By Jack Marchbanks
Ohio is well known as the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, located in Cleveland. Buckeye State-born recording artists such as Bobby Womack, the Isley Brothers, the Ohio Players, Rick Derringer, Johnny Paycheck, Vince Gill, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, have topped the rhythm and blues, pop, country, and rock charts in every decade since the 1960s. However, equally deserving of recognition are several African-American jazz artists from Ohio who have rightly won international acclaim. Here is an abbreviated celestial chart of the iconic stars who shine brightly in the jazz firmament.
Art Taum was born in Toledo on October 13, 1909. Although legally blind, Tatum exhibited his virtuosity at the piano as a young child. A master of the stride technique, Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Once, when Tatum entered a New York nightclub where the irascible Thomas “Fats” Waller (of “Jitterbug Waltz” fame) was entertaining the audience, Waller stopped playing and noted that “God was in the house” in reference to Tatum.
William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn
Born in Dayton on November 29, 1915, William Thomas Strayhorn was a talented composer, musician, lyricist and piano player for three decades. Strayhorn and his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was a child. Shortly after graduating from high school, Strayhorn auditioned a few of his compositions for Duke Ellington, who was on tour in the city with his orchestra.
Ellington was gobsmacked by Strayhorn’s talent and soon sent for Strayhorn to join his band in New York City. Strayhorn became Ellington’s go-to arranger and songwriting partner on such jazz standards such as “Satin Doll.” Other evergreen jazz compositions like “Take the A Train” and “Lotus Blossom” are Strayhorn’s compositions alone.
John Carl “Jon” Hendricks
Born a preacher’s son in Newark on September 16, 1921, Jon Hendricks and his 14 siblings moved often until the family settled in Toledo. Hendricks was a member of a teenaged vocal group inspired by Ohio’s Mills Brothers. He enlisted in the U.S. Army when America entered World War II and survived D-Day. Hendricks returned to Toledo and resumed his singing career after the War. His dazzling scatting ability caught the ear of Charlie Parker one night, when Parker was playing a Toledo night club. Parker encouraged Hendricks to come to New York City. In New York, he met Dave Lambert, and they created the influential jazz vocal group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross—later adding the Scottish American Annie Ross to the trio. Hendricks is largely credited with inventing “vocalese,” i.e., writing lyrics to match indelible instrumental jazz melodies and solos. Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross have inspired the work of artists who followed them, including Joni Mitchell, the Manhattan Transfer and Take 6.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Roland Theodore Kirk was born with severely impaired vision in Columbus’s “Flytown” neighborhood (now a part of Victorian Village) on August 7, 1935. A tragic mishap during a medical treatment meant to improve his vision completely blinded Kirk a few years later. Possessing an uncanny ear for sound and a passion for music, Kirk dropped out of the Ohio School for the Blind in his early teens and began busking on street corners playing his favorite instrument, the saxophone. He was soon in demand on Columbus’s bustling Near East side jazz club scene in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, Kirk had mastered the prodigious feat of playing three reed instruments at once. In 1960, he moved to Chicago, where he recorded his breakout album, We Free Kings, and next moved to New York. Philadelphia jazz deejay Joel Dorn heard one of the tracks on the album and assumed it was a sextet. When Dorn found out it was one man playing three reed instruments in harmony as well as a fiery flute, Dorn recalled that he “flipped” because the sound was “spectacular.” Dorn became Kirk’s producer and manager, eventually putting Kirk in contact with the jazz and pop maestro Quincy Jones. Kirk became one of Jones’s favorite session musicians. Kirk also recorded with the great Charles Mingus. After adopting the name “Rahsaan,” Kirk recorded his masterpiece, The Return of the 5,000 lb. Man, in 1975. He succumbed to a stroke in December 1977 at the age of 42.
Born in Chillicothe on February 20, 1937, Nancy Wilson moved with her family to Columbus’s West Side when she was still in elementary school. After graduating from West High School, she enrolled at Central State University, with the goal of becoming a teacher. But inspired by Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson also began singing in the same Columbus Near East Side night clubs that launched Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s career a few years earlier. That same jazz scene was so popular it drew national artists, such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and a young, rising alto saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. The same year Adderley played on Miles Davis’s best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, he found himself in Columbus watching Nancy Wilson perform. Adderley was enraptured. Wilson was the complete package: tall, elegant, fashion model beautiful and a mesmerizing vocalist. Adderley persuaded Wilson to move to New York City and he encouraged his record label to sign her to a recording contract. Shortly after signing with Capitol Records, Wilson released her signature classic “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a composition that has been covered by artists ranging from Keith Jarrett to current jazz vocalist phenomenon Samara Joy. Wilson’s attractiveness and charisma made her an in-demand guest for the television variety shows of the 1960s and 1970s such as the Andy Williams Show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the Carol Burnett Show. She also guest starred on television series, including I Spy, Hawaii Five-O and Room 222. Wilson even starred in her own television variety show, The Nancy Wilson Show, winning an Emmy in 1975. Wilson won multiple Grammys and earned the highest recognition given to an artist of her genre, NEA Jazz Master, in 2004. She passed away in December 2018, less than 30 months after being recognized in the Columbus Near East Side neighborhood where her career began. Nancy Wilson was awarded a star on the Lincoln Theatre’s Walk of Fame in July 2015.
Jack Marchbanks is the producer and host of WCBE’s Jazz Sunday weekly radio program in central Ohio. In addition, he serves as the Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Ohio University. His doctoral dissertation centered on jazz artists’ advocacy and financial support of the American Civil Rights Movement.