Eric Wolff, both a DJ at KCSB and its music director, has little time for the constrictions of genre traditionalism. First arriving at KCSB in 2009, he began a funk show on training station KJUC-AM but soon found himself disinclined to fill an entire broadcast each week with that one niche category. He then started the program 2% Jazzon KCSB’s FM schedule, and employed the freedom of the station to its fullest by exploring the edges of jazz, the ones far enough afield that listeners sometimes wouldn’t even recognize the sounds they heard as jazz.
“Jazz is associated with a decrepit generation,” Wolff explained to me when I sat in on one of his Sunday-evening shows. “I tried to select more energetic, frenetic stuff, music that was immediately sonically interesting, so people wouldn’t think jazz. They’d think, ‘What could this be?’” To this boundary-breaking end he employed the work of artists like Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Stefon Harris, and Mulgrew Miller. “Even someone like Esperanza Spalding goes to show that there’s innovative, progressive stuff going on in jazz right now.”
Though Wolff no longer directs his radio energies exclusively toward the cause of jazz, its spirit of improvisation remains in all his musical projects on and off the air. “I really like the excitement of improvisation,” he said. “Some people like improvisation for improvisation’s sake; I like hearing arrangements that … morph.” As a bassist with bands like Boombox Orchestra and Fungk Shway, he also enjoys plenty of chances to experience improvisation first-hand. “Playing by ear is how I do things,” he added. Now he wants to bring these and other aspects of the pure energy of live music right into KCSB’s studios on his new show, The Green Room.
“My goal with is to get a live band on every time,” Wolff explained. On his guest list so far, he counts Morganfield Burnett, Santa Ynez’s Whiskey Piss, Ventura’s Wages of Fear, and Portland’s DoublePlusGood, and he names Howlin’ Woods, Wetlands, and “gals” as bands to come. “I want pretty much everybody making music in the local scene, since the music doesn’t get out of it very much,” he said. “I want to archive what they’ve been doing. People do play here—it’s a college town with a surprisingly diverse scene—but maybe not as many as you’d expect. There’s still so much opportunity, though; you can play in a bunch of different bands and venues. Santa Barbara is a good base, but it can be tough to break out.”
When not hosting one of the area’s live bands in The Green Room, Wolff puts together eclectic playlists of recorded music. “The music library here has been so educational,” he said, pulling from it a few selections that would’ve fit in nicely in any given hour of 2% Jazz.. “Here’s something I never would’ve heard of without it,” he told me as he produced a disc of 1992 Roy Hargrove sessions recorded in Tokyo, fitting it in alongside representatives from countless other points on the musical spectrum, from guitar rock to flute-driven electronic pop. “I like the genre switches to make some semantic sense, if they can’t make sonic sense,” he said. “Either way, I like the idea of being educational, as much as I can offer that to people.”
But the show’s most educational times, for both the host and the listener, come during the interviews. Wolff talks to all his musical guests on the air and even brings a few in, like UCSB jazz program director Jon Nathan, for that very purpose. “I end up knowing all these local musicians personally,” Wolff said. “I ask them about their experiences in the music business. I want to get their stories and views on music. It’s valuable for me to know what drives them,” he said. “Morganfield Burnett had a lot of stories about the groups he’s worked with, since he’s been in the business since the ‘60s.”
Even if the guest in the studio hasn’t been around quite so long, Wolff has realized, he has to get their story. Inspired, one listener even called him up to tell him his own story about working in Africa and experiencing the music there. “My goal is to promote more dialogue like this, more story-sharing,” Wolff said. “The DJ position is a way to bring other voices on. When I started DJing, I didn’t necessarily know what the importance of it was. Even waking up early for my first time slot, I didn’t really understand it. I discovered its importance by doing.” And what other station encourages—or even allows—the same?