It doesn’t take much to get legendary jazz pianist Johnny O’Neal cookin’ with conversation.
Once he gets going, he almost puts listeners into as deep of a trance as they are in when they hear his fiery, one-of-a-kind improvisation on the keyboards. This one-time Toledoan wows you with his precious stories about jazz luminaries.
Take, for instance, the one about how O’Neal, early in his career, was so determined to impress famous bass player Ray Brown that he hung around until 3 a.m. at a club in Chicago to show Brown what he could do.
Apparently figuring he was just another piano player off the street, Brown declined O’Neal’s offer to sit in and jam. Immediately upon hearing him, though, Brown was blown away. He introduced O’Neal to the president of Concord Jazz. The result was O’Neal’s first album, Coming Out.
There’s also the now-famous story of how O’Neal was recommended by none other than the great Oscar Peterson for the role of Art Tatum in the 2004 film, Ray, in which Jamie Foxx starred as the late Ray Charles.
O’Neal did such a stupendous job of recreating his idol’s music that the film director trimmed down the number of scenes planned for him because he was afraid they would distract from the storyline about Charles.
That’s probably as good of a place as any to pause and make this other observation about O’Neal, who performs from 5 to 8 p.m. today in the Toledo Club:
He’s one of Toledo’s biggest jazz ambassadors, even though he only actually lived here a short time -- approximately one year, circa 1988 by his account -- during the many years he played in town.
He first immersed himself in the Toledo scene at Rusty’s Jazz Cafe in the 1970s, a nationally known club that featured live jazz nightly for nearly 40 years before closing in 2003. Then, he was part of Toledo’s iconic straight-ahead jazz trio, The Murphys, in the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
“I’ve always held Toledo in very high esteem,” O’Neal said. “I’m honored to be a part of Toledo because of the great Art Tatum.”
A Detroit native, O’Neal has been a bit of a musical nomad, splitting his time between here, Michigan, New York, Alabama and other areas over the years.
He seems to have settled for good in New York since 2010, where he also lived before getting mugged outside his Harlem apartment in 1986.
The time he spent with The Murphys, led by bassist Clifford Murphy, was among the most influential and important of his career, O’Neal says.
He considers the soft-spoken Murphy a gentle, largely overlooked giant of jazz, someone who’s helped develop countless musicians.
“Clifford was a great mentor for me, musically,” O’Neal said.
For O’Neal, tonight’s concert at the Toledo Club is a reunion, a homecoming for a city that stole his heart and a chance to play again with Murphy.
“I can’t think of anybody I would rather come back and play with than Clifford Murphy,” O’Neal said. “Clifford is where it all began. I can’t wait to see him. I want to hug him to death.”
By all accounts, the 57-year-old O’Neal is a celebrity. He's considered by many to be one of the greatest -- if most underrated -- living jazz pianists on the planet.
O'Neal is so devoted to his craft he’s passed on commercial opportunities and, for more than 30 years, keeps uttering phrases like this one he said during his recent interview with The Blade: “I don’t play for the house. I play for how I feel at the moment and feel with other musicians.”
A former member of the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers, O’Neal opened for Peterson at Carnegie Hall in 1985.
He has received standing ovations at some of the world’s biggest jazz festivals, as far away as France and Japan. He has played with jazz superstars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Sarah Vaughan, and Herbie Hancock.
O’Neal was described in a lengthy and flattering New York Times article on May 1 as a cat who regularly sells out small clubs around Manhattan and leaves his listeners feeling “exhausted and unburdened.”
“My phone has been ringing off the hook since that article,” he said.
He doesn’t dwell on it.
The high-profile Times article revealed information some people didn’t know about O’Neal.
It delicately explained he has battled HIV since 1998.
O’Neal told The Blade he is bisexual, something that was also in The Times article.
He said he has no qualms about talking about that or his HIV status now because he wants to be an inspiration in other ways.
The infection, which can lead to AIDS, is one of the reasons O’Neal has settled in New York. He said he is getting the best health care he can imagine there.
Now that he’s on the right medication, his HIV is barely detectable, O’Neal said.
“I went public with it because I think people should know,” he said. “That’s inspiring to people when you can still be productive.”
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.