The Sonny Side of Jazz

Jazz 91's Mid-Day Jazz Co-Host Sonny Buxton reflects on his Jazz memories, career in broadcasting and life after Jazz at Pearl's.

Sonny Buxton, Jr. has been a beacon for jazz since arriving in the Bay Area in the 1960s. A seasoned broadcast journalist who worked as a reporter and talk show host for KGO TV & Radio in the 1970s, the Seattle-born nightclub impresario and jazz deejay has kept quality jazz alive in San Francisco.

Weaned in concert production by pioneer African American promoters Leonard Russell and Charles Sullivan, Sonny has welcomed the greats from here and out-of-town at his nightclubs Milestones and Jazz at Pearl's. But it's his radio work in recent years with KCSM Jazz 91 that has garnered him legions of loyal listeners.

"My friends and I grew up with radio. Hearing these mental pictures, I remember NBC had a program called Monitor that was really great! On weekends, they would spend 15 minutes in Birdland, Mr. Kelly's and other jazz spots around the country. Al "Jazzbeau" Collins was the anchor and (Symphony) Sid Torin was the guy who came out of Birdland. They would talk about the people coming in and Sid would say: 'there's lovely Sarah Vaughn. Sarah, come over here. Sarah, that's a lovely fur. Is that mink?' He would paint you a mental picture. That's why I tend to talk more when I'm on the air. I'm trying to make the music come alive."

As a young man, Sonny was a talented athlete and budding musician. He played congas and trap drums. In college at Long Beach State, he played in combos in West Los Angeles. He was also a prized athlete who later played professional sports. It was during those years that he got into radio.

"I got my first job in broadcasting around 1955-56 as an announcer. Essentially all I had to do was bring people on. My very first week on the job I couldn't even do that. I just froze! I was to introduce Lionel Hampton and his orchestra and, all of a sudden, I got this mental picture of all these people just listening to me. They opened the microphone and all I could say was 'The Great Lionel Hampton!' Luckily, I had an engineer who was a combo guy and he took over."

Now on Saturday mornings, Sonny never freezes. A master storyteller who has lived great jazz experiences, he is a prince of hip in the courtyard of jazz radio greats like Jazzbeaux and Symphony Sidney. The closing of Jazz at Pearl's (in April 2003), his nightclub collaborative with Pearl Wong in San Francisco's North Beach District, will allow him time to get back into painting and perhaps writing his memoirs. "Maybe I'll even be able to go out on a Saturday night date now," he says with a laugh.