When I was a curious teenager in the 1970s and wanted to get educated about music, the public library was my teacher. Armed with a library card, I studied Champaign Public Library’s excellent record collection. This is where I made discoveries that would influence my musical taste for the rest of my life.
There was no section left untouched, but my favorite section was “soundtracks” because that section taught me the most. I learned about classical music from the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. The American Graffiti album was a great intro to rock and roll. Fellini’s Armacord soundtrack introduced me to Nino Rota, Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns introduced me to Ennio Morricone and the Pink Panther movies introduced me to Henry Mancini (why were these great 20th century composers all of Italian descent?).
It was also in the library that I fell in love with the great female vocalists of a bygone era — Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Doris Day, and more. So when I accidentally came across Jason Croft’s “Bachelor Pad Radio Show” on WEFT and heard my teenage favorites again, I became an instant fan. It was on Jason’s show that I gained a new respect for what I thought was called the “easy listening” genre, but now it’s got a cool new name — “lounge.” Then a few months ago when Jason announced the end of his WEFT show, I freaked out and started downloading his set lists. Fortunately, Jason also announced that he was moving his show to WILL-FM in January and aiming for national syndication. I wanted to know more, so I emailed Jason to ask about his new show and his future plans.
Smile Politely: How did you come up with the name “The Atomic Age Cocktail Party?”
Jason Croft: This is actually the name of an old DJ night I did at the Cowboy Monkey about 15 years ago. During those gigs, I would drag out my lounge record collection, put on a smoking jacket, and spin tunes to the folks at the Monkey. Some people didn’t know what to make of it. But those who love it, really loved it. I always thought it was a great name and so perfectly describes the type of music I’m playing.
SP: What kind of music will you be playing?
Croft: It goes by a lot of names — lounge, exotica, private-eye jazz, Rat Pack, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. It’s American popular music from the mid part of the 20th century. Think of it as post-big band through the Beatles and dominance of rock and roll. Sure, you’ll hear folks such as Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julie London, Henry Mancini, Les Baxter, Perez Prado, Esquivel, and the like, but I’m also going to dive deep into this music to hopefully play stuff that people haven’t heard a thousand times before.
SP: How is this show different from your “Bachelor Pad Radio Show” on WEFT?
Croft: I am super proud of my run there for almost twenty years. As I have told fans of that program, they are going to feel right at home with this new show. The big difference they’ll hear is the weekly theme. Each episode of “The Atomic Age Cocktail Party” will revolve around a specific idea. This could be a concept or a sub-genre of the music or a featured instrument. So each song I play ties into the larger program. So, it’ll be less free-form and more structured.
SP: What are some of these “ideas” you have in mind?
Croft: To let you in on a secret, I’ve been working ahead and already have about a dozen programs produced. In January, when the show debuts, we’ll be featuring shows about traveling, songs about cocktails, bongo music, the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, and a fun show I’m calling “naming names.” Early on, when I was first pitching the program, I came up with a list of about sixty different show themes off the top of my head. I’m always coming up with more, too. And I bet once the show gets started proper, more ideas will start rolling in. So, I have no fear that I’ll be running out of show ideas anytime soon.
SP: Why the move from WEFT to WILL?
Croft: Earlier this year, WILL re-added jazz into its weekend line-up with the NPR program “Jazz Night In America.” I thought “The Atomic Age Cocktail Party” would be a good companion piece to this. The time seemed right to pitch it to the powers-that-be at Illinois Public Media (the organization that runs AM580, FM 90.9, and WILL-TV). They must have heard something they liked since they gave me the green light to do it.
SP: Are there any other shows out there like this?
Croft: Yup. There aren’t many, but there are still a few of us who keep the lounge flame alive with our radio shows. I chat often with other show hosts and programmers. We like to swap music and talk shop. A lot of these are shows based at community radio stations. Some are more commercial sounding. I would like to think that what I do is on the more polished and professional end of the spectrum.
SP: How is it that you know so much about this genre of music?
Croft: I kind of fell into it by accident. In the late 1990s, there was what was called the “Lounge Revival.” People were rediscovering the music and style of the 1950s and early 1960s. The movie Swingers is a good example of this. There was also this amazing collection put out by Capitol Records called Ultra-Lounge. It hit at a good time for a lot of us Gen-Xers. Grunge was over and I think we were all looking for something new musically. And there was a certain charm to this music of our grandparents. There was this style and aesthetic that was near and yet so far. That whole Mid-Century Modern vibe. It was cool and sophisticated and optimistic and leaning toward a brand new future. Just soaked in cocktails, cool clothes, and all this stereophonic music. It’s funny to look at that now considering the difference back then was only about 40 years. It would be like rediscovering the 1980s today.
SP: What is your personal relationship to this genre of music?
Croft: Well, it’s hard not to live with this music for over two decades and not be affected by it. This is the stuff that is always floating around in my head. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who also love this same sort of music—musicians, show hosts, collectors, and the like. Sometimes, I think about all this great music as an ocean. You can swim all through it, but you can also take those deep dives and really find more richness underneath the surface.
SP: Tell us about your favorite artist from this period.
Croft: I have to chuckle a bit at this. Because I could spend ten minutes listing off my favorites and why. And then tomorrow, I may have a whole new list for you. They all have great backstories, which I try to touch on here and there in the new program. But if there’s an artist I think most people associate me with it’s the man I like to call the “King of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music,” Mr. Juan Garcia Esquivel. I used his song “Mini-Skirt” to open every episode of “The Bachelor Pad Radio Show” on WEFT. His music is fun and quirky, but completely solid and polished. Maybe that’s a good way to think about how I approach what I do.
SP: Are there any contemporary artists who are reviving this genre?
Croft: Oh, there are tons! It’s a small but mighty group of folks keeping this music alive. In fact, soon I’m planning to do a show titled “21st Century Lounge.” There are great bands like The Martini Kings, The Tiki Delights, Don Tiki, Waitiki, Stolen Idols, Project Pimento, Ìxtahuele, and the like. Plus lots of great modern crooners. Who doesn’t know of Michael Bublé or the duets of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett? And although I don’t really play modern surf bands, you could totally throw those into the retro category. So, there are lots out there. You just need to know where to look.
SP: What is the difference between “Lounge” and “Easy Listening”?
Croft: Well, you can look at them as one and the same. I use the terms interchangeably. But if you want a more nuanced definition, it’s this: “Lounge” music was the stuff played in cocktail lounges. Think of the crooners and the bands who had live nightclub shows. “Easy Listening” was more of the light recorded music meant to be played on the hi-fi or on beautiful music radio stations. One is meant to be out in front, the other melted into the background.
SP: Do you really have to drink cocktails while listening to your show?
Croft: OK, here’s another deep, dark secret for you. I’m a teetotaler. My drink of choice is usually a cup of coffee. But I do encourage people to have a cocktail when they listen to the program. It usually makes me sound better!
SP: Your long-term goal is national syndication. How does that happen?
Croft: My plan for the show is to offer it to other community and public radio stations. There’s a thing called the Public Radio Exchange where show producers can offer up content. We may go through that or figure out distribution another way.
SP: One hour for a radio show is not very long. Any plans to extend the length of the show?
Croft: I think I will stick to the old showbiz adage of “always leave them wanting more”! An hour on a particular theme is plenty. Besides, the shows will be available on-demand on the website after they air on the radio so folks can listen to them again and again. And I’m planning to produce a lot of episodes of “The Atomic Age Cocktail Party,” so there should soon be lots to listen to.
SP: You’re obviously doing this for fun. Do you also have a day job?
Croft: I’m the audio production manager at Illinois Public Media, so producing and hosting this show is technically now part of my day job…along with running our daily talk show, voicing breaks throughout the day, and all the production duties the radio station needs.
SP: What else do you do besides work on radio broadcasts?
Croft: I have a lot of other projects and hobbies. And those who know me, most likely already know what they are.
SP: When and where can we listen to the show? Will the show be streamed or available as a podcast?
Croft: Starting January 1st, the show will air Saturday nights at 11 with an encore Sunday nights at 10 on WILL-FM, 90.9 in Urbana. It will be available on demand at atomicagecocktailparty.com or through the WILL website.
SP: Anything else you want our readers to know about your show?
Croft: I think folks should tune it. But then again I’m biased since it’s my show. I’m trying to present this kind of music in fresh and interesting ways. Somewhere over the years, “lounge” got a bad name. I’m trying to show folks that this music is still important and still entertaining. My hope is to open this style of music to a whole new listening audience and to get them to love it just as much as I do.