Playing a Sweet Mix of Gumbo

Chuck Taggart uses the music of his native New Orleans as a way to bring us all together.

chuck taggert
Christina Gandolfo

When Chuck Taggart arrived in Los Angeles in 1982, as a graduate film student from New Orleans, his new address was just minutes from Los Angeles International Airport. The very location seemed to imply a contingency plan: no matter what happens, easy in, easy out.

“I came out here completely blind,” Taggart admits. After a cross-country road trip, he and his roommates secured a “cruddy apartment” among the modest single-family homes on Arbor Vitae Street near La Cienega. “All of that is gone now,” Taggart says. Back then, “jumbo jets [were] coming in for a landing directly over our building every six minutes,” he remembers. “But the rent was cheap. My share was $165.” That stretch of fast road leading to LAX wasn’t something you’d see in a movie montage depicting L.A.’s signature features, but Taggart’s relocation would put him that much closer to his goal: “I wanted to pursue a film career,” specifically film production. What he did know was that Loyola Marymount University, or LMU, with its small Westside campus, offered a well-regarded communication arts program. That was enough of a pull.

If Los Angeles and the West are a dream, a point of activation, New Orleans, Taggart knows, is a mood, one hard to shake, something to wrap yourself up in. You take it wherever you go.

It’s this specific sentiment that many Angelenos might recognize when they hear Taggart’s name—and voice. If you listened to L.A. radio on the left end of the FM band over a stretch of years from the late 1980s well into the 2000s, you most likely stumbled across Taggart’s burnished DJ patter as he back-announced all manner of Louisiana acts: Allen Toussaint, BeauSoleil, and Irma Thomas; Marc Savoy, Rebirth Brass Band, Fats Domino, and Dr. John. If you stuck around, you heard Taggart sail into delicate sets offering deep, deep cuts of Louis Armstrong and hard-to-find Jelly Roll Morton and carefully place them, jewel-like, within historical settings.

If Los Angeles and the West are a dream, then New Orleans is a mood.

By playing records and telling stories, he brought his hometown to us, showed us around New Orleans’s nooks and crannies, then later took us out to the country and along the bayous, first on KCRW-FM for his inaugural show, Gumbo Ya-Ya, then later on explorations including Global Gumbo, Late Nite Notes (Sunday), and Gumbo. He decamped to KCSN-FM in the late ’90s, where he hosted two programs, Down Home and The Swing Shift.

Taggart emerged from hiatus last March when California’s COVID-19 regulations were enacted to produce an eclectic, far-ranging online show—fittingly titled Safe at Home—from his Northeast L.A. home (listen at gumbo.org/live Saturdays at 1pm PT, archived shows at mixcloud.com/SazeracLA). While the name is, of course, a reference to sheltering in place during the pandemic, it’s also a tribute to the late KCRW radio host Deirdre O’Donoghue. Taggart explains that she used “Safe at Home” to name her cassette compilations of live performances at the studio that KCRW offered as premiums back in the day.

The enterprise has been both a distraction and a balm for his tight community of listeners. And for Taggart himself, it’s been a way to channel ever-shifting emotions around politics and the pandemic. “I do it for them,” he says. “And I do it for myself.”

During two decades on L.A.’s terrestrial airwaves and with his Safe at Home series, Taggart’s playlists have traveled as deep as they have wide: Irish traditional music, western swing and new wave, Afro-pop, folk and funk. (There was also a five-year stint in the virtual world Second Life, DJing an Irish folk-rock-traditional show—Ceol agus Craic—inside a pub.) New Orleans, however, is most frequently the point of departure, the compass point from which he navigates outward. His trademark is his effervescent enthusiasm. He shares his encyclopedic knowledge—the boldfaced entries and the embroidered asides—not with an air of one-upmanship, but with an irresistible eagerness. It’s an open door, with a place saved just for you.

All of this—this enduring radio presence—was a surprise side trip, never meant to be the main road. It wasn’t part of the plan, not at all.

In other words, music for Taggart, as a New Orleanian, was certainly atmosphere, part of the backdrop, but it wasn’t the chief focus. “It’s weird because I was only barely into Louisiana music when I was in Louisiana,” he remembers. “Some of it was just part of the tapestry of living there. There were certain songs you would always hear, even on local commercial radio certain times of year. Professor Longhair, ‘Go to the Mardi Gras.’ But mostly I grew up listening to ’60s pop radio, WTIX the Mighty 690. It wasn’t until undergrad when I was going to hear live music, at the Maple Leaf or Jimmy’s, when this all started to kick in.”

Taggart had set himself squarely on another path. As an undergraduate at Loyola University New Orleans, he’d enrolled in the communications department with an emphasis in film. “They had a rudimentary filmmaking track that got canceled,” he says. Even back then, he was lending his voice, doing narration for other students’ projects. After a while, the instructor put the kibosh on that: “ ‘No more Taggart narration.’ ” Students often complimented him: “ ‘Your voice is so radio-y.’ I got sick of it. I had never aspired to a radio career.”

When the program dissolved, he began investigating other possibilities. The West Coast beckoned. LMU, with its proximity to the film and television studios and its industry-experienced faculty, paired with the region’s progressive politics, seemed a good gamble—even sight unseen.

Despite some trepidation, Taggart found his footing. He was affable and open-faced, and for all his self-avowed bashfulness, he projected a joyousness that could sub as extroversion. “My first Mardi Gras here would have been 1983,” he recalls. “I had a Schwegmann’s [grocery] bag full of beads and strapped a boom box to my back and marched around the [communication arts] building throwing beads.”

That boom box traveled with him across campus, and that very device would ultimately play a key role in whom Taggart would become: “I had a boom box in my editing room, and it was part of my creative inspiration for the project I was working on.” Out of it might leap wild accordion runs, or the syncopated beats of New Orleans rhythm and blues. During this time at LMU, a specific intermittent homesickness crept in. Some weeks, it was remedied by the eclectic mixtapes whose sounds poured out of the portable stereo; others, by Monday dinners of red beans and rice when he would invite friends over to Arbor Vitae and share his grandmother’s recipe.

On visits home, he’d make a beeline to the Louisiana Music Factory, a top-tier independent record store, to stock up on tapes, LPs. He’d make a point to take in live shows at places like the Maple Leaf and Jimmy’s, but first and foremost, says Taggart, listening to WWOZ-FM “really was the beginning of my education…. I would listen when I would go back home for big chunks of time during the summer, at Christmas, and during Jazz Fest.” It was a reclamation.

He’d fly back to Los Angeles with a bounty to share, loading up the tape player. “I’d be sitting playing Clifton Chenier, and someone would walk by and say, ‘This is great. I’ve never heard anything like this before,’ and I would happily tell them about it. There was one student who would come by and listen. She was in my cinematography class and was older than most of us, in her 30s.” He remembers her walking into his editing room, placing her hand on the doorframe. “She told me: ‘I’ve decided that you need a radio show.’ ” At this point, he was more open to the notion and piped up: “Well, I was thinking maybe I’d check out [LMU’s radio station] KXLU.” She shot back: “ ‘Oh no, no, no, you’re not going to be on KXLU. You’re going to be on KCRW.’ And I thought, ‘How can I possibly?’—with no formal training.” At the time, KCRW’s star was rising, and it had become a public radio benchmark, known for its vanguard music programming. She told him, “You’ll make a demo, and I’ll get it to my producer friend at the station…and this is what you need to do…”

chuck taggart
Christina Gandolfo

Radio is a way to be together when we are apart from cycles and touchstones that shape our lives.

Lugging his turntable, CD player, and stacks of LPs and jewel cases, Taggart, with more than a little tough-love assist from the old radio pro he worked with at his off-campus sound-studio gig, pulled together a demo. His classmate made the handoff to her producer friend, who then passed it to Tom Schnabel, a DJ and KCRW’s first music director. The verdict? Yes.

Those first Gumbo Ya-Ya shows were heart-racing affairs, Taggart recalls. Even though he had by now studied up on Cajun and zydeco music, and conveyed an easy fluidity discussing antecedents and connections, “I still felt far from an expert. But I was a very enthusiastic student.”

But within just a few months, he had learned to run his own soundboard and was no longer reading verbatim from his copious notes. The stories began to flow alongside the music.

“He was an obvious expert,” Schnabel counters, “and knew how to reveal the joys of New Orleans music. He was good on air. It was a no-brainer for me.”

Over the years, the shows lent shape to Taggart’s weeks and raised his profile in ways he would have never anticipated. “It was weird being out and having people recognize my voice. I really did appreciate it, but I was a little squirmy,” he reflects. “I didn’t do it to get…famous. It was really about sharing.”

Those early shows, in their convivial intimacy, connected with a wide range of listeners. The broadcasts were especially dear to Louisiana transplants. Among them, he recalls, “was a good ol’ boy from Lafayette who worked for the USDA as a meat inspector, who got transferred out here. He was twirling the dial one day and heard Cajun music on the radio, freaked out, and called up eager to make a connection.” And, too, there was Taggart’s first zydeco dance at Verbum Dei High School in South Los Angeles, “when I learned of my radio show’s fan base among middle-aged Creole women from Louisiana.” To his delight, when he arrived, they made it clear. “They all wanted to dance with me,” he recalls, a full face flush apparent in his voice. “There is a Cajun song that is particularly apropos to this: ‘Johnny Peut Pas Danser’—Johnny can’t dance. ‘Poor Little Johnny has two left feet.’ ” No matter. “Sometimes they would just say, ‘Hush, baby, just let me lead.’ Here I am, this twentysomething white kid, painfully shy, but it was a full and loving embrace.”

That’s what the music is, what it does, what it opens up inside listeners. And radio is a way to be together when we are apart from cycles and touchstones that shape our lives. This is why Safe at Home has been important during this fractured time. Taggart describes one of his listeners telling him, “We heard from one of [my husband] Wesly’s friends from church who said, ‘Chuck’s show was one of the things that helped me keep my sanity through all of this insanity.’ ” Taggart says, “I just broke down when he said that.”

Taggart has enjoyed dusting off not just his old equipment but his old skill, the easy rapport. So much of the flow came back right away. “I’m already investing in some more equipment as I can afford it. I’m certainly planning to keep up with it,” he promises. “As long as possible!”

While his on-air gigs over the years have led to his writing liner notes, producing box sets and signature audio compilations, and securing other DJing opportunities, there have been unanticipated, cherished benefits: “Some of my closest friends are people I met because of radio”—a cohort that includes artists, musicians, writers, bartenders, cooks, folks from the queer community, and LMU classmates. A circle both over the air and in real life who have, in turn, added texture to his own life. It was a way to finally feel at home in his chosen home, comfortable in his skin. It was the gift of happenstance.

Life, like music, has its segues—in rhythms, moods, and sentiments. Those many hours studying, selecting, and sharing music became an adjacent—if accidental—skill, a calling. These days, those many hours on microphone have been not just another way to pass or ease lockdown isolation; they have reignited something. The ritual has reminded him of all the ways he can move—and move others—through the world with music.

Back in the late 1980s, as Taggart pressed closer to his goal of working in film production, he realized that a freelance life wasn’t for him: “I like a steady income.” Since 1989, he’s worked full-time in a technical-support position at HBO, running its screening rooms. “It gets more interesting and challenging as the technology continues to change and advance,” he says.

He’s changed, too. An evolution that began with embracing the unknown—a new, welcoming city—allowed him to tap into a new region within himself. “It was part of the process of me becoming an L.A. boy,” Taggart reflects. “For the longest time, I always referred to myself as a New Orleanian who lives in Los Angeles. But there was a day—I have to look it up; I’ve actually calculated it—that I lived in L.A. longer than I ever had in New Orleans. That was a weird day. And it gave me a lot to think about. And these days, I’d say I’m an Angeleno who is from New Orleans. There was a shift. I’ve been living here for 38 years”—far from easy in, easy out. “This is my home.”•

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