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Gloria Krolak: Jazz radio deejay and vibraphone aficionado

Creative Conversations

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By Carolyn Males

Vibraphones. Weren’t they a kind of xylophone? Before I could interview Gloria Krolak, who hosts the monthly jazz radio show Good Vibes on WWFM JazzOn2, I realized I needed to do a quick study of idiophones, pitched percussion instruments played with mallets. Xylophones, it turns out, have wooden bars but a small musical range. But oh, its cousin, the marimba! Strike the wooden keys of that large heavy instrument, and its resonators amplify notes into a big rich sound. And vibraphones! Picture Lionel Hampton on the latter with mallets in hand striking its metal bars, improvising on “Mood Indigo,” as the sound reverberates through the metal tubes beneath its tone bars. 

Girding myself with this smattering of new knowledge, I wade into a conversation with Krolak, who along with being a jazz deejay has worked as a jazz journalist and served on the board of the Junior Jazz Foundation. Today she’s Zooming with me from her home studio on Hilton Head where she records her show. With “Caravan” playing softly in the background, she gives me a crash course on jazz and idiophones. 

[Q] Let’s start off with vibraphones. 

[GK] I think of a vibraphone as the result of a marriage between a piano and a drum kit.

It’s a percussion instrument played with sticks or mallets. Some players use two mallets, in which case it’s more of a percussion instrument. But when you play with four mallets as many do, it becomes more pianistic. That’s because now you have four notes at a time moving across the keyboard.

Lionel Hampton

[Q] In old videos of Lionel Hampton he’s playing with two mallets.

[GK] Gary Burton was the first to use four mallets, and lots of people since then have used four. It’s a difference in style. Using four is more of a bop approach because in bop there are a lot more notes. Before that it was kind of dance music because you wanted a flow for moving around the floor. But when the beboppers came along, they tossed out the notion of dancing and threw in a lot of notes. Speaking of Hampton, before the days of TV, Lionel Hampton, who back then was a pianist and drummer, was performing with Louis Armstrong on a live radio concert. They were in NBC studios when Hampton happened to see this instrument in the hallway. It was the vibraphone they used to play the NBC bing-bong-bing. So Hampton tried it out and liked it and made his first vibraphone recording, Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You.” And that was how the vibraphone was born into jazz.

[Q] What got you interested in the vibraphone? 

[GK] My son, Nicholas, who is a bass player, was in a shared college recital, and part of it featured the vibraphone and the marimba. So out comes this tiny girl and she goes absolutely wild behind these huge instruments. I had never heard of either before, and I was just enchanted. Before then, I’d been listening to smooth jazz, and my son would say to me, “It’s not jazz, Mom.” Later I discovered Cal Tjader on the radio. He was a vibraphone player back in the early days who introduced a Latin influence to the vibraphone. When I heard his “Guachi Guaro” (from album Soul Sauce), I thought, I have to look into this. And that’s how it all began.

[Q] So what you play on your radio show isn’t smooth jazz?

[GK] Smooth jazz is pop with a jazz influence. It’s not as improvised as jazz. It’s more repetitive like pop or rock. Saxophonist Boney James and guitarist Lee Ritenour are smooth jazz artists. In live concerts these musicians are excellent, but their recordings are jazz for people who say they don’t like jazz. By the way, when people tell me they don’t like jazz, I ask: Do you like “The Girl From Ipanema?” They say, “Oh, I love that song!” Well, that’s jazz.

[Q] Why the vibraphone rather than the marimba?

[GK] The vibraphone just has a magical sound. It’s so all encompassing. It covers every emotion from light-heartedness to deeply moving, depending on who’s playing it. The marimba is a huge instrument and it’s heavy, so it’s mainly used in symphonic recordings. Many schools have them because they have orchestras. But jazz musicians love vibraphones because they’re lighter and easier to move around.

Gloria Krolak in the studio

[Q] You started off doing publicity for the New Jersey Symphony, then moved on as a writer for Jersey Jazz, reviewing local clubs. I was intrigued that one ongoing feature you wrote was about jazz poetry. And your book Jazz Lines features your own free verse illustrated with Ed Berger’s black-and-white portraits of jazz artists.

[GK] The book arose out of my looking at my playlist every month to pick out music for the next show. In doing so, I noticed the jazz titles seemed to sort themselves into categories. There were a lot of songs about food, so just for fun I put together a list of all the poem titles about food. Then I arranged them into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And there were the ones with women’s names, so I made an address book out of them. That got me thinking of other categories, and it snowballed.

[Q] Do you play the vibraphone?

[GK] I don’t play a single thing. I play the radio. And I have no formal musical education. This has been a total career remake. One of my friends had his own radio show, and I always called in and commented. So when the station had a position open for a jazz deejay, he suggested I’d make a good one. At first I was reluctant, but then I thought about it. I realized if I didn’t do it, I was going to regret it the rest of my life. Program manager Winifred Howard took me under her wing and taught me all I needed to know about the different technical aspects. But when I first suggested I do my monthly program on the vibraphone she said, “Well, you could probably do that for about six months before you run out of material and your audience loses interest.” I said okay, and here we are at eleven years running