MONTCLAIR, NJ – Thurston Briscoe, 74, a former radio producer at NPR in Washington, DC, and executive at WBGO/ “Jazz88” in Newark, who radiated his enthusiasm for life and people as well as music, made his transition on August 16, after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Thurston was born on July 4, 1947, in Great Bend, Kansas, to Magdalene and Alfonzo Briscoe. His father worked at the Montgomery Ward’s in Great Bend and coached local sports. His mother worked at St. Rose Hospital. “My mom never stopped cooking,” Thurston would say. Aunts and uncles on both sides lived in the Great Bend and Hutchinson area, supplying a large, extended family whose stories Thurston loved to tell.
Thurston graduated from Great Bend High School in 1965. He played drums in the Argonne Rebels Drum and Bugle Corps and enjoyed traveling to competitions. Thurston attended Wichita State University, and as a lover of music on radio stations from Memphis to Mexico since his boyhood, he majored in theater and speech therapy and hosted classical and jazz shows on the university station KMUW. The Army drafted Thurston, where he served in a K-9 unit in Seoul, South Korea, and then returned to WSU to complete his bachelor’s degree. He also played Othello in a college production – he kept the poster on his wall forever – and made friendships in Wichita that lasted for decades.
Thurston moved to Eugene, Oregon, where beginning in 1976, he hosted a weekly jazz show on KLCC, the local NPR station. Soon he was also reporting on public affairs and became a full-time producer of features and documentaries. In 1980 NPR in Washington, DC, hired him to join the arts unit of the newly created daily show Morning Edition. He became the Associate Producer of the NPR performance series Jazz Alive! and then returned to Morning Edition to head the arts unit.
In 1990 Thurston accepted a job at WBGO “Jazz 88” in Newark, NJ, the 24-hour station with a jazz, news, and rhythm and blues format. For 23 years, Thurston served first as Program Director and then Vice President of Programming & Production. He managed the on-air staff and regular and special programming, where he championed live remotes and performance series. He was Executive Producer of NPR/WBGO’s JazzSet, whose host, Branford Marsalis, gave him the affectionate on-air name Thurston Briscoe the Third. During Thurston’s tenure, WBGO one of the most-listened-to jazz radio stations in the country — reached out to the world via wbgo.org. The station began to webcast its programming and launched a stream of new releases by young artists entitled the Jazz Bee.
Throughout his career, with his natural friendliness and interest in people, Thurston mentored many new public radio producers and managers nationwide, especially African American producers. He was a role model with legendary warmth and presence. Jon Schwartz, who hired Briscoe at KLCC, recently said, “Most of all, I remember how his face would light up when he would see you.”
Thurston is survived by his family, NJ State Senator Nia Gill, her son Bradley, and grandson John; his brother Phillip and sister-in-law Louise Allen Briscoe of Seattle; and cousins Elsie Wickliffe of Hutchinson, Kansas, and Mickey and Pat Gomez of Wichita, Kansas.
Due to COVID-19, an in-person service is not planned at this time. Donations in his memory may be made to Jazz House Kids (jazzhousekids.org), 347 Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair, NJ, where Thurston loved to live from 1990 until 2021.