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
It is a wonderful, joyous re-union for the three. In 1984 this trio cut a studio album in Toronto 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 . They did not play together again
until O'Neal's gigs in Motor City 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
at The Jazz
Room, you are wonderful people.” Waterloo
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
. He first sang and played gospel in the Detroit . He maintains connections to his hometown,
playing the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2013. Bethany Baptist Church
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 . After arriving in New York City 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 . New York
He spent the next 25 years out of the spotlight, playing mostly in
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
to play, I
thought it must be a younger relative of Johnny's. Not the Johnny we played
with in the Eighties.” Toronto
Clarke moved to
in 1985 and stayed until 1999.
He was there through the worst of the crack cocaine scourge. The murder rate peaked in New York City in 1990. Clarke had no idea O'Neal had fled the
violence, and the two never re-connected --- until last week in New York and Sunday in The
Jazz Room. Toronto
In 1998 O'Neal contracted HIV. He lost a lot of weight, but returned to
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 New
York City . 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. West
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
Street that has near-religious status in the
jazz scene. Mondays O'Neal plays at
Mezzrow, the new club Wilner opened last month just across West Village 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..