What is it
about those Buckeyes?
Those of my readers who know me, or who have gathered from my fugitive comments certain
information about me, know that I live in Ohio. I'm not happy about it.
The reason I feel this way is that I have had a far-ranging, traveling kind of life, a
journalist's life which has taken me all over my country, both for visits and for extended
periods of residency. I've always measured success by distance traveled, not money earned,
after the fashion of a good musician. So to find myself back in my native state is kind of
like deciding to be stagnant, even though I've decided no such thing.
Yet, I've found myself to be peculiarly defensive about the Buckeye State in my travels.
And that defensiveness -- read, pride -- has been most frequently tapped in the
discussions of great jazz musicians. There are dozens of greats who sprang from the same
roots as mine, whether they were black or white, immigrant or native sons and daughters,
rich or poor.
And I'm proud of that.
The list of my homeboys is long, but here I will consider three: Art Tatum, Billy
Strayhorn and Joe Henderson.
Tatum, the great blind god of the keyboards, was a product of Toledo, Ohio, where there
exists a lively jazz scene and a wealth of knowledgeable consumers, and performers, of the
music. And that latter circumstance is due, in no small part, to the legacy of Art Tatum.
A pianist with the tools of a classical virtuoso, the imagination of Shakespeare (had
Shakespeare been a musician) and the peculiar mathematical/tonal faculty that
distinguishes the great from the merely competent, Tatum is probably the most gifted
pianist ever to turn his attention to jazz. His severely impaired sight was no hindrance.
He played not only by feel but by "feel." And his harmonic inventions have few
equals in the jazz canon. Someone should do a study and prove that Tatum was the first of
the "Third Stream" artists, for, I swear, without him, there could have been no
Modern Jazz Quartet or Joe Zawinul or Gunther Schuller.
And Toledo, God bless her, keeps cooking with the homegrown talent that harks back to
Tatum. The small clubs are for the listeners, not the dancers, and the musicians
appreciate it. Late in the evenings, musicians will wander into, say, Rusty's Jazz Cafe (a
local institution) or Tony Packo's, or Murphy's and sit in for a jam or two on a standard
or two and keep that Tatum spark alive, whether they play fleugelhorn, soprano sax or
guitar. And the city teems with talent from the Detroit-Chicago-Cleveland circuit as well
as its very fertile draw of local talent, all of them aware of the legacy of the great
About 150 miles or so down Interstate 75 is Dayton, the hometown of the incomparable Billy
Strayhorn, soulmate and collaborator of Duke Ellington, composer nonpareil and author of
two of the five most beautiful tunes ever written: "Lush Life" and "Chelsea
Bridge." Strangely, Strayhorn lived a life in the shadow of Ellington, which some
assign to his homosexuality and desire to stay out of the limelight, and which others
claim was merely a raw deal from the Duke himself. No matter. David Hajdu has written a
marvelous biography of my fellow Buckeye, "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy
Strayhorn" [North Point Press, 1996] that will clear all that up for you -- or make
it more complex. And you'll surprised to discover how many of the tunes traditionally
assigned to Duke actually were Strayhorn creations.
And that brings me, seredipitously, to my current living hero, Joe Henderson. Born in
Lima, Ohio, a town where I used to live and which is only 30 miles from me now, he labored
in obscurity as a side man to many of the greats -- Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, Freddie
Hubbard, Herbie Hancock -- and gigged wherever he could, eventually ending up on a
bandstand for four weekends with Miles Davis. He did an unsatisfying stint with Blood,
Sweat and Tears but collected the payoff of his journeyman greatness in 1992 with
"Lush Life" [Verve]. It's been a grand ride ever since, and I can't think of a
more gentlemanly, generous and virtuosic musician than the man who has had a string of
hits with "So Near, So Far (Musings For Miles) [Verve, 1993]; "Porgy And
Bess" [Verve, 1997]; tributes to Antonio Carlos Jobim; a big band exercise that puts
some excitement back into that too-often moribund form; and reissues of his Blue Note
albums, stints with the Wynton Kelly Trio and a continually growing body of work that will
reveal Henderson as one of the signal players of the past 40 years. I guarantee it.
There are other fellow Buckeyes in the history of jazz: Albert Ayler, Benny Bailey, Bill
Hardman and Tadd Dameron of Cleveland; Stanley Cowell of Toledo; Wild Bill Davison of
Defiance; Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Harry "Sweets" Edison of Columbus; Jon
Hendricks of Newark; George Russell of Cincinnati; Jon Scofield and Bud Shank of Dayton;
Stuff Smith of Portsmouth; Nancy Wilson of Chillicothe.
And that represents the few I can think of as I sit at my computer keyboard.
Let it suffice to say that, no matter how far I roam, there's enough of the Buckeye State
to pull me back.