Johnny O'Neal Trio
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Johnny O'Neal Trio


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The best kept secret in music


"Jazzman Johnny O’Neal is Fest’s Quick Convincer"

Listen now to three high notes from the life of Johnny O’Neal, headliner of this weekend’s Old
Town JazzFest, beginning with the most recent.

Not long ago, the soulful and (usually) gentlemanly Detroit pianist got an unexpected 9 a.m. call during a gig in Birmingham, Ala.

“A lady said they were making a movie about Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx, called ‘Unchain My Heart,’” O’Neal recalls. She told O’Neal they were considering him for the movie.

“Yeah, right,” O’Neal sleepily muttered into the phone. A dazzling piano virtuoso in the mold of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, O’Neal had worked hard for 20 years but was still little known outside the jazz world. Now a movie studio was offering to fly him to New Orleans to try out for the role of Tatum himself — O’Neal’s idol as well as Ray Charles’ — in a major Hollywood film.

He concluded that it was a joke, and told the lady so, in a jazz-musician-awakened-at-9-o-clock
tone of voice.

“Then I look at my caller ID and it says ‘Crusade Pictures,’” he says.
She accepted his hasty apology. “I told her I’ve got a lot of musician friends and sometimes we play jokes on each other.”

The film’s title became ‘Ray’ (another studio, Universal, took over the project), O’Neal landed a
plum part in an Oscar-winning film, and millions of people were exposed to his formidable yet engaging style, which recalls Tatum’s. (That’s O’Neal’s own playing on the soundtrack.)

“Ever since that movie, my drawing power has increased 80 percent,” O’Neal said.

Some might call “Ray” a lucky break, but O’Neal has spent his entire career making his own
breaks. Two pianists who admired O’Neal’s playing had recommended him for the Tatum role.

The most brazen example of O’Neal’s own break-making came in the late ‘70s, when he was barely
20 years old, just coming out of a youthful phase as a prize-winning gospel pianist.

While playing a gig in Gary, Ind., O’Neal learned that veteran bassist Ray Brown was playing nearby in Chicago. Brown is not only a jazz giant in his own right but also a lifelong musical soulmate to O’Neal’s most cherished piano model, Oscar Peterson.

Nevertheless, O’Neal introduced himself to Brown before the gig and asked if he could sit in with
the band — a bold suggestion from a seemingly wet-eared neophyte to a jazz legend.

As O’Neal remembers it, Brown said “No, we don’t have sittin’ in. Maybe I’ll get a chance to hear you someday.” Undeterred, O’Neal waited until the set was over and the musicians packed away their
instruments. He got on the stand and started playing the piano, and what happened next is so corny they couldn’t put it in a movie.
“Ray Brown came out of his dressing room, came back onstage, took the cover off his bass and
started playing,” O’Neal says. Brown went so far as to call the young man “a new Oscar Peterson.”

Right away, the veteran offered to help O’Neal with his first recording date.

Chalk up another high note. The Ray Brown incident proves that O’Neal is one of jazz’s quickest convincers. The powerful
combination of gospel roots and killer jazz technique even wins over fans who criticize Peterson
as a cold machine.

“It’s not how fast you are or how much virtuosity you have,” O’Neal says. “It’s how you articulate
those notes with feeling, and vitality and warmth.” Staying true to the song, instead of showing off, is an ethic O’Neal got from his father. “He’d say, ‘Johnny, you gonna B.S. that melody or you gonna play it for what it is?’”
O’Neal soaked up a lot of jazz from his father, who engaged in marathon record-collection battles
with his friends and co-workers. Each evening, the house would fill with recorded riffs, sometimes
for 10 hours running.

“All I ever heard was jazz, and I didn’t really like jazz when I was a kid,” O’Neal says. “I was more
interested in gospel.” If O’Neal wanted to listen to anything but jazz in the house, he had to go

O’Neal’s father was the first but not the last to appreciate him. The very day O’Neal moved to New York, in 1980, he had just come off a gig in Atlanta with Duke Ellington trumpeter Clark Terry, another jazz legend. O’Neal picked up a paper and saw that Terry was playing at the Blue Note that night.

He called Terry, re-introduced himself, and asked who was playing in his band that week.
“You are,” Terry said. By sheer coincidence, Terry had just been on the phone trying to replace a
pianist who’d been in an auto accident.

But this high note goes higher.
“After the gig, someone came up behind me.” Here O’Neal’s voice tightens into the basso growl of
one of jazz’s greatest drummer/bandleaders. “This is Art Blakey. I want you to join my band. Next week we’re going to Europe for three months.” “So the first day I came to New York,” O’Neal marvels, “I ended up playing at the Blue Note and joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers” — one of jazz’s all-time great combos. And that’s a note high enough for a fruit bat to app - Written by LAWRENCE COSENTINO

"Johnny O'Neal Jazz Giant"

Johnny O'Neal is a giant who casts no shadow. To a great many people, Johnny is their secret favorite pianist, someone who for the last ten years had to be seen live to be heard at all almost, and proves the industry may be forgetting about artistry.

Johnny O'Neal is a native of Detroit now living in Atlanta, and one of those gifted few who literally "broke in" at 19, recording his first album at 26, for Concord
jazz which featured the great bass player Ray Brown. No mean feat for someone still in their teens!, Oscar was 23 when he debuted at Carnegie Hall with Ray, but that was 1949! He has also worked with legendary performers like Dizzy
Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughan,Wynton Marsalis and Art Blakey. It was with Blakey that Johnny was able to expose his enormous talents to Japan
and Europe.

Throughout the years, Johnny has kept in touch with Montreal azzman Charlie Biddle. With the unflagging support Johnny received from Charlie, Johnny was able to sustain some fairly rough times and stay inspired through a ten year
recording drought. Thanks to Charlie and his legendary jazz club "Biddles" Johnny was able to catch the attention of Jim West and Justin Time and release his first CD in ten years "On the Montreal Scene". The CD features New Yorker Taurus Mateen on bass, Russell Malone on guitar and Wali Muhammed on drums, who seems to be seeing a lot of action these days at both Biddles and Justin Time. There will be a full review in VILLAGE JAZZ CD REVIEWS in
April. VILLAGE JAZZ is intending to release the "Countess" CD in July by Countess Felder. Countess claims that when she first heard Johnny play he was 17, she quit her job that day to start her career over with Johnny at the piano,

Johnny himself will stop his shows dead to give her stage time and the rapport they share has to a degree been captured on the CD which was recorded live at the
Alabama Theatre and features not only Johnny but Collins "Bo" Berry on trumpet. All members of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Johnny has also had his Carnegie Hall moment, as the opening act for Oscar Peterson.

Johnny's music has it's heartbeat in gospel and the blues, but to hear Johnny tear a strip off a bebop tune at an outrageous tempo sometimes defies the laws of pianist gravity. Everything he does looks effortless and has that rare stamp of authenticity that allows even the most wary jazz critic to find him likable without dispute. His
blend of everything from Tatum to Monk to Garner has a mimics understanding underneath, and Johnny's unerring pitch and swing are the elements that make him a giant, he can do anything he wants to. Even his vocals, which are finally
exposed on his latest recording, is unpretentious and his ability to phrase and interpret a lyric put him also, in my estimation, amongst some of the greatest singers of our generation.

So stop letting the industry decide what you should hear and give Johnny the listen he deserves, go to your record store and request his recordings. Then buy them!!!
- village jazz recordings and productions 1997

"‘Ray’ role helps carry pianist Johnny O’Neal’s career to new heights"

Johnny O’Neal has been dazzling jazz fans for years with his swift and savvy jazz piano, but after a brief appearance in the 2004 blockbuster film Ray, his career soared to new levels.

“This movie, man, I never imagined how much it would increase my drawing power. I fill up the places now,” said O’Neal, a former Toledoan who returns for two sets tomorrow night at Murphy’s Place.
In the Hollywood film, Ray Charles, played by Jamie Foxx, goes to a nightclub to see legendary Toledo jazz pianist Art Tatum — played by O’Neal.

During filming, O’Neal played three or four songs, although only one — “Yesterdays” — made it to the silver screen. “That was a real honor for me, and for Toledo audiences, to play the part of one of the greatest pianists ever,” O’Neal said this week from New York City, where he performed at a conference for the International Association of Jazz Educators.
“A lot of people ask me what Tatum record I was playing along with. I was playing live! That was me,” he said.

Apparently, O’Neal was a little too good as Tatum — one of his real-life heroes, along with Oscar Peterson (who recommended him for the part). “One of the producers told me that the reason why they edited me out quite a bit in the movie was that my scene was too strong, and the movie was about Ray Charles. They didn’t want anything to take away from Ray,” O’Neal said.

Even more frustrating, his name was misspelled in the clos-ing credits as “Johnny O’Neill.”
“I was sick about that, too,” he admitted. Nevertheless, Ray has been very good to O’Neal.

Last year, he went on tour with the Ray Charles Band, featured on piano and vocals, and the role helped him land a starring part as a blues musician in a major Hollywood production that begins filming in May.

In the meantime, O’Neal has some notable appearances coming up, including concerts in Moscow, two shows with singer Al Jarreau in Memphis, and a June concert at Orchestra Hall in Detroit.

A native of Detroit, O’Neal, 49, left for New York City in 1981 and was quickly hired by trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Art Blakey.
He has performed with countless jazz legends and is grateful to have such opportunities. “I got in at the end of an era,” O’Neal said. “I do have stories to tell. I got to play with Milt Jackson, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie — that’s an honor. I’m so blessed.

“Doggoneit, I was with these people! I graced the stage with a lot of jazz masters. When I think of all the gladiators, as I call them, who came before me, that’s what keeps my humility as a player. All I’m doing is passing along what they set the standard for, what they shared with me.”

O’Neal joined The Murphys Trio in the late 1980s and played with the Toledo group through the 1990s. When he left, Claude Black took his spot at the ivories.

O’Neal is eager to perform with bassist Clifford Murphy and drummer Sean Dobbins tomorrow.
“Clifford has been a big inspiration to me in my life. I’m honored to come back and work with him. He’s like my musical father. He and Joan [Russell, co-owner of Murphy’s Place] have always been in my corner and supportive of me. They are the reasons for my success.”
Johnny O’Neal will be in concert with The Murphys Trio at 9 and 11 p.m. tomorrow at Murphy’s Place, 151 Water St.
Tickets are $15, $20, and $25, or $8 for students. Information: 419-241-7732. - By DAVID YONKE-BLADE STAFF WRITER


1. DVD-Concert & Documentary "Johnny O'Neal-Tight"
2. In Good Hands - Jazzebel Records
3. On the Montreal Scene - Justin Time Records
4. Soulful Swinging - Justin Time Records
Various other recordings as a sideman. Complete discography @


Feeling a bit camera shy


Influenced most by such pianists as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Hank Jones and Errol Garner, O'Neal is an extremely moving musician whose blend of styles (blues, gospel, stride) can take your breath away.

Johnny’s enormous musical gifts were immediately apparent to jazz icon Ray Brown and led to his 1983 debut album Coming Out. Stints with Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers soon followed. Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Pass, Nancy Wilson, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Benny Golson, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and Clark Terry among others, have tapped Johnny for appearances.

Performances on the festival circuits in Europe,
Australia, Japan and a recent tour of South Africa have gained Johnny an international following.
“Johnny is outstanding in his ability to interpret a wide range of material with ease and sensitivity,” according to Parkwood Records’ Hugh Leal. This versatility was showcased on his debut recording for Justin Time Records, On the Montreal Scene, which soulfully interweaves gospel, blues and mainstream jazz. Jim Little, who writes regularly for the Montreal Weekly Hour, proffered, “O’Neal offers up a serving of the blues and gospel ingredients that help make him such a tasty player.”

Astonishingly, Johnny is largely self-taught. His playing evokes the influences imbued in him by his idols Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, and he has reshaped these elements into his own very swinging and melodic approach.

In live performances, he is apt to catch his audience off-guard with his soulfully rendered yet unpretentious vocalizations. Johnny admits to loving to shout the blues but calls himself a piano player first.

There have been three notable events in Johnny’s career that continue to inspire him: an appearance at Carnegie Hall early in his career when he was the opening solo pianist for Oscar Peterson, his recent induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame and playing the role of Art Tatum in the award-winning feature film “Ray”.

Johnny explains, "I’m a tune guy. I know 1,500 songs. My father was a pianist and singer who emphasized that learning lyrics creates dynamics and a better interpretation of melody. I rehearse so that the bassist, drummer, and I can get familiar with each others styles, not to set the songs we’ll play. Jazz is the highest level of performance because it’s instant composition. I like to be spontaneous and respond to cues from the audience."

“I just want to play and preserve the style of the jazz masters”, emphasizes Johnny. Dedication to that mission statement is evident in his innovative
interpretations of the jazz classics, and his own lyrical compositions.