Local hero: Dani Elwell brings vanguard jazz to Toronto’s airwaves

Radio host Dani Elwell of Jazz.FM91 brings eclectic vanguard jazz to the airwaves every Sunday from 10 pm to midnight via NIGHTLAB and Saturday from 8 to 9 am on First Listen The Program with Brad Barker. She talked to NOW about her long-running career, creativity and inspiration.

What drew you to the medium of radio?

I was always a huge music fan: walls covered in posters vinyl I saved up for a sound system with family members and friends. It was radio’s intimacy, storytelling and dedication to new music that drew me in. As a teenager, I’d grab my sister’s shortwave radio and tune into the BBC. WBLK was another go-to. CFNY, of course. Voices from beyond that shared what they loved. It was palpable. Then when I was a radio and television arts student at Ryerson, I began working at the campus station, CKLN. In my 30 years of broadcasting, I’ve been lucky enough to work with stations, program directors and music fans who have allowed room for discovery. 

NIGHTLAB has a dynamic, unpredictable quality to it. How do you decide what’s NIGHTLAB-worthy?

It’s still a relatively new show for Jazz.FM91 and it’s really a dedication to radio, the night and, of course, jazz. It’s a little more conceptual, attempting to be somewhat free-form without stretching too far. To be truthful, it’s a combination of a show I once did on CFNY back in the early 90s called the Alternative Bedtime Hour, a bit of a nod to one of my mentors, Reiner Schwartz, a bit of me, a lot of its listeners and a love for jazz and musicians from other genres who have been influenced by jazz. We recently did an hour on Radiohead’s connection to jazz. Sometimes we’ll pick a word like “city” and find messages and sounds that fit. Sometimes it’s just about mixing one song into another.  

Besides hosting NIGHTLAB and First Listen The Program with Brad Barker, you’re the station’s vice-president, creative. What does that entail?

Vice-president, creative! Who knew? On top of these two shows, it’s a full-time gig – fuller than full-time, to be truthful, but I’m enjoying the ride. I’m grateful to [station CEO] Ross Porter for allowing me the opportunity. I get to work with our dedicated announcers, who are all huge music fans, and I play a part in pretty much everything that gets on the air or online. For a not-for-profit independent radio station, we pull off a lot of unique programming, live music events and music education initiatives. We all work very hard. 

What else inspires you creatively?

The most important experience of my life is my husband, Stefano, and our 16-year-old daughter, Jaiden. They’re both music-makers, and we have a very loud house. 

Do you have a philosophy or favourite quote that applies to life and music? 

Absolutely! Whether it’s in relation to music, life, love and radio… keep moving forward. Keep trying. Do something you love, do it well and do it long enough that you become really good at it, and hopefully someone along the way recognizes it. Make stuff. Travel. Don’t close your ears, eyes or heart to what’s being created out there.

Listen to Jazz.FM91 here.

music@nowtoronto.com | @ChakaVGrier

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