Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Legendary Jazz-Blues Pianist Johnny O'Neal Amazes and Charms


SUNDAY, OCT. 5, 2014 --- The legendary Johnny O'Neal plays the Yamaha C-7 piano that dominates The Jazz Room stage and breaks into a wide, toothy grin.

“This is a great piano,” the 57-year-old jazz master says.

The club is quiet.  There are just a few people around.  Johnny has arrived early for the gig.  He tries out the piano.  He chats with the sound engineer. In less than an hour O'Neal will give a performance that has some new fans weeping, others calling for a return engagement and everyone on their feet clapping and hooting.

Johnny played Art Tatum in the 2004 Ray Charles biopic -- Ray.  Johnny opened for Oscar Peterson at Carnegie Hall in 1985. In fact, it was Oscar Peterson who recommended Johnny for the role as Tatum. Simply put, Johnny is one of the world's best practitioners of mid-20th Century jazz piano technique. He does not read music, but has a repertoire of 1,500 songs.

Joining Johnny for the gig are Dave Young on bass and Terry Clarke on drums.  The trio just finished three nights at The Jazz Bistro in Toronto.  It is a wonderful, joyous re-union for the three.  In 1984 this trio cut a studio album in Detroit, Johnny's hometown, and a live album at one of the most famous jazz clubs in North America, Baker's Keyboard Lounge on the edge of the Motor City. They did not play together again until O'Neal's gigs in Toronto and Waterloo.

Now, three decades later they give a performance no one in the club will soon forget.  The show instantly became the stuff of Jazz Room lore.

O'Neal starts the show with “Put on a Happy Face.”  It is a rollicking, foot stomping performance.   Everyone is captivated before the first song is half done. 

“We don't have a planned set, so we don't know what we are going to play,” Johnny says.  “If you have any requests keep 'em to yourself.”

The rest of the first set: Too Close for Comfort, One Hundred Years From Today, Tomorrow Night, A Beautiful Friendship, L'il Darling, Saving All My Love for You, Come Back Baby Blues, My Ship, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, She Doesn't know, Deed I Do, Come Sunday, All of My Life and Please Don't Talk About Me When I am Gone.

In between songs O'Neal lays on charm as beautiful as the music.

“We are dedicating this to all the lovers out there, hope you enjoy,” O'Neal says as he introduces Saving All My Love for You.

Before finishing the first set with Come Sunday, O'Neal says: “I like this place. I'm going to come here every night.  I thank for you for being in Waterloo at The Jazz Room, you are wonderful people.”

After complimenting the audience, he praises the club.

“This is a great venue.  I play all over the world, and this is in the top five.  And this piano is great, I give it a 10,” O'Neal says.

The second set: I'm Born Again, Where Can I Go Without You?, On the Trail, Over Joyed, Homeboy Blues, Make Someone Happy. After a loud and long standing ovation, O'Neal played Night Mist Blues for an encore.

“I am over-joyed to be in The Jazz Room and hope to be back again soon,” O'Neal says.

While introducing Make Someone Happy, O'Neal says: “If you love life, life will love you back.  If you make someone happy, you will be happy too.”

O'Neal was born and raised in Detroit.  He first sang and played gospel in the Bethany Baptist Church.  He maintains connections to his hometown, playing the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2013.

The re-union of O'Neal with Young and Clarke was 30 years in the making. After making the two albums with Young and Clark in Detroit, O'Neal returned to New York City.  After arriving in New York in 1980 O'Neal made a name for himself playing int the bands of Art Blakey, Milt Jackson and Clark Terry.  In 1986 he was mugged outside his Harlem apartment, and he left New York.

He spent the next 25 years out of the spotlight, playing mostly in Detroit, Atlanta and St. Louis.

“I thought he was dead,” Clarke says as he sips a beer after the Sunday gig. “When I heard Johnny O'Neil was coming to Toronto to play, I thought it must be a younger relative of Johnny's. Not the Johnny we played with in the Eighties.”

Clarke moved to New York City in 1985 and stayed until 1999. He was there through the worst of the crack cocaine scourge.  The murder rate peaked in New York in 1990.  Clarke had no idea O'Neal had fled the violence, and the two never re-connected --- until last week in Toronto and Sunday in The Jazz Room.

In 1998 O'Neal contracted HIV.  He lost a lot of weight, but returned  to New York City four years ago.  With the help of friends he got his health back, regaining 40 pounds. Among those friend are Spike Wilner, the manager at Smalls in the West Village.  Last year, Wilner released a CD of O'Neal on the Live at Smalls label. It is O'Neal's first recording in a dozen years.

Every Saturday O'Neal plays a midnight gig in Smoke at 105 Street and Broadway. Every Sunday O'Neal plays a Smalls, the basement club on West 10th Street that has near-religious status in the West Village jazz scene.  Mondays O'Neal plays at Mezzrow, the new club Wilner opened last month just across 7th Ave from Smalls. This masterful artist is rebuilding his career one gig at a time.

The response of the audience to Sunday's show in The Jazz Room ensures O'Neal will play there again. It is just a matter of when.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Denise Baker, a local jazz singer, says of that show..

The Grand River Jazz Society wants to start a recording label called Live from The Jazz Room.  It would be great to issue a CD of O'Neal's show, and then give O'Neal the CDs to sell.  O'Neal could use the money to help pay for his medical expenses.