There’s a lot of talk these days about the closing of the Blue Wisp downtown, and there’s also plenty of talk about reopening the wandering jazz club in a new location. Matter of fact, lots of people would like to see it end up in Clifton, as you’d know if you’ve signed up with Nextdoor Clifton, which I highly recommend. Already people are stepping up to help keep great jazz alive in Cincinnati. Starting this Wednesday, and for at least the next six weeks, Japps Annex will be home to the Blue Wisp Big Band. Admission to the Annex is free while admission to Japps proper is free as always.
I started attending shows at the Wisp when it was still located in O’Bryonville. Some of my first concerts there included Johnny Lytle, Joe Lovano (who came there often), Cal Collins, Tim Hagans, and the Blue Wisp Big Band. My memory is still clear of seeing, through a cloud of smoke, Steve Schmidt leaning over his piano with a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth while launching into a solo. I suspect that the Wisp will be back with us soon. I hope so, as it has a history, character and a tradition of hosting great jazz. Below are five concerts that I’ve seen at the Wisp. These are from the previous three Blue Wisp locations as opposed to the most recent one. The last time I was at the Wisp I saw a Bernie Worrell show where the P-Funk legend was joined by lots of local and area musicians for a superb evening of music. Technically the music wasn’t jazz, but it was all about improvisation, even when the dj Tobe Tobotius Donohue scratched records on his turntable.
Dave Liebman. When the Dave Liebman Quartet came to the Wisp, it was the opening weekend of the Eighth Street location. Arguments that Cincinnati can’t sustain a jazz club were negated by their opening night performance, which was packed, and arguments that can only straight-ahead jazz can draw and please a crowd was also negated, as a young, curious crowd seemed quite pleased to hear something so radically different from the norm in any genre. The music was way out, including the most circumlocutious version of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” that you could ever imagine. The final set closed with a version of John Coltrane’s “India” that shook the rafters.
Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet. A great show that featured some jazz heavyweights fronting a band that included some younger guys, including the fabulous Joey Barron on drums. You best believe Joey had a capricious streak that evening, throwing in crashes when no one (band members included) expected it. Ira Sullivan played numerous instruments throughout the evening, including, at the end, trumpet, as he and Red Rodney duked it out in a trumpet duel that was (pardon the pun) red hot. Afterwards, Red Rodney complained that his lip hurt after such a fiery battle—but hey, sometimes you gotta take one for the team.
Tal Farlow. Even a dumbo like me knows that when a legend like Tal Farlow hits town you best get off the La-Z-Boy and go hear some live music. On that evening he was joined by Kenny Poole, who shared some impressive licks of his own. I remember clearly the size of Tal Farlow’s fingers—ginormous they were, making it easy (yeah, right) to rip off some lightning-fast licks with perfect intonation and, when it turned ballad time, coax some beautiful tones out of a guitar model that was named after him.
Sun Ra. Did I really see Sun Ra, and did this really take place in Cincinnati? I guess it did. Stranger still, the most avant-garde extraterrestrial to visit planet Earth devoted a good chunk of his set to playing stride piano on some old Disney tunes, including the closer, “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” A few months I caught Sun Ra again at the Public Theatre in New York City, at a fundraiser for Jimmy Lyons. (The same show also included performances by Walt Dickerson, World Saxophone Quartet, and Archie Shepp, among others.) You could tell he was a favorite in that neck of the woods—like an old friend.
Charlie Rouse. My friends and I were not prepared for what we witnessed on the evening that we saw this tenor sax immortal at the Wisp. I remember that we sat at the bar that night. I know that because we kept falling off our bar stools when Charlie was soloing. No amount of music theory could explain why he was such a powerful player. With great jazz musicians, there’s something that comes through in their playing that comes from within that penetrates to the very heart of jazz and makes you realize why it’s such an amazing and deeply human style of music. Charlie, who had a long run with Thelonious Monk, played mostly Monk that evening. I think he opened with “Played Twice” and also dipped into “Rhythm-n-ing” and “Round Midnight.” My friends were so blown away by the first set that they split to have a jam session in which they hoped to catch some of the spirit they’d just experienced. I stuck around and met Charlie. As he signed an album I basically gushed the whole time, and I’m not ashamed that I did. The second set opened with Monk’s “Epistrophy,” for which Charlie launched into a lengthy solo that was nothing less than sublime. So yes, a lot of magic has taken place at the Wisp, and I’m hoping for more.