Johnny O’Neal: Pianist, Singer, Storyteller

Before & After listening session with the veteran pianist/singer sampling cuts from Art Tatum, Tommy Flanagan and others

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Johnny O'Neal (right) and Ashley Kahn listen and chat at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nice, France

If you haven’t caught Johnny O’Neal lately, you really should. The Detroit-born pianist and vocalist, whose fabled history includes a stint as a Jazz Messenger in the ’80s and an appearance as Art Tatum in the 2004 movie Ray, and whose personal health battles appear to be mostly behind him, is hale and confident. Onstage, his attitude is sunny, funny and positive. The 61-year-old fits better these days into the brocaded jackets and hats he often wears, and his well-known command of postbop piano and sense of dynamics are stronger than ever—all energetic leaps and fluid rhythmic shifts, as he laughs and grunts and gasps in mock surprise. Then he’ll close his eyes, downshift the tempo and out comes that blues-soaked voice. With his buoyant personality and an unpredictable set list filled with obscure blues, ballads and more recent popular songs he chooses to ballad-ize—Nat Cole to Donny Hathaway, Chaka Khan to Eubie Blake—it’s a joy to hear. Even when he repeats himself, it never gets old.

O’Neal’s continuing revival benefits from the support he receives overseas—like his European agent, Giulio Vannini, who helps put him on festival stages where he charms audiences of hundreds with nuanced music normally suited for more intimate venues. Those rooms include Manhattan clubs like Smoke, Smalls and Mezzrow, which serve as his home base and where his gigs consistently sell out. His new album for the Smoke label, aptly titled In the Moment (and reviewed here), features his regular trio with bassist Ben Rubens and drummer Itay Morchi, two young players who bring the needed fast-thinking skills to creatively respond to the impromptu, mid-song twists on which O’Neal’s performances thrive. The recording also boasts contributions from trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Grant Stewart.

This was O’Neal’s first Before & After. It took place the afternoon before his Nice Jazz Festival performance this past July, in the Hard Rock Cafe a block from the festival grounds on the city’s Promenade des Anglais. Despite misgivings the day before, he was relaxed and ready to listen and respond to the music. He settled into his chair, taking in the bright Mediterranean vista, and immediately began sharing stories, recalling that his last visit to the city was “way back when, in the ’90s, when the Grand Parade du Jazz was here and George Wein was doing it. It was beautiful then. It still is now.”

  1. Tommy Flanagan

“Sunset and the Mockingbird” (Sunset and the Mockingbird: The Birthday Concert, Blue Note). Flanagan, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: It sounds like it’s one of the pianists from my generation. I’m just trying to hear the melody. I think it really has a wonderful flair. It’s engaging and it’s a beautiful touch and it’s played in the key of A-flat. I want to say Mulgrew [Miller], but no … Am I close? Kirk Lightsey? Give me a little clue. Wait—he’s out of the early ’50s or mid-’50s, that I know. Sounds like it could be Tommy Flanagan.

AFTER: Back in ’86 I did a dueling piano night with Tommy at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He always sounded good, with that Tommy Flanagan touch. Tommy was so diverse. He was a great soloist with the rhythm section, but he was also a great accompanist, and that’s what I heard—the touch. It sounds like he’s actually playing behind a singer. He was my first choice, and I should have said it right away.

You know, repertoire is just endless. You can have a big repertoire, but then there are still a lot of tunes you don’t know. That melody Tommy was playing—I knew it and it was very engaging, but I didn’t know the tune itself.

  1. Lorez Alexandria

“Show Me” (Alexandria the Great, Impulse!). Alexandria, vocals; Bud Shank, flute; Wynton Kelly, piano; Al McKibbon, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums; Billy Marx, arrangement; remaining musicians in orchestra unknown. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: My generation. It’s beautiful, very nice. Wait, I know who this is. This is the reason I love singers, music like this. So much personality. She’s very technically sound, she has a wonderful instrument and I know that voice. I like it because she has a lot of originality and you can hear that she has her own interpretation of her influences. Let me hear just a little bit more of it.

AFTER: Lorez! In the early ’60s? She used to get a lot of radio play back then in Detroit. I think she did a great version of “Detour Ahead” [on Deep Roots; Argo, 1962]. She was also very popular in the ’80s, but she was still kind of a hidden treasure in a way. I met her once, in Kansas City.

People use the word “jazz” oftentimes when it comes to singers because they sing standard tunes, but it doesn’t always mean that they’re jazz singers. She has elements of jazz phrasing in her enunciation and diction, and she’s a great storyteller. You can feel her honesty and the story in the lyric.

  1. Art Tatum

“I’ll Never Be the Same” (20th Century Piano Genius, Verve). Tatum, piano. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: [immediately] Art Tatum. There’s only one. I can just tell from the left hand right away, just the touch. [continues to listen] Wooo! When you think about Tatum, his repertoire was so vast. Everything he played, he owned it—his treatment, the way he played the melody. I’ve heard him play the same tune in different keys on different records, and it’s always a different interpretation. It’s unbelievable. I heard one version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” he played in B-natural. I thought maybe the record was half a step up, but it was actually in B. But I’ve heard him play that particular tune in six different keys.

My dad used to constantly play a lot of records when I was a kid—all the great piano players, from Tommy Flanagan to Erroll Garner—but at the end of the day he would put on Art Tatum and say, “This is real piano playing…” At the time I was young; I was listening to it and I didn’t understand that. In fact, when I started my first “abuse” of Art Tatum [laughs], I wanted to stop playing piano. I heard him play “Tiger Rag” and I couldn’t believe it and said I would never be able to do that. I think a number of people, like a lot of your great composers and pianists, say the same thing.

Tatum was from Toledo, and I got to meet some of his relatives back in Ohio and they told me all kinds of great stories. There’s one that Sweets Edison told. He said that Tatum used to play after-hours uptown in Harlem. A lot of piano players would come uptown to hear him, and there was this one guy from Detroit, a great pianist that I heard a lot about—Willie Anderson. So he decides he wanted to come to New York, and he finds Tatum and says, “I want to play for you.” Tatum was gracious, “OK, sure.” The guy played great. Tatum came back. “Let’s give Willie Anderson a nice round of applause. Now I’d like to play ‘Tea for Two’ for you.” Tatum had this beer can in his right hand and was drinking while he was playing “Tea for Two” with his left hand. He didn’t even miss the right hand—he played from the bottom up, hit the high C, as he was sitting there drinking his beer. Willie came up to him, got down on his knees and said, “God—I’m sorry, I apologize.” What a story. Most pianists can’t play “Tea for Two” with both hands!

While we’re on the subject, I’ve got to ask you about playing the role of Art Tatum in the movie Ray. How did that happen?

I was on vacation visiting my kids in Alabama, and I got an early morning call from this producer in Hollywood. Actually, I thought someone was playing a joke on me, because we musicians are practical jokers. So I get this call and this lady says, “Are you Johnny?” I saw it was a California area code, so I sat straight up and I said, “Yes.” She said I’d been highly recommended to play in an upcoming movie with Jamie Foxx, initially called Unchain My Heart, that Oscar Peterson recommended me for this movie. I was dumbfounded; I couldn’t catch my breath. I just said, “When?” I was in Birmingham, and she said, “Can you come and do a screen test today in New Orleans?” I said, “Sure.”

At the time I had a full beard and long hair, and so they flew me to New Orleans, cut my hair off, cut my beard off and put me in a 1949 suit. I sat at the piano and played [sings melody to “Yesterdays”]. Taylor Hackford, the director, didn’t even let me finish. He told me, “That’s it.”

Many people have asked me, “Johnny, were you playing along with the Tatum recording?” No, I was actually doing it live on the set. That was one of the most gratifying moments in my career. I never imagined that I would be asked to play Art Tatum.

  1. Diana Krall

“I’m Thru With Love” (All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, Impulse!/GRP). Krall, piano, vocals; Russell Malone, guitar; Paul Keller, bass. Recorded in 1995.

BEFORE: Cassandra Wilson? No, Diana Krall. She can really, really play the piano. I love her piano playing. She’s incorporated a lot from Oscar [Peterson] and Nat King Cole. She has a great repertoire. She’s a wonderful interpreter. She’s got her own thing. I like her a lot. We’re very good friends.

The first time I met her was in Montreal during the jazz festival. Russell Malone introduced me to her. He was playing with her at the time at a place called Club Soda, and I was playing at Biddle’s Jazz Club, and her first words to me were—can I say this? [laughs]—“You got some serious fucking swing.” She came in every night and I would play for her, she would play for me and we really hit it off. Right away, when I heard her voice and her touch I knew she loved Nat King Cole. Like this song [“I’m Thru With Love”]. Nat did that. Great tune.

There’s a lot of Nat Cole in your set lists, too—even obscure tunes like “Dinner for One Please, James.”

Believe it or not, I never heard Nat do that song [by Michael Carr]. I learned that from Rosemary Clooney. I heard her sing that. But of course I grew up hearing all his tunes. My dad used to play those records a lot—“The Christmas Song,” that was the most played. “Sweet Lorraine,” “Route 66.” What I loved about Nat was that he was so articulate—the most fluid articulation, the separation of his notes and his sound.

Ray Brown told me a story once. He said back in the [Jazz at the] Philharmonic days they would have all the great groups—Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie—but Nat King Cole would come on last and he was the big eraser, just erase everybody previous to him. He was a great piano man, too—his early recordings from, like, ’43 to ’49, Nat was so fluid and effortless in the way he played. Sit there and turn sideways, look at the audience and just flawless chops. He influenced so many great pianists and was in a class by himself, absolutely.

  1. Donald Brown

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (Piano Short Stories, Space Time). Brown, piano. Recorded in 1995.

BEFORE: It’s one of the contemporary guys. This sounds like Anthony Wonsey. Let me listen some more. I know who this is. He’s famous for his left-hand walking basslines. He used to play in New York a lot back in the day, then had to go back to his hometown—Donald Brown. I came after him in the Jazz Messengers. Prior to me joining, Donald came up to my apartment and showed me a lot of music. He was really gracious and so accommodating, to make sure I knew the book and stuff.

What gave it away was when I heard his right hand, because he suffered a little bit with tendonitis and I could just tell in his phrases and his interpretation. But, you know, he wrote some of the baddest tunes. Most of his tunes are very hard to play. He wrote this one tune called “New York.” It took me forever. Donald just played Mezzrow [in December 2016]. He has a son [Keith Brown] who’s a wonderful pianist.

When Donald went back to Memphis in ’82, the piano chair was open in the Messengers and you got the call. How did that come about?

Actually, this is what some people say is a success story. I lived in Atlanta and I played with Clark Terry during [the early 1980s], with his band. He said, “When you come to New York, give me a call.” So I took Amtrak a few months later and arrived on a Tuesday evening, got a Village Voice and saw that Clark was appearing at the Blue Note. So I called him. “Hey, Clark, this is Johnny O’Neal.” It was his opening night, and I said, “Who’s playing with you?” He said, “You are!” So the day I moved to New York I opened at the Blue Note and played that whole week. I played the Blue Note a lot that year, with different people. Another time with Clark Terry, someone came up behind me and said, [imitates Art Blakey’s sandpaper voice] “I want you to join my band. We’re going to Europe for three months.” That was how Art asked me to join him. I was with him for two years, with Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Charles Fambrough, Billy Pierce. Later, Lonnie Plaxico and Jean Toussaint took over for Charles and Billy, then Mulgrew [Miller] took over for me.

There’s only been a few Messengers that Art extended; usually he kept us for two years max. [imitates Blakey’s voice] “Time for you to get your own band. This is not the post office.” [laughs] That was the most challenging band I’ve played with. With Art you had to develop writing skills. It was mandatory that you had to bring tunes. “OK, O’Neal, I want you to bring three new tunes to the rehearsal next week.” I had never written for horns—I’m self-taught, so I couldn’t really write the charts out. Terence was the musical director, so I would play him all the parts on piano for the horns, and he would say, “Why don’t you just write it up?” Art would tell Terence, “Stop messing with him. There was music before there was notes.”

  1. Arthur Prysock/Count Basie

“Don’t Go to Strangers” (Arthur Prysock/Count Basie, Verve). Prysock, vocals; Basie, piano; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Eric Dixon, Charles Fowlkes, Robert Plater, Marshal Royal, saxophones; Albert Aarons, Phil Guilbeau, Sonny Cohn, Wallace Davenport, trumpets; Henderson Chambers, Henry Coker, Al Grey, William Hughes, Grover Mitchell, trombones; Freddie Green, guitar; Norman Keenan, bass; Grady Tate, drums. Recorded in 1965.

BEFORE: Arthur Prysock. “Don’t Go to Strangers”—“Come on home to me…” I grew up on this. “Bring your fine ass on home.” [listens more] That’s with the Basie band.

I wanted to play this because it features a great piano player and a great singer coming together, and you are both.

Thank you. I don’t think of myself as so much being a great singer, but I’ll tell you, the reason I sing more now than I ever have is because I was playing a hotel gig in Wichita, Kansas, around ’84, and Joe Williams happened to come in one night. At that time I wasn’t really singing that much—maybe one blues on the set. He came up to me afterwards and said, “Johnny, what the F are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean, Mr. Williams?” “Why are you not singing? Let me tell you something, young man, and I’ll say this one time only: If a jazz musician could sing, they would do it, so if you got it flaunt it. It will get you more gigs and everything. You’ll be a double threat.” So I’ve been doing it ever since. I used to be real shy about singing, but now I enjoy it.

It was my dad who first pushed me to be with singers. “Johnny, learn the melody. Learn how to be an accompanist. Singers are always looking for piano players. You’ll work all the time.” And I think with jazz pianists, if you can accompany, that helps you really develop a touch and a sound and understand more of what the composer felt when he wrote the tune. It gives you [a greater] sense of dynamics, more weight as a player.

I think that a lot of pianists are not singer-friendly because a lot of times singers can hang your ass. What I mean by that is they may sing the tune you know but they may not sing in the key you know it in. I don’t back down from singers; I love it. Although I’ve had some serious train wrecks. There was a singer once, this was just last Saturday, she kept bugging me to sing and I finally told her OK. Of all the tunes she wanted to do, she called “The Girl From Ipanema”—in a different key. When I got to that bridge, that chord had nothing to do with nothing. We couldn’t fix it. [laughs] It was wounded. It was rank.

  1. Kevin Hays

“The Sun Goes Down” (New Day, Sunnyside). Hays, Wurlitzer, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Tony Scherr, guitar; Rob Jost, bass; Greg Joseph, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: It’s right on the tip of my tongue [sings along familiarly to lyric]. That’s a Wurlitzer electric piano. I think I know who this is, and I know this recording so well. I’ve heard it and I like it. I’m having one of my senior moments right now. I think he also plays at Smalls, right?

AFTER: Kevin Hays! Really? Wow. He’s a wonderful piano player. He’s a nice guy, too. Yes, he’s played several times opposite me with different groups at Smoke. I really like him. I never would have guessed Kevin because I never heard him sing. If I would have I would have remembered. That’s what got me, because I can’t think of anyone on my circuit who sings. I want to hear more of his singing.

  1. Michel Petrucciani

“Looking Up” (Solo Live, Dreyfus). Petrucciani, piano.
Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: The piano is very woody-sounding. Is this the melody? It’s an original. That’s the thing with originals sometimes: It’s good to hear a lot of originality, but sometimes for the listener, if they never heard you before they can’t identify your sound. His sound is very modern—it’s OK, but I haven’t heard enough of him in it to really make a total judgment. I don’t like the sound of the piano. It was a nice original. I could hear what he was playing—it was in E-minor to F. Who was it?

AFTER: Oh, man. OK. I had a chance to hear him, here in Nice actually, back in the day. Billy Hart was playing with him.

[Petrucciani] had these humongous hands. He could really, really play. But this tune doesn’t really show that. I got to know him pretty well. It was a mutual respect we had for each other. He died quite young in his career. He was one of the most recognizable and talked-about pianists in the ’80s.

  1. Nina Simone

“Central Park Blues” (Little Girl Blue, Bethlehem). Simone, piano; Jimmy Bond, bass; Albert Heath, drums. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: I know I like the bass player. I can hear Basie’s influence with the space in the piano playing. Ray Charles? Charles Brown? Is this a West Coast pianist? I think the pianist is more known as a vocalist—this I can tell. It’s Nina Simone. I recognize her playing. I hear it.

I caught Nina Simone a couple of times. I remember once in Germany. I was with Blakey, and some people were talking when she was performing, and she went totally south. She said, “Do y’all know who the F I am? These MFs sitting up here talking while I’m singing…” She went there!

But you know what? I’m a big fan of hers. I met her briefly in Montreal. She came and she heard me play and was very nice. I just watched the documentary on her [What Happened, Miss Simone?], less than a year ago. Her story was really something. She was a great pianist. No one did Porgy and Bess like she did—“My Baby Just Cares for Me.” She was a great performer and singer, and a great classical pianist. I didn’t recognize her right away, but after I heard the classical touch, then I knew.

Thank you. I had fun with this.