What possessed me to visit the Greenwich Tavern to see a quintet led by vibraphonist King Reeves and pianist Charlie Wilson almost 15 years ago I can’t say. I hadn’t heard their music yet, and I didn’t know any of the band members. So why did I go?
Maybe Kenny, a bartender at the Greenwich, hipped me to the event, which would make sense, as his enthusiasm for jazz is infectious. And maybe the fact that the vibraphone had become one of my favorite instruments had an influence.
In any case I attended the concert, where a good-sized crowd was quite vocal in its support, the cries of enthusiasm punctuating the music and inspiring the band to new heights. The quintet was on fire, and the vibes-piano duets by King Reeves and Charlie Wilson so much engaged the audience that the performance became a conversation between the musicians and the crowd.
That was nice to witness, but the concert that evening was also a bit of a head scratcher. I wondered how, when every jazz club in Cincinnati had seen its share of nearly empty rooms, so many people made it out that evening. Clearly this was a well-connected group of middle-aged and older black people who knew a great jazz group when they heard one; entering that room, I felt like I was let in on a well-kept secret. At the same time I found it interesting that music that engaging could be so obscure, and even on a local level. Talking to band members after the show, I learned that King Reeves and Charlie Wilson played very few gigs but wanted more. Later, when I asked around town, few of the jazz fans I talked to had heard of these musicians, and fewer yet had seen them.
That concert launched a friendship with King Reeves and Charlie Wilson. I chatted with both of them on the phone many times, and sometimes I visited King at his stylish brick home a few blocks west of Central Parkway, where framed black-and-white photographs of musicians filled a hallway and original artwork added vibrant colors to cool green walls. Both King and Charlie were raconteurs, and they had a lot to talk about, including the jazz world of the 50s and 60s, when major jazz artists played small clubs in Cincinnati on a regular basis. When Miles Davis came to Cincinnati, he asked King drove him around and show him the sights, which is interesting because this was the city where Doc Cheadle chose to film Miles Ahead. King also talked about owning nightclubs where a young Bootsy Collins performed. One afternoon, after I interviewed King and Charlie, they performed “Blue Sapphire,” which was the name of the group that King led in the 70s and 80s. During that performance, King played a set of vibes that had been purchased from country star Conway Twitty and Charlie played piano.
After I met them, King and Charlie played the occasional gig, at venues that included the Greenwich Tavern, the Southgate House, and the Blue Wisp. Many of those concerts consisted of duets, and there was very something very special about those performances. Their sound was modern, with a set list that included compositions by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, but the lineage traced back farther, as when Charlie busted out some Fats Wallers licks (it turns out Charlie had seen him perform). Those performances kept you on the edge of your seat, and they proved that jazz can be playful and dramatic and intricate and sophisticated and soulful, all at the same time.
Sadly, King Reeves passed away on March 27, 2020. For those who never saw him perform live, it’s still possible to hear some of his music he recorded. His discography includes some self-released compact discs that are hard to track down, but – for starters – Superbad, a 2005 recording of duets between King and Charlie, shows up on AllMusic .
Also, I videotaped excerpts from some of their shows on a camera whose video quality was many strata below what a cheap cell phone would have now. Still, these YouTube videos captured something that definitely deserved to be documented. The music King Reeves played reflected the man inside: warm and soulful, with plenty of good vibes. He will definitely be missed.
The memory is still fresh of walking into Gilly’s for the first time. I had never been to a jazz club before, and my sense of excitement quickly combined with…well…desperation, as I was informed by the owner, a short, squat man sitting in the entrance and taking money, that the show was sold out. That man was Jerry Gillotti, the owner of Gilly’s. I told him the drive to downtown Dayton took over an hour, and my plea for sympathy worked—he let in me and my posse.
All the tables were full that evening, and the club was beyond standing room only—even finding a place to stand took some doing. While tripping over other people’s feet I noticed that the crowd at this dark, small club largely consisted of well-dressed black people who were a bit older than this white boy who might have been all of 19 by then. The band was already playing, and folks who think of jazz as background music should have felt the energy in that room. Leading the group was McCoy Tyner, who had played on the John Coltrane albums that I purchased after Carlos Santana and other rock stars raved about him in interviews. The group that night was on fire. Band members included the fire-breathing George Adams, a tall tenor sax player whose eyes rolled back into his head during his solos. Constantly switching instruments, Guilherme Franco would disappear and then reappear from behind a percussion rack and throw in other visual effects that seemed almost shamanistic. That performance was intense, and seeing it in a small club made it reverberate even more. I knew I’d be back.
Prior to that night my concert-going had mostly been limited to rock shows at big venues, which was fun, but at Gilly’s it amazed me that I could witness such a high level of musicianship, the playing so inspired and so intense, in such a small space. Although I never lived in Dayton, I drove from Celina, Oxford, and Cincinnati to see two other McCoy shows, Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, JJ Johnson, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Muddy Waters, Mose Allison, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, Flora and Airto, and many other artists.
Most of the shows I saw there were in the late 70s and the 1980s, when the more “out” jazz enjoyed some popularity and was part of the tour and festival circuit. During a performance by Old & New Dreams, (a group consisting of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell), the second set opened with “Lonely Woman,” a beautiful and haunting Ornette Coleman composition, and sitting in the front row while listening to Charlie Haden droning, mournful bass solo was mesmerizing. On another night Sam Rivers brought a heady mixture of free jazz and funk. And there was Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition with David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Peter Warren. The playing was so powerful that evening that increased my fascination with jazz, as it amazed me that I could walk into a room and hear such remarkably musicianship by guys who (other than DeJohnette) I hadn’t even heard of before that night. Later David Murry returned with a quartet that included Ed Blackwell.
One of the last shows I saw at Gilly’s was a series of duets by Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron. That was one of two concerts they played in America on that “tour,” and it was my only opportunity to see either of them. When Mal Waldron soloed, the smoke rising from his cigarillo behind his thick white hair while the spotlight shone down was jazz imagery at its finest. To think that, for years, Waldron worked with Billie Holiday in different formats, including duets, as the final verse of “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara describes:
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
The fact that Waldron played at Gilly’s begins to tell you some of the history that passed through the club’s doors.
About the time that I started hitting small jazz shows I caught wind of punk, with its DIY ethos, and something similar has always been at work in the jazz world. Certainly it was in Jerry Gillotti’s DNA. (And somehow it makes sense that Gilly’s hosted some early and now legendary punk and new wave shows when that scene was still in its infancy.) Although both Columbus and Cincinnati were larger cities, neither had a club comparable to Gilly’s. To put it simply, Jerry Gillotti booked bands who shortly before or after that gig were performing at the Village Vanguard. Jazz lovers within driving distance of Gilly’s were quite spoiled, as this was all about one person going out of his way to make something happen. Jerry Gillotti passed away on November 23, 2017, and it should be noted that even though he suffered from increasingly bad health he continued to run the club until the end of his life.
Memories of Gilly’s shows always return to his voice, which you’d hear before the show and between sets. (He also did the highly caffeinated phone messages announcing upcoming shows.) He had the perfect voice for a jazz promoter—energetic, enthusiastic, hip. “I always thought that if you did it right you could make money doing it but I was wrong,” he said. “You can’t make any money doing it.”
Did that stop him? No. And why not? Because he loved jazz. The idea of starting a jazz club came to him at a Modern Jazz Quartet concert he attended overseas. That show must have moved him deeply, and that’s something that every jazz lover would understand. Somehow a myth has been passed along that jazz is all about massaging your cerebral cortex, but the truth is it’s a deeply human thing. One song that quickly wipes away the notion of jazz as Think Music is “Left Alone,” for which Billie Holiday wrote the lyrics and Mal Waldron, who decades later performed at Gilly’s, wrote the music. Although Billie passed away before they could record the song, Mal went on to play and record it for the rest of his career, not as a crowd-pleaser but as a deeply-felt tribute to Billie. Thank you, Jerry Gillotti, for bending the rules that first night and for bringing in so many great jazz artists over the years, including the guy who used to play with Billie Holiday. You made the world a better place.
Occasionally a jazz musician comes along who draws a crowd in both the jazz community as well as the music world in general. Esperanza Spaulding would be an example of such an artist, connecting with different audiences while retaining her jazz creds.
Similar words could be used to describe Kamasi Washington, whose work with such non-jazz names as Kendrick Lamar and String Cheese Incident—that and the blend of musical styles in his music—has added much to his visibility.
On Tuesday Kamasi played at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, and while the show didn’t sell out, there was an exceptionally good crowd for jazz as well as a buzz in the air, with rock concert-type yells during some of Kamasi’s fiery tenor sax solos.
The record that put Kamasi over was 2015’s The Epic, a release that, if you bought it on vinyl (and I noticed many concertgoers walking around with newly-purchased copies), was three LPs. No one will ever accuse The Epic of being false advertising, as it’s very big picture, hearkening back to the days when jazz musicians didn’t just record albums, they delved into current affairs and the cosmos. I’m thinking of the 60s and early 70s here especially, when much of the jazz you heard was often quite frenetic and also had a spiritual element. That music certainly resounded with me—two of the first jazz records I bought were Pharoah Sanders’ Village of the Pharoahs and John Coltrane’s The Other Village Vanguard Tapes.
You hear something similar on The Epic, along with a debt to Coltrane and other artists from that period, as well as a focus on civil rights that especially echoes the 60s and early 70s. That’s all well and good, but those are big shoes to fill, and there was never any guarantee that, all these years later, anyone would be able to step up and do justice to that heritage.
I’m a fan of Kamasi Washington and some of his bandmates (I think Cameron Graves’ Planetary Prince, which features Kamasi extensively, was one of the best jazz albums this year), but I had never seen him before Tuesday night. That concert confirmed my belief that he’s a worthy successor to the earlier jazz artists, both as a soloist and as a bandleader who has a penchant for choosing top-notch musicians.
And there’s something else that convinced me he’s a heavy hitter: his compositions. Yes, as a saxophonist he’s technically impressive, and he definitely emotes, but some musicians with the same qualities write songs that sound slapped together for the purpose of launching extended solos. Not so with Kamasi. A few of the highlights from last night: “Leroy and Lanisha,” a clever piece of songwriting inspired by the music from the old Charlie Brown specials; “Truth,” which presents five very different melodies at once—sounds interesting in theory, right?, but it also was very pleasant on the ears; and the closer, “The Rhythm Changes,” a gorgeous song with a nice groove to it. His ability to write music that does justice to his overall vision is central to his relevancy. Far from a flash in the pan, Kamasi Washington is that rare musician who can help battle the popularity-held notion that jazz exists in order to massage your cerebral cortex.
This Thursday a free concert will take place at the Burnet Woods Bandstand. The event, titled An Evening In Paris, will be a celebration of French music. From 6-7:30pm on June 1 the versatile Faux Frenchmen will perform their mix of gypsy jazz and other genres. They’ve been a favorite around Clifton for quite some time, combining their high level of musicianship with wit and camaraderie. Here’s the Faux Frenchmen a song Fletcher Allen wrote and that Django Reinhardt recorded, “Viper’s Dream.”
At 8pm the CCO (Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra) Wind Quintet will launch their set of French music, with compositions by Milhaud, Rameau, Tambourin, Bizet, Debussy, and Ibert. These are great composers who wrote beautiful music that’s quintessentially French. To whet your appetite, here’s a wind quintet performing Debussy’s Reverie.
The Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead opens at the Esquire Theatre on Friday, April 15. Cincinnati should feel privileged and proud that it’s the backdrop for the film, in large part because it built—and preserved, more than most cities–the classic architecture that has film makers lining up to shoot movies here. And the story should be as colorful as the threads that Miles sports as he hops around in a sports car trying to recover a purloined reel of tape, gun ready, dark shades covering his eyes. I don’t know that a movie could have picked a better period in the life of Miles Davis to examine. It was the one time he disappeared. No records, no concerts, and a whole lot of silence. Miles had entered that limbo where Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Art Pepper, and other great jazz musicians once resided, with drugs, drinking, artistic burnout, jail time, and asylum visits sometimes playing a role in such matters. What weighed down Miles was a combination of drugs, health problems that weren’t lifestyle related, and the fact that the music he was playing wasn’t connecting with an audiences because it was too far ahead of its time; now all people can do is rave about albums like Agharta and Dark Magus. So he disappeared. Away from the stage and the studio, a jazz musician who had been so busy reinventing himself and his music that reflecting on the past was not on his list of options looked back. Those flashbacks in the film seem like they’ll be more than a device, then: for once, during that period between 1975 and 1979, Miles could take stock of his life to date – and get that damn tape back.
April Aloisio is hosting a CD release party at Lydia’s on Ludlow this Friday, April 8. Along with singing jazz and Brazilian music, April is a yoga instructor, and on her new record, Yoga Bossa Nova, those two worlds are united. Accompanying her on the record is Fareed Haque, one of the most colorful and creative guitarists in both the jazz and jam band worlds. The album has a layered and expansive sound that may make you want to close your eyes and sink into the soundscape—or practice yoga while listening to it. The event, which takes place from 8pm to 10pm, is free, but take along a little extra cash to pick up a copy of Yoga Bossa Nova. (And if you can’t make the gig, you can still buy a copy of the record at this link on cdbaby.com.) Here’s a cut from the album, a sensual and dreamy version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi.”
Big doings on Ludlow Avenue last night, what with the premier of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s tribute to Miles Davis that is based on a period when his career (and his life in general) were kind of in limbo. Folks were dressed in their finest, as only befits a film devoted to a musician who, no matter what decade you’re talking about, was known for his stylish threads. I haven’t seen the film yet, but when it opens on April 15th at the Esquire, I’ll forsurely check it out then, as I’ve got good feelings about this one. Shot in Cincinnati, it promises to be both a visual and musical delight.
With two musicians from Brazil and one from Chicago, Sao Paulo Underground is a one-of-a-kind band whose music is a heady mix of Brazilian melodies, electronica, jazz, and funky beats. Their music is dense, detailed, ambient, and groove-oriented, with so many layers it’s hard to believe only three musicians can make such a thick wall of sound. Somehow it just makes sense that this trio would end up at the hippest and…well, most underground jazz club in Cincinnati, the Loft Society at 119 Calhoun St. The show takes place this Saturday, September 19, with sets at 8pm and 10pm. Between sets you can check out the memorabilia- and art-filled walls that act as a giant collage. The cover is $20.
On percussion, cavaquinho, and electronics, Mauricio Takara provides the rhythms and polyrhythms; along with adding to the groove, multi-keyboardist Guilherme Granado is a builder of soundscapes. After their Contemporary Arts Center performance in 2012, Granado mentioned touring with the electronica ensemble Prefuse 73, a familiar name in alternative hip hop and ambient music circles. Cornetist Rob Mazurek from Chicago is among the most prolific jazz musicians working today, releasing records at a staggering rate on multiple labels. Mazurek has peformed all over the world, but after the CAC show he said the Loft Society is probably his favorite play to play anywhere. In fact, that evening he praised the Loft so effusively that Granado and Takara were itching to play there. Three years later, they are.
Prime Numbers is the debut album of Brad Myers, a guitarist who’s among the busiest and most high-profile jazz musicians in Cincinnati. The album, which comes out today, has something in common with midcentury modern furniture—sleek, with clean lines, it’s marked by clarity and focus, with an understated postbop coolness. It makes sense that, on this album that primarily consists of the bandleader’s originals, two of the three covers, though decades old, could not seem more modern. Wayne Shorter “The Big Push” and Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” will forever sound fresh. It’s interesting to hear a tune composed by Monk—who was, after all, a pianist—played without a piano. Here the highly impressionistic and typically sparse harmonic coloring is provided by both Myers and the vibes player Chris Barrick. Without block chords on the piano to potentially gunk up the works, the musicians have all kinds of wiggle room, and their creative use of space takes us to the heart of Monk. The strongest performance may be “Rule of Threes”; it’s certainly the most ambitious, a sprawling and fractured narrative that clocks in at 11:40. The lineup on Primary Numbers is primarily a quintet that includes the tenor saxophone work of Ben Walkenhauer; the tenor can be the heaviest of horns, but here it shares the introspective and lyrical vibe that characterizes the rest of the ensemble. Jazz guitar has a healthy tradition of colorists with a feather-light touch; here Jim Hall and Bill Frisell would seem like influences. Myers may be heard to best effect on his own “You Are Here,”, a sweet ballad that inspires some of his warmest playing. Prime Numbers is a damn good album, and it helps underscore the paradigm shift that has recently taken place in Cincinnati. Last year things certainly looked bleak for jazz in these here parts. The increasingly chaotic Blue Wisp ultimately closed, and we had cause to wonder if the Blue Wisp Big Band would ever find a comfortable home. Well, guess what? Urban Artifact is a hip new venue that hosts lots of jazz, including, every Wednesday, the Blue Wisp Big Band; you can read about it in this previous blog entry. A true tenor heavyweight, recent greater Cincinnati transplant JD Allen released Graffiti, a smoking new album, on Savant in mid-May. The Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame was just launched, and Ran Blake just paid tribute to the great composer and musician George Russell, who grew up in Walnut Hills, played in jazz clubs here while in high school, and went on to change jazz history. Blake’s album is called Ghost Tones, and you can count on it and the new JD Allen to show up at the top of best-of lists at the end of 2015. Cincinnati has an amazing jazz history, and it also has a future. If you want a taste of both, check out Brad Myers’ CD release show at Urban Artifact this Thursday; here’s a link to the event. The show is free, but there will be plenty of CDs for sale. Here’s a live performance of “Spherical,” one of the cuts on Prime Numbers:
This Friday, May 22, from 7pm to 10pm the first in a series of free Big Night Clifton events will take place, with the Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra performing a swinging set of jazz at Clifton Plaza. Also on tap: craft beers brewed by our friends at the newly launched Urban Artifact, who I wrote about in this blog entry last week. Should be a great, fun, spring night for the neighborhood. Here’s a video that gives you a taste of the talents of the Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra: