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‘All I want to do is pass on the tradition’
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This weekend, Kokopelli’s Jazz Club on Broughton St. welcomes pianist Johnny O’Neal and his trio. A formidable presence on the international jazz scene for decades (and a member of the Jazz Hall of Fame), it was his small role in 2004’s smash Ray Charles biopic Ray that introduced O’Neal to mainstream audiences

Tapped to portray the late, great keyboard innovator Art Tatum in one of the film’s pivotal sequences, this veteran musician received that most rare of opportunities — a chance to publicly pay tribute to a figure of great importance in one’s life (Tatum is a personal hero of O’Neal’s, as well as being a key influence on Charles’ approach to his instrument).

A prolific artist who’s taken part in countless sessions, tours and shows in addition to (since 1983) releasing many albums under his own name, O’Neal has worked with such luminaries as Benny Golson, Sonny Stitt, Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell, among scores of others in the fields of jazz, gospel, blues and R & B.

Jazz is the highest level of performance,” he once said, “because it’s instant composition.”

In anticipation of this two-night stand at downtown’s newest jazz listening room, O’Neal spoke with me by phone from his drummer’s pad in Atlanta.


Connect Savannah: Played here before?


Johnny O’Neal: I played your Jazz Fest a few years back at a museum in the Historic District with Teddy Adams. I consider Teddy to be one of the fathers of jazz in that part of the country. He’s done so much to keep this music alive and to bring young people to it. He’s also a very fine musician, and it’s always a thrill to be around him. I used to play there years ago with Ben Tucker and his vocalist at the Hilton, I think. Savannah’s a very cultural city.


Connect Savannah: Where do you live?


Johnny O’Neal: I’m from Detroit, which of course, is the birthplace. Where it all began. I’m honored to be from there, because most of the great masters were born there.


Connect Savannah: When did you feel you could possibly play jazz as a career?


Johnny O’Neal: When I had the chance to play with some of the legends. First of all, Milt Jackson and the Ray Brown Quartet. They were the main innovators of this music, along with Art Blakey. When I moved to New York City in 1980, I called Clark Terry. He’d sat in with my trio in Atlanta once on New Year’s Eve, and told me to look him up if I ever came to New York. I arrived on a Tuesday evening. I called him from the train around two in the afternoon and asked who’s working with him that week at the Blue Note. He said, “You are.” I opened for him that night! A few days later, Art Blakey came up and tapped me on the shoulder. He told me he loved my playing and asked me to join his band, and the very next week, I went to Europe for three months as a member of the Jazz Messengers! That’s a true story. One thing about playing with Blakey — his band was a university of a sort for master musicians. I’m so glad he gave me that experience. I toured Japan five times, plus Africa and all through Europe. I saw places I never thought I’d see. After I left his group, I was able to write for horns and do arranging.


Connect Savannah: What’s your most lasting memory of Art Blakey?


Johnny O’Neal: Well, Art was more or less like a sideman. He gave his guys the opportunity to write and compose and to display their wares. He taught them how to go out later on and lead their own bands. He had a special love for the piano, because he started out as a pianist before switching to drums. He’d introduce me with, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of the finest piano players around today,” and sometimes he’d give me a fifteen or twenty-minute slot of just solo piano at those shows! Several fellows who came into the band after I left say Art was always telling them he felt I would be one of the greats. That was a tremendous thing. I played while Wynton (Marsalis) was in the band. I would have to say that was one of the most gratifying experiences ever. It was so well-rounded. It enabled me to play a more contemporary style. It was a challenge. Harmonically it was quite tough and kept me on my toes.


Connect Savannah: What’s Wynton’s bag?


Johnny O’Neal: The great thing about Wynton is that he took jazz out of the back alley —so to speak— and gave it some real respect. He made the guys take it more seriously. He came along at a time when we needed a new start, and he launched a whole new line of players.


Connect Savannah: What was it like to play Art Tatum on the big screen?


Johnny O’Neal: I liked a lot of people, but Tatum was huge to me. I was so honored to play him in Ray. That helped my drawing power in clubs a good bit. A lot of folks don’t realize I actually played live in that movie. It’s me they hear.


Connect Savannah: How were you cast?


Johnny O’Neal: I thought it was a joke of some kind when they called me. It was early in the morning and some lady said that Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson had recommended me. Originally it was called Unchain My Heart, but when Ray died during filming, they changed it to Ray. I tell you, Jamie Foxx and I really bonded on the set. We actually had to re-do several of our scenes because he was so engrossed in my playing. He was very gracious and generous with his gifts as well. We jammed off-set and he had me show him some of my voicings. He said he’d never been so close to someone who could play the way I do.


Connect Savannah: What has been your greatest joy in the music profession?


Johnny O’Neal: You know, there are only a few of the true great masters left. I never made a lot of money playing jazz, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with so many of those folks, and that’s meant more to me than anything.


Connect Savannah: I’m told that you know around 1,500 songs?


Johnny O’Neal: To the average layman that sounds phenomenal, but you know, think about how many songs are out there that one doesn’t know! Ed Thigpen told me that Ella Fitzgerald knew 3,000 — and those were only the ones he was aware of! The thing is, when you play with a lot of different people, you learn their repertoires, and it adds up. Singers have been very inspirational to me. I’ve accompanied Stevie Wonder, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Anita O’Day, who recently passed away... Sarah Vaughan sat in with the band once in California. They say that if you can accompany a vocalist well, you can consider yourself a full, complete musician.


Connect Savannah: Much like Ray himself, there’s a lot of gospel in your approach.


Johnny O’Neal: Actually, when I was a kid, I recorded a lot of gospel. In 1973, I won the piano competition at James Cleveland’s Gospel Workshop of America. I always give all the glory to God for anointing me with my gift. Most people say they can hear the church in me. There’s a sensitivity, a vitality, a flair that comes from playing gospel, and it’s my first love. In most churches, the pianist has to be the whole band alongside a fity-piece choir! That’s where you get that full-fisted, two-hand style. It helped me develop my stride and ragtime licks.


Connect Savannah: What can Savannah audiences expect from these shows?


Johnny O’Neal: Jazz audiences like to not know what to expect, so it’s hard for me to plan a set. I believe audiences enjoy seeing an artist enjoy playing for them. They like to see you show your emotions. That’s what being a jazz fan is all about. You can’t take jazz for granted. It’s just endless when it comes to improvisation. There’s never a dull moment at one of my gigs. I love to shout the blues, and you don’t know what love is till you learn the meaning of blues. It’s like a variety set with my own creative twist on things. The trick is to find the standards of this generation — the Porters and Gershwins of today.


Connect Savannah: What’s the lineup like?


Johnny O’Neal: I have a trio, which features Kermit Walker on drums. He’s the nephew of Little Jimmy Scott —one of the few remaining giants of jazz singing— and he’s worked with his uncle quite a bit. All I want to do is pass on the tradition the great masters have set the standards for. I want to keep it alive for this generation. When I think of all who came before me, I’m just a student. All I have to do is put one of the gladiators on, and it keeps my humility in check. (laughs)


Connect Savannah: What’s the hardest thing about being a jazz musician in 2006?


Johnny O’Neal: You know, a lot of people always say, “There’s no jazz in town.” Then, when some good jazz comes around, they don’t show up! They’ve got to come out and show their support. Art Blakey said it best. He said, “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”


The Johnny O’Neal Trio plays Kokopelli’s Friday and Saturday with nightly sets at 9 pm, 10:30 pm and midnight. $10 cover.