WJZZ, the World’s Oldest Jazz Radio Station Is Back in Detroit

When Detroit’s WJZZ-FM 105.9 made its maiden voyage on the radio waves of the Motor City on March 18, 1974, it quickly became one of the nation’s top-tier jazz stations and ultimately labeled “the world’s oldest jazz radio station.”

WJZZ featured a cool and sophisticated lineup of on-air personalities playing the music of such jazz recording artists as Ahmad Jamal, Jack McDuff, Ron Carter, George Benson, Roy Haynes, Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Roy Ayres, Donald Byrd, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Yusef Lateef, Horace Silver, and many more.

WJZZ was said to be one of the first stations in the country to give a consistent platform to “smooth jazz” and “jazz fusion,” both gaining popularity in the late 1970s into the ‘80s. Yet, in 1997, WJZZ experienced its demise when the station was sold to Radio One. The new owners changed the station’s music format and allowed the famous call letters WJZZ to go elsewhere, most notably Atlanta, Georgia, and North Salem, New York.

However, unbeknownst to many jazz lovers in Detroit, WJZZ has returned to the Motor City as an internet radio station thanks to Detroiter Rodger Penzabene Jr.

“I wanted to bring WJZZ back home because when Detroit lost the premier station, it also lost a great part of its heart and soul,” said Penzabene, WJZZ’s president and CEO. “However, the entrepreneur in me, along with that Detroit hustle, propelled me to start searching for ways to bring it back to Detroit.”

Penzabene said despite not having a background in radio or broadcasting, he began the legal process of acquiring the WJZZ call letters around 2016. The following year, Penzabene rebooted WJZZ as an internet radio station in Detroit.

“I felt that we could get it back, but going the traditional route through trying to get an FCC license was going to be challenging,” explained Penzabene. “I was directed to go the internet route because it is the wave of the future. And, with internet radio, it was cost efficient and could be heard worldwide, versus just heard in metro Detroit with traditional radio.”

While WJZZ is back, it has largely been a secret to many Detroiters. Penzabene cited such reasons as limited internal manpower, a slow learning curve, growing pains, and an older audience having difficulties using devices to find WJZZ online. In addition, Penzabene said the pandemic was a big setback to earlier marketing plans to publicize the return of WJZZ as an internet radio station.

However, Penzabene has stepped up internal and external strategies to better inform jazz lovers in Detroit of WJZZ’s return as a 24/7 online station.

Penzabene, and his son Vitorio Penzabene, WJZZ’s COO, will soon roll out an app to make it easier for people to find and listen to WJZZ. In addition, WJZZ Legacy Jazz Concert Series events are held every second and fourth Thursday at the St. Regis Hotel in Midtown Detroit. Penzabene said there will also be a WJZZ Jazz Festival held in August on the campus of the University of Detroit Mercy. And WJZZ will facilitate an International Jazz Summit in August at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit near Wayne State University.

Rodger Penzabene currently selects all the jazz compositions played on WJZZ, which he said are reflective of what he heard and loved growing up in a musical family. He wants to completely fill traditional roles on the station, like having program segments with on-air personalities, similar to WJZZ’s legendary hosts of yesteryear, such as Ed Love, Cliff Coleman, Calvin Euseary, Rosetta Hines, Dorian Pasteur, and Bobby Bass. While Penzabene would love to have that caliber of hosts, he said it is challenging to fill the shoes of such legends because they had great knowledge and a genuine feel and love for jazz and its history.

“Jazz is not just a genre of music; it’s a culture and a lifestyle,” Penzabene said. “There are people who want to be on-air personalities, but many of them just don’t know enough about jazz.”

Penzabene is big on WJZZ’s history. Its forerunner was WCHD-FM 105.9, founded in 1959 by Dentists Wendell Cox and Haley Bell. The two men founded the storied soul station WCHB-AM 1440 in 1956 when it was billed as “Detroitland’s Only 24-hour Negro Programmed Station.”

Penzabene has never forgotten why WJZZ was perhaps America’s best jazz station back in the day. He would love for the station to return to its glory days. However, for now, the constant flow of jazz playing under the call letters WJZZ is plenty of music to his ears and hopefully to the ears of millions more across Detroit, America, and the world.
“WJZZ is back, and still independent and African American-owned,” said Penzabene. “And we are on a mission to get jazz back to the forefront where it belongs.”

For more information about the return of WJZZ, or listening to jazz online 24/7, log on to www.wjzzdetroitradio.com.




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