It was Friday night, and I just had to be there — not only to hear Fred Hersch, the fantastic, Cincinnati-born jazz pianist, play a concert at NKU, but also to witness the inaugural class of the Cincinnati Jazz Hall Fame. It turned out to be a very moving evening indeed.
NKU was congratulating its 43rd graduating class, and Hersch was in town to be the Commencement keynote speaker. By now, he is Dr. Fred Hersch, as he was awarded an honorary doctorate on Saturday. But on Friday, at a little reception thrown by NKU’s President, Geoffrey Mearns, he was fresh off of 22 planes and 12 countries, trailed by his biographer (the book is coming out in 2017), and schmoozing with old neighbors from North Avondale. I think every jazz pianist in town was there, too.
He graciously agreed to perform a concert as a gift, in conjunction with the Hall of Fame event, which was free for all. But first, the inductions: The Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame was started by Kay Casey, and has an illustrious board that includes several local jazz legends. The idea, Casey said, came from John Von Ohlen. More about him later.
Nick Clooney was the charming host, who introduced the 10 honorees, and told their stories and a few of his own. (Yes, lovely Nina, was beaming in the audience.) NKU is close to his heart since both of their children (including you know who) went to school there and his grandson Nick will be a student next fall.
How moving it was to see these musicians honored, some of them posthumously, one by one. And as Nick noted, many of them were Walnut Hills HS grads. Julie Jennings accepted for her father, the late Gordon Ira Brisker, who worked with both Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett, led his own bands, arranged and taught in several prominent conservatories.
Next came Rosemary Clooney, who needs no introduction. I personally adored her last few jazz albums for Concord. What style, what emotion she brought to every word. Nick, a youthful 81, accepted for his sister, saying, “The last years of her life, she worried about her contemporaries as they died. She’d say, ‘The water sure closed fast over her.’ I decided one of the great jobs I have left is to make sure the water doesn’t close over her too soon.” Don’t worry, Nick. We won’t let it.
And how’s this for a hall of fame: Frank Foster, who played with Count Basie, and was an NEA Jazz Master. Cal Collins, jazz guitarist par excellence. I still remember his gig at the Omni Netherland each week. Tim Hagens, composer, arranger and jazz trumpeter, is a three-time Grammy nominee who grew up in Dayton. He is the subject of a feature documentary, and his trumpet can be heard on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the film “The Score.”
And Fred Hersch was also honored. The Walnut Hills HS grad is a legend at the Village Vanguard in New York, an eight-time Grammy nominee, composer, educator, and simply one of the world’s best jazz pianists, period.
There was also Jimmy McGary, another local legend, onetime staff musician at King Records studio and a healing voice during Cincinnati’s racial unrest. Swinging sax player Curtis Peagler studied at CCM and recorded with the Modern Jazz Disciples for Columbia Records. And what can you say about the great O.T. — Oscar Treadwell — the jazz historian and journalist who spun records and stories over the airwave for decades in Cincinnati? Charlie Parker wrote “An Oscar for Treadwell” in 1949, and Thelonious Monk wrote “Oska T,” O.T.’s theme song on WGUC for 22 years. And of course, the “Baron,” John Von Ohlen, a one of a kind musician, a drummer who played with Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman and kept perfect rhythm for many big stars — including Rosie. He’s headed the Blue Wisp Big Band for 35 years.
I will write some thoughts about Fred’s concert in another post. He honored these legends, spoke about growing up in Cincinnati and played some of his most memorable music. It was breathtaking and the packed house in Greaves Hall knew exactly how special it was.