to develop its own stable of disc jockeys.
In the long run, Tankus foresees creating more stations in different genres. “I’d like to establish a brand,” he says, and even if it’s a bumpy road from here to there, along the way he can tune his “dial” to Blue Plate, where the tracks are nice and smooth.
Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.