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Mr. Jazz: Steve Williams is the nighttime voice of Salt Lake radio station KUER

Steve Williams' road to broadcasting started on a whim.

Thirty years ago, he walked into the KUER studio, then located in the basement of Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus.

"I said, 'I know a lot about jazz, but do you teach anybody about radio?' " Williams said.

"They said, 'Yeah, we do, and we'll call you in a few weeks and have a little training session.'

"And they called me," he said.

"I don't know why I decided to go up there. I told my sweetheart at the time that I couldn't imagine them hiring me, but I could say, 'At least I did it.' "

And did it he did.

After doing board shifts that involved programming classical director Gene Pack's shows, and hosting weekend nights for a few years, Williams became the jazz music director for KUER FM on June 25, 1984.

And for the past 25 years, he has brought jazz to listeners throughout the Intermountain West. (His show can be heard weeknights from 8 p.m.-midnight.)

Being a part of the entertainment world comes naturally to Williams. His family, he said, "was a bunch of characters" filled with artists and musicians.

"My dad, Murray Williams, was a skilled horn player. He just went to high school, but he went to a school that had a lot of music emphasis. He could sight-read anything, even Broadway show scores. And he could play sax, clarinet, anything like that.

"He lived in New York and played gigs with Joe Venuti, Ralph Burns, Miles Davis, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, among others."

Williams' mother, Marjorie Barker, on the other hand, hailed from the Beehive State.

"Mom is a Salt Lake girl, born and raised," Williams said during an interview at KUER, now located in the U.'s Eccles Broadcasting Building.

"Her great-grandparents were part of the Mormon pioneers. When she met my dad, she was a professional tap dancer and singer.

"One January night in 1945, a friend asked my mom what she wanted to do over the weekend, and she said, 'Let's go see the big bands down in Hollywood Palladium.' "

So, Barker and her friend drove to California to see the Gene Krupa Band.

"It just so happens that my dad had been touring with Gene," he said. "He was on the road with him in 1938, 1944 and 1945. They were playing the Palladium, recording an album called 'Radio Performances' and filming a movie."

That was the first time the two met. They struck up a friendship, and the next time they saw each other was on March 30, 1945, when the Gene Krupa Band played in Brigham City.

"I asked mom what she did after she went to Brigham City to see my dad, and she said, 'I moved to New York to marry him,' " Williams said with a laugh.

Williams' foray into jazz was a no-brainer. He was born in 1946 in Manhattan, right in the middle of the theater district.

"The Helen Hayes Theatre was right there, and you could see the Empire State Building," he said. "It was in Hell's Kitchen, and it was a tough place. So, when my mother was pregnant with my brother, we moved to Long Island."

While growing up, Williams was introduced to an array of jazz music and dabbled in the craft himself.

"I messed around with music," he said. "What I wanted to really do is play drums. So I went to my dad and said I wanted to play drums. He said he didn't know anything about drums but could teach me the clarinet. So I played in school, but after a while I gave it up."

In 1952, when Williams was 6 going on 7, the family moved back to Salt Lake City.

"We moved, pulling a trailer and the whole bit with a station wagon," Williams said.

Williams grew up in the Holladay area and, while a junior at Skyline High School, decided to drop out.

The Vietnam War was in full swing.

"I was gung-ho patriotic when I was 17," he said. "My friends and I were going to quit school and become helicopter pilots and join the Army. But at 17, parents had to sign the papers."

Williams' parents wouldn't sign the papers, and the high school counselor told him to finish school.

"So I went back," Williams said. "And then I turned 18, and I had to sign up for selective services."

By that time, Williams' patriotism had waned.

"Here I am, graduating high school with the selective service looming," he said. "I wasn't ready to go to college. I wanted to work for my dad, who had by that time become a businessman here."

Instead of being drafted, Williams joined the National Guard in 1965 and went on active duty in 1966 to California.

"When I was in boot camp in California and, later, Oklahoma, I would listen to rock and jazz and blues during break time. I always found a way to get the music. It helped my head."

After completing his active duty, Williams returned to Utah and stayed in the Reserves.

"When I got out, I let my hair and beard grow," he said. "I became a different guy."

A few years later, Williams found his father's tenor sax.

"I said, 'I'm gonna teach myself how to play it,' because I'm a big fan of (saxophonist) Tom Scott."

Williams returned to school in the early 1980s and studied with Henry and Alan Weight.

"Jay Welsh was my first music theory teacher, and it was a night class," he said. "Al Weight and Henry helped me start getting myself reading again. And then I had a little group I put together called the Daddy O's.

"I still got the horns and look at them once in a while."

Shortly after joining KUER as a volunteer host, Williams was approached by Steve Holbrook, who was getting ready to launch another radio station, KRCL.

"He asked me if I was interested and if I would come to some meetings.

"I said, 'Sure, I'm interested.' KUER was already established. So I went to these meetings.

"At that moment, I was a KRCL prospective host," he said. "And then we went on the air on New Year's Eve in December 1979. I was going to be the Saturday Night guy and did Saturday nights for a year. I borrowed records from the (record store) Cosmic Airplane, which was next door, but I had a hassle because I didn't get them back soon enough."

A couple of years later, KUER contacted Williams, saying if he came back and hosted the weekends, they would pay him.

"I said, 'Wow, after three years of radio, this would be the first time I've seen a nickel.' "

The last night he was on KRCL was July 4, 1982.

"A firestorm knocked KRCL off the air in the middle of my shift," Williams said. "There was no 'goodbye' or 'I'm leaving' speech. And KRCL is off for three days. When they come back on, I'm here just next door on the dial, doing Saturday and Sunday night."

All was not smooth during his tenure at KUER.

In 1985, the jazz programming was on the bubble, but after numerous complaints, the program directors reconsidered and brought in Wes Bowen.

"They figured it would legitimize the music because Bowen had been broadcasting (with KSL Radio) all over the area in the past. Bowen did the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift, and I did the 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., and here I am still in the same place."

Bowen died in 2003.

"I loved Wes," said Williams. "He was a friend to me and my parents."

In the early 1990s, Williams suffered a bit of burnout.

"I almost quit in '92 and '93," he said. "I had an opportunity to move to California and work part time at KLON Radio. But at the last minute, I said to myself, 'Self, put up or shut up. You don't want to leave what you have here and go to a chancy thing down there.' So I decided to stay."

Throughout the years at KUER, Williams has hosted jazz festivals, including the inaugural Snowbird Jazz & Blue Festival, the Utah Arts Festival, the Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival and the Jazz at the Sheraton Series.

He has also met and interviewed jazz greats such as Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams. Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker and his late brother Michael, as well as the late Gene Harris and Lionel Hampton.

Williams, who married his wife Vicki six years ago, said he is just as "interested in the people who make the music as I am in the music."

"I wouldn't have gotten that chance in California," he said. "I would have had the remnants and the bones of what they didn't want to do.

"Here, I'm the director with the weeknight show. It's my life. I've always been a night owl."

Still, Williams does have plans for himself when his days on the radio end.

"Once I retire, I would love to travel and talk about the music," he said. "I want to use slide shows, go to France, Germany, Europe and Asia and other counties and talk about music."

e-mail: scott@desnews.com