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Jazz Guitar in the Queen City, Cincinnati



Jazz Guitar Today guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the jazz guitar scene in Cincinnati.

A picnic of Skyline Chili Coney over hotdogs at Washington Park while listening to great live music during their summer Monday’s “Jazz in the Park” series is a memorable Cincinnati (or Cincy’s nickname’) experience.  If you’re looking for more of a thrill, try the world’s longest inverted roller coaster, the Banshee, or the Slingshot Catapult ride at Kings Island amusement park. How about a trip down the Ohio River in a paddlewheel steamboat for a serener experience of a bygone era. With great food, exciting thrills and beautiful rolling hills, Southern Ohio has a lot going on – including Cincinnati jazz guitarist.

Cincinnati was not been considered as a spot where jazz developed as an art form. But since the 1910s and 20s, it has been a place where all of the greats of jazz performed when they were on tour.  Jazz thrived in the African American West End of Cincinnati long before taking hold in other places. Janelle Gelfand has said “Cincinnati’s founding father of jazz, Artie Matthews, introduced ragtime. By the 1930s, crowds shimmied and shook at the Cotton Club on Mound Street. Cincinnati was fertile ground for some of the biggest jazz talents in the country… Cincinnati was a jazz mecca, a crossroads in the American heartland where jazz greats traveling to New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Kansas City passed through on trains and riverboats. WLW radio, the “nation’s station” with a 500,000-watt reach in the 1930s, lured virtually every major musician to the Queen City.”

Cincinnati’s Cal Collins (1933-2001) began playing bluegrass on the mandolin but switched to jazz guitar after hearing Nat King Cole’s guitarists Irving Ashby and Oscar Moore as well as Charlie Christian play jazz on the guitar. Born in southern Indiana he moved to Cincinnati in the early 1950s. He was a first-call guitarist in the Cincinnati area for twenty years before Benny Goodman hired him in 1976 which brought Cal Collins national attention. It was through the Goodman band that Carl Jefferson heard and signed Cal to his Concord Jazz Record label. Centered in California, he became a house guitarist for the Concord record label, which allowed him to perform and record with many of the label’s artists. In the early 1980s, Cal moved back to the Cincinnati area and gradually receded from the national spotlight.

Guitarist Kenny Poole recalls, “Cal’s tone, articulation, and ideas are so distinctive… Cal was not an educated musician but he is one of the most natural guitarists I have ever heard. One night I heard Cal when George Shearing and Joe Pass, who were also playing in town, walked into the club. I heard George asking Joe how Cal was doing what he was doing. Cal was so good with his pick and three other fingers that he could comp for himself. Because George was blind he was asking Joe how Cal was playing all those parts. Sadly, none of that kind of playing was ever recorded”. During 1993 he was on the Masters of the Steel String Guitar tour with Jerry Douglas and Doc Watson. In 2001 he passed away from liver failure at age 68.

Brandon Scott Coleman blends jazz with sounds of his Appalachian roots around southern Ohio. Brian Lovely in addition to being a busy guitarist is active as a songwriter and producer in the Cincy area.

Brad Thomas Myers began on the guitar at age ten. Born in Washington DC he moved to Cincinnati in 1994 to study at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. He remains active as a guitarist in the tri-state area.

One of Cincinnati’s finest guitarists was Kenny Poole (1947-2006). Kenny started on the guitar at age fourteen and was playing professionally by age nineteen. He was a member of (popular soul singer) James Brown’s band from 1970 to 1974.

Because Kenny was such an outstanding bassist, the guitar greats like Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, always wanted Kenny Poole as their first call for the bass chair on the nights they played around town. Truly a world-class player, Kenny was not a fan of extensive travel, and he kept a low profile. So, he was known mainly close to home.

In a pro career spanning 30 years and 5 countries, Cincinnati-born jazz guitarist Greg Chako has released 10 CDs, 4 videos, and been the subject of a documentary called, “An American Cat in the Lion City.” His most prolific period as a recording and performance artist occurred while he lived in the Far East for 17 years. Returning home for family reasons, he is currently focused on re-establishing himself regionally as a working player and instructor.

Bob Roetker (b1948) has been playing guitar for over thirty years. He has worked with Cal Collins, Bobby Shew, Billy Drummond, and others. He served in the military for twenty years, and for five of those years, toured with the Army Jazz Ambassadors’. Bob also taught guitar and bass in the Armed Forces School of music. Back home in Cincinnati, he has been actively performing around the area.

Steve Barone was born in Cincinnati then moved to Los Angeles where he studied with jazz guitar great Joe Pass. Steve is well versed in both popular and jazz music, and now back in Cincinnati, he performs live jazz around the area.

Famed rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright (1932-2008) was born in Cincinnati, then moved with his family to Detroit, where he learned to play the ukulele by ear. As an adult, Wayne relocated to New York City where he played with many world-renowned jazz artists. Wayne, along with guitarist George Barnes and trumpeter Ruby Braff, plus bass and drums, formed a quintet that was very successful.

Two other Cincinnati guitarists of note are Sandy Nassan who recorded with flutist Herbie Mann and the other Wilbert Longmire (d2018) who worked with noted French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, band-leader Gerald Wilson, and pianist Joe Sample.

The Greater Cincinnati Guitar Society was founded in 1959, and reformed in 2001, to represent the best of what guitar has to offer. The Society promotes all styles of guitar music including jazz through their workshops, luthier showcases, lectures, and performances.

If you are looking for a classy vintage archtop, check out Gary’s Classic Guitars in the Cincy area. Located in his basement, his elegant showroom is a place to find a top-quality guitar.

Gary Dick of Gary’s Classic Guitars

Performance Venues

The Washington Platform Saloon and Restaurant is a great place for fried oysters, beer, and live jazz in the Cincy area.

Caffè Vivace is a jazz and blues club with fine coffee by day and a great jazz lounge at night.

In the “Over the Rhine” district, Schwartz’s Point Jazz and Acoustic Club is Cincinnati’s only Euro-style club. The atmosphere is like going to New York City or a quaint European city (without leaving Cincinnati).

University Jazz Programs 

Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, at the University of Cincinnati, is ranked number 2 in the College Gazette list of top 10 universities for the performing arts in the United States. CCM has an excellent jazz guitar program with Brad Thomas Myers as the primary instructor. Steve Barone oversees the outstanding jazz guitar program at Xavier University.

This article was written with research assistance from Bob Roetker and Kathy Parker.

More articles from Joe Barth.

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