Jazz History

Jazz 98.5 FM WSAX-LP

Jazz History

Jazz 98.5 FM Editor - Jim Meredith

Images and narratives can be seen live at the Lincoln Theater on East Long Street, Columbus


Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Who’s Who – An historical perspective of jazz in Columbus

Cincinnati OHThe story of radio station WNOP-AM began in 1946 when a Newport, Kentucky, group under the direction of a former Campbell County sheriff applied to the Federal Communications Commission. Competing with the Newport group was a Dayton, Ohio, group seeking to be licensed for the same frequency.

When the FCC granted a license to Newport’s Tri-City Broadcasting, denying the Dayton application, Tri-City was ready to proceed. However, the Dayton group’s appeal, combined with the destruction of Tri-City's new transmitting equipment in a warehouse fire, slowed things down a bit.

On August 21, 1948, WNOP signed on the air for the first time. Former Kentucky governor A. B. "Happy" Chandler was on hand for the occasion. Affiliated with no network, WNOP’s format combined radio shows and country music programming. In 1956, Ray Scott, later one of the top 25 country disc jockeys in the nation, joined WNOP.

Columbus OHColumbus-born Ronald Theodore Kirk was better-known to jazz listeners as Roland Kirk or, later, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He twice claimed that dream voices told him to change his name.Ronald/Roland/Rahsaan was blind from an early age, his blindness having been caused by improper medical treatment. He attended the Ohio State School for the Blind. Primarily a tenor saxophonist, he developed the ability to play two or three horns at once. A number of his instruments, such as the manzello, the stritch, and the nose flute, were exotic or homemade.

Kirk was outspoken, often satirical, in his comments on black history and civil rights. When comedian Jay Leno once toured with Kirk as his opening act, Leno would whisper to the audiences, “Please, don’t tell him I’m white!” Kirk typically appeared on stage wearing a top hat and with three horns hanging around his neck, plus various flutes and whistles and a gong.

The use of multiple horns enabled Kirk to become a one-man saxophone section. His use of the circular breathing technique enabled him to sustain single notes or sixteenth-note runs of almost unlimited duration. His long-time producer at Atlantic Jazz, Joel Dorn, believed Kirk should have been recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records for being able to play such lengthy stretches without any apparent break to breathe. Innovative guitarist Jimi Hendrix once called Kirk his “favorite musician.”

A December 1977 stroke took his life at age forty-two. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery on the west side of Columbus’ Woodland Avenue. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was voted into the Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame in 1978.

Article by: Jim Meredith

Gene "King Saxe" Walker

Columbus OHColumbus has a storied and vibrant history of providing jazz music to the world. Columbus has also given of itself. The same holds true in giving many of its favorite sons and daughters to the music genre we love and call jazz. The musicians who have contributed to this magnificent art form are not only talented, but good wholesome, humble and respectful souls, as one would expect coming from the Columbus area.

Make no mistake, Columbus is not New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York but it cannot be forgotten or be denied as having produced a plethora of jazz musicians that helped shape and twist this genre to make it what it was yesterday, what it is today and what it will be tomorrow.

To many, when Columbus is mentioned, the legendary and talented, unmistakable voice, grace and style of Nancy Wilson comes to mind first, along with such names as Rusty Bryant and Hank Marr. However, there were many talented jazz musicians that came before Ms. Wilson and the other aforementioned musical giants. This article will not include those that came before but, because of them, scores of others have followed and they deserve more than a mention. Yes, we could say that Ms. Wilson and the recent others mentioned, are and were certainly leaders of the pack, and deservedly so. I salute you before going any further.

The history of America where African Americans are concerned and the physical, social, political and economic roads traveled to get here helped shape and make Columbus a crossroads for music. Whether this is true because of Slavery and its consequences, the constitutional amendment of 1896, Plessey vs. Ferguson that made separate but equal the law of the land, the depression, World War I or II, the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education, Topeka Kansas, decision that reversed the notion of separate but equal being constitutional, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, or the exodus from the south to find a better living environment and work in the North, for whatever the reason, Columbus had many venues that supported and hosted jazz, specifically in the Black community, on the financially and vital thoroughfares bordering, adjacent to, or along Mt. Vernon Avenue and Long Street.

Further in support of this notion, as taken from information contained on the Columbus Lincoln Theater website defining the history of the Theater, it is written that, “In the 1930s and '40s, downtown Columbus' near east side was home to an affluent African-American business and entertainment district, known today as the King-Lincoln District. At the time, segregation actually fueled the commercial and cultural development of the area, as African-American consumers could only patronize the African-American businesses in the neighborhood. As a result, a thriving, self-sufficient community developed which celebrated its cultural heritage and created its own opportunity.”

“The community came to the Lincoln for the latest films, vaudeville, and her signature specialtyjazz. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, the King-Lincoln District was known nationally as a major jazz center, and the Ogden Club (later renamed the Lincoln Ballroom) on the second floor of the building became one of the most popular venues in the country for live jazz. Since downtown hotels served "whites only," traveling African-American musicians and performers were housed in King-Lincoln hotels, many just blocks from the Lincoln. Ironically, the racial intolerance which put these musicians in such close proximity to the theatre is believed to have ultimately graced the Lincoln with appearances from legends such as Count Basie, James Brown, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Etta James, and Columbus native Nancy Wilson.”

In the years to follow, yes, during Ms. Wilson’s tenure in the Columbus area, Columbus was a different town. Jazz music lovers could venture out and capture great live jazz and other music at places like the following:

The Novelty Food Bar The St. Clair Hotel

The American Legion Hall The LVA Club

The Pythian Theater The Downbeat Club

The Pine The Lincoln Theater

McOwn's Lounge The Great Southern Thea.

The Tippin Inn The Bottoms Up Club

The Railroad Club The Underground

The 502 Lounge The Masonic Temple

The Empress Theater

Indeed, it was a different time. One thing that many people may not remember, and something that I deliberately omitted from the list above, is that the list doesn’t include a somewhat forgotten venue. Because of the times, it made it necessary for African Americans living in the Mt. Vernon Avenue and Long Street area to take a major step in creating an additional place for recreation and live music entertainment by establishing and building their own country club.

Just outside the Columbus proper, residents of the community purchased land in what is now Gahanna and built the Big Walnut Country Club. More information about Big Walnut will perhaps appear in a separate article, but remember the name.

Jazz In Columbus Today

So, where are we today you ask? The pioneering artists and greats of our past that are not mentioned in this article paved the way for the following artists to become successful and flourish. Their contributions have not been forgotten or ignored.

Columbus remains a vibrant city, still churning out great jazz musicians however, not unlike many cities around the country, Columbus does not have the support structure to maintain an equally vibrant quality nightlife that perpetuates jazz music and its jazz musicians. Fewer venues translate to fewer performance opportunities, fewer patrons, a reduction in fees available to pay the musicians, no commercial radio stations and the advertising revenue that supports them and ultimately, these factors may result in less to no jazz.

Current Venues

The current venues that offer jazz, primarily do so on specific days or evenings. Many are restaurants and not necessarily dedicated to providing jazz as its primary form of live music entertainment. On some evenings you can expect to find other music genres being offered and the groups playing them, so don’t make an impromptu stop expecting jazz without first contacting the venue. The list of venues that support live jazz in the Columbus area includes:

In 1962 WNOP became an all-jazz station. Despite its weak signal and being found right next to AM powerhouse WLW on the radio dial, WNOP had a core audience of loyal jazz listeners. Program hosts played recordings of stand-up comedians and often identified themselves as being "just a little to the right of WLW." At other times, WNOP was labeled "Radio Free Newport." When most stations announced winter school and workplace closings, morning host Leo Underhill informed listeners which bars were closed due to bad weather.

Count Basie said there was no jazz station in the country like WNOP-AM, and he was right. It made little money, but WNOP made people tap their toes and laugh. Comedian Shelly Berman was so grateful to WNOP-AM for promoting his records that he recorded several announcements explaining what the call letters stood for:

Where Nonsense Occasionally Prevails.

We Never Offend Porcupines.

Who Needs Our Problems?

In 1972, jazz lover Al Vontz II bought the 1,000-watt daytime station. When his landlord tripled his rent, Vontz built a new studio that came to be known as “the Jazz Ark.” The new studio consisted of three oil tanks welded together, each 12 feet in diameter. Together, they held five rooms on two floors. Each tank was equipped with 20,000 pounds of ballast, and the facility was placed in the Ohio River to become a floating studio just east of the mouth of the Licking River. Windows looked like large portholes. Above the studio were the large red neon letters WNOP. The Jazz Ark continued until 1989, when the station moved to a larger facility. Max Warner, Bob Nave, Chris Wagner and Val Coleman played records inside the Ark on spring-mounted turntables with weighted arms. “You could wear a record’s grooves out pretty quickly if you played it a lot,” says Mr. Nave. WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson once said, “If I had seen this place first, this is where we would have put WKRP!”

People urged the station to get an FM signal, which has better quality for music. However, an FM signal did not guarantee success. Xavier University's WVXU-FM dropped jazz shows in 1998 and WVAE-FM (“The Wave”) dropped “smooth jazz” in 1999 for “jammin' oldies.” In 1998 WNOP-AM expanded to 24-hour jazz, though the 37-watt night signal barely reached Cincinnati’s I-275 outer belt. When Al Vontz offered the station for sale, two thousand people signed petitions to keep the jazz format. In 1992, to accommodate the growing interest in national news, the station dropped its jazz format and adopted Ted Turner's CNN Headline News format from 6 a.m. to dusk daily. In 1994, jazz returned, and it continued until Sacred Heart Radio purchased the station at the end of 2000. On Jan. 1, 2001, the WNOP format became religious programming. The new station, with the same WNOP call letters, operates out of the Holy Spirit Center in Norwood, Ohio.

Article by: Jim Meredith

The Golden Era

Columbus OHNative Columbus saxophonist Gene Walker died July 21, 2014, from several health complica-tions at age 76. As a popular sideman early in his musical career, a tour with fellow sax player King Curtis brought Gene the opportunity to open for the Beatles during a 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium. His career also included gigs with Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Neil Diamond.Though he excelled in the popular musical realm, he loved being a jazz musician. “It was a badge he wore proudly,” said Ted McDaniel, director of the jazz-studies program at Ohio State University, where Walker earned an undergraduate degree at age fifty and where he became a member of the music faculty.

Although diabetes and an enlarged heart slowed Walker in his later years, he continued to travel and perform at various venues. He was well acquainted with the jazz repertoire, having included on his own recordings such standards as ‘Lover Man,” “That’s All,” “Hey There,” and “Parker’s Mood.”

A Near East Side Columbus native, Walker’s love for the saxophone began when, as a child, he’d sneak into shows at the Lincoln Theatre and at neighborhood clubs. When asked about the key to his successful career, Walker once replied humbly, “The magic is doing what your God tells you to do. I never became fabulously rich, but at least I’m entertaining people.”

One of Walker’s childhood friends was the Columbus saxophonist Gene knew as “Ronnie,” but who later became known as Rahsaan Roland Kirk. According to Kirk’s biography, “Ronnie” called up Walker one day and asked him to take him to a local music store. At that store Kirk purchased an old saxophone-like instrument that he called his “manzello.” Not long after that, Kirk also acquired another saxophone-like instrument that he called a “stritch.” Kirk’s flair for showmanship, combined with his exotic instruments and a string of recordings on Mercury and Atlantic records, boosted him to international jazz stardom. Jimi Hendrix once called Kirk “my favorite musician.”

Kirk could be said to have acquired a bigger inter-

national reputation than his childhood friend. Yet, when jazz artists are evaluated in terms of expressive-

ness, honesty, and genuine soul, Gene Walker stands near the top. Roxie Ball, in her liner notes accom-panying Gene’s Last Night In Manhattan cd, writes these words: “ . . . beneath the form is the magic of Gene Walker, his soul, and his heart. The band lives through each song and every pause, every inflection is important. So listen well and listen often. You will be the richer for it.”

Article by: Jim Meredith

Columbus OHI developed a taste for jazz during a period of time I call ”the golden era.” I recall the days when a trip to a Columbus, Dayton, Yellow Springs, Cincinnati, or Lexington record store was sure to present that difficult dilemma: the need to decide what I could afford to buy this time and what to leave behind, hoping that it would still be there when I had more cash on my next visit to that area. Realize, my “golden era” took place during the mid 1970’s, the era of the twelve-inch vinyl LP.

The scratch-free seventy-five-minute CD was still far beyond what anyone could imagine. In those days the thrift stores were favorite places for me to spend a few moments, seeking that unrecognized treasure that could be had for only fifty cents--if I could tolerate a certain amount of LP surface noise. Non-commercial FM radio was had planted the jazz seed in my heart. Richmond, Kentucky’s, WEKU and Yellow Springs’ WYSO were particular favorites, introducing me to names that were otherwise unknown to me: Deodato, Jimmy Smith, Chick Corea, Bill Watrous, the Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Weather Report, just to name a few.

This music had a certain hipness to it, making me feel as if I had discovered something that the general public neither recognized nor understood. While “Dixieland” was a label many people used to describe their concept of ”jazz music,” my newly-discovered jazz was electric and more modern-sounding. The August 8, 1977 issue of Newsweek magazine put Herbie Hancock’s picture on the front cover, accompanied by the caption, “Jazz comes back!”

It’s easy for me to declare that no era—present or future—could ever match the magic of my “golden era.” Most of the record stores I recall from those days have closed. [Does anyone other than me recall the “Peaches” chain?] Today Columbia and the other large record companies do not regard jazz recordings as profitable. The Manhattan Transfer’s Cheryl Bentyne recently told me that no member of that group—individually or collectively—has a current recording contract.

The Manhattan Transfer has been making records for forty years!! I can recall no more than once or twice that an American Idol contestant performed a jazz vocal on that show. Yet, such facts notwithstanding, I still stubbornly insist that this era can be another “golden era” for jazz lovers.

Today’s Internet makes much more free music available than was the case when I had to turn the tuning knob with a surgeon’s sensitivity in order to bring in a distant radio signal. In a sense, the Internet is a huge record store. While actual bricks-and-mortar record stores are much less plentiful than in past days, they can still be found. Columbus’ Used Kids records [North High Street, across from the OSU campus] deserves our support. Thrift store browsing can still turn up the occasional rare treasure, especially if you still have an old-style record player.

Perhaps most significantly, we who reside in or near Columbus are blessed with an abundance of live jazz during the warm months of the year. While most of the summer concerts feature various local musicians, it’s important to realize that many of our local players can hold their own when compared with today’s better-known stars. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool jazz lover, take a few moments to introduce a friend to your favorite kind of music.

Musical pleasures are enjoyed much more when shared. An invitation to a record store visit, a YouTube listen, or a picnic lunch at a summer festival can be a means by which that friend begins to understand why you’re always listening to “that music” through your headphones or while in your car. 2015 can be recalled as a “golden era” for someone who is newly discovering the treasures of jazz.

Article by: Jim Meredith

* Closed and no longer doing business

The city is certainly making an effort to support the

art form through programs or groups such as the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, through the Jazz Arts Group and their youth related school jazz programs that helps fill the pipeline of new students learning the jazz music genre and art form and SEMM Foundation with its "Give Back and Pay Forward Music Arts Initiative" offering needy Columbus City School children free private music scholarship lessons.

Tomorrow and Conclusion

The stark reality is that in my opinion, without the continued education of the public that listens to and enjoys jazz, the number of enthusiasts, fans, musicians and venues may continue to dwindle. The art form of jazz will not die but, when one considers that jazz has splintered into over 30 various sub-genres, whether as a result of the individual musician’s playing style, and/or the music industry’s intentional or unintentional effort to separate, define or redefine the various nuances, rhythms and styles of the music, keeping the public interest and enthusiasm becomes an even more difficult task.

Today, there are fewer venues hosting live jazz music as a staple. In Columbus today, there is no commercial jazz radio station. When you factor in the decline of the number of radio stations that carry jazz as a format, thus reducing the number of places where people can listen to jazz via the radio medium and, you also factor in the loss of venues that specifically offer jazz as its regular and primary format that features jazz in a true jazz club venue environment, you can quickly see and understand the decline in the number of places that give home to jazz musicians to practice and hone their craft, and/or win over new supporters and fans. It also doesn’t help that music education in our schools has been reduced or discontinued.

For readers that are not aware, there is a community radio station that stood up, changed its format entirely dedicated to jazz music, branded itself as such, and now carries the torch as the only jazz radio station in Columbus. That radio station is Jazz 102.1 FM, WCRX-LP. They’re currently on the air 12 hours a day from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily but deserve to be heard. More information about the station is available at www.myjazz102.com. Help support their effort to keep jazz music on the radio and feature your local Columbus jazz musicians.

We need more venues and radio stations to carry this wonderful music if the art form is to flourish and survive. Do your part. Support local jazz music, the musicians, the venues and the radio stations, and jazz will live on as more than a memory.

Images and narratives can be seen live at the Lincoln Theater on East Long Street, Columbus