Leaning into a Common Love of Jazz

A group of local true believers keeps the beat of America’s original art form, improvising and riffing to grow audiences and support musicians.

Illustration By Lynn Bremner

It’s a sultry summer evening in Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion. Jazz fans fill tree-shaded benches, picnic blankets, and lawn chairs. Piano, bass, and drums trade phrases and solos on stage in an intricate language of ghost notes and glissandos. A musician raises her saxophone and blows. Heads bob across the audience. Some get up to dance.

They’re enjoying It’s Commonly Jazz, Cincinnati’s longest-running free summer jazz series, which celebrates its 40th year this summer. The event brings national and regional talent to Eden Park on Thursday evenings in August and hosts acts at Findlay Market for Final Fridays from June through October.

The annual congregation of jazz aficionados is the work of Carolyn Wallace, whose hip, asymmetrical glasses shimmer as she walks into Fifth Third’s downtown headquarters. It’s an appropriate place to meet for a conversation about It’s Commonly Jazz, because the bank has been a key supporter of the series through thick and thin, she says. These days, Wallace’s catering company, The Perfect Brew, is in demand by event planners seeking healthy, sustainable food, but back in the 1980s she was general manager of Swifton Commons shopping center in Bond Hill.

“Other malls had sidewalk sales,” she recalls. “We really had sidewalk sales. So we decided to start having music in the courtyard.” Initially she brought in other musical genres: R&B, reggae, even a barbershop quartet, but jazz won out by popular demand. “People came and brought their lawn chairs and sat in the courtyard and listened to music,” says Wallace. “Then, at 8 o’clock, the lights would come up and people would go shop.”

The music series grew into more than just a promotion. She realized these concerts filled a need, especially among middle-aged Black men. “There were these guys who came together for these Thursday night events,” she says. “They would sit on the back row, and they had a whole thing. And that fueled me. They wanted to hear real jazz, so we went after the roots of the music and it became a rite of summer for some folks, as well as a community builder.”

Wallace grew up listening to jazz. She did her homework tuning in to Jazz with O.T. on WNOP, the tiny AM station that broadcast from its floating Ohio River studio dubbed “the jazz ark.” With her first paycheck, she bought a Yusef Lateef record. Payday always meant a new LP after that.

It’s Commonly Jazz founder Carolyn Wallace (right) with Annette Love.

Photograph courtesy of It's Commonly Jazz

Cincinnati’s vibrant jazz scene inspired her. One night Wallace was listening to William Menefield at Walnut Hill’s long-running The Greenwich jazz club. His father, musician Bruce Menefield, helped her produce the music series early on. He’d even called his son on stage to perform at the young age of 12.

“I was listening to William play, and I wanted a national piano player to come in for the series but he was going to cost a lot of money,” Wallace says. “I was thinking, Why do you want to spend that kind of money when you’ve got William here? Why not promote local artists?” She consciously cultivated the series to shine a light on local talent and pay them properly, which created opportunities for local players to open for nationally touring names—stars like McCoy Tyner, Eddie Harris, the Marsalis brothers, Hank Crawford, Cindy Blackman Santana, Clark Terry, Tia Fuller, and Gregory Porter.

It’s Commonly Jazz has connected jazz lovers to America’s original art form and to one another for 40 years, but the music itself has been connecting Americans and the world for longer. Drummer Art Gore started playing jazz while a student at Taft High School, and his professional career spans important transitional periods from bebop to post- and hard-bop through the avant-garde and into the electric era. He had long tenures at both The Greenwich and Blue Wisp Jazz Club, anchoring house rhythm sections at the now-defunct spaces, and often performs at It’s Commonly Jazz.

“Jazz is really not that old. We’re not even 150 years into it,” says Gore. “Think about the distance it’s covered in such a short period of time.”

It’s Commonly Jazz is co-presented by local advocacy nonprofit Jazz Alive, whose president, Laura Gentry, “has her hand on the pulse of who’s out there,” says Wallace. “Laura travels, goes to Chicago for the Jazz Fest, and seeks out artists.” The organization was founded by musicians Gordon Brisker, Joseph Gaudio, and Donald Carr, who were graduates of the University of Cincinnati’s CCM program, and jazz bassist Jim Anderson.

Jazz Alive supports live performances, radio broadcasts, and jazz education. One of its most recent initiatives, We Create Jazz, boosts mentorship of young women in music. The theme of last year’s It’s Commonly Jazz series was “Women in Jazz,” and it featured the We Create Jazz Ensemble, a group of female musicians sponsored by Jazz Alive. They killed. It started to rain during their set, and not a person moved.

An accountant by trade, Gentry has been booking and promoting jazz in Dayton and Cincinnati for 25 years. She knew she was onto something when, after her first show, people came up to her in line at the Kroger deli and asked, Aren’t you the lady who put on the show at The Greenwich? When are you going to do it again? She became talent coordinator for It’s Commonly Jazz in 2000 and was one of the decision-makers who moved the series from Swifton Commons, then known as Jordan Crossing, to Eden Park in 2008. “There were some negative connotations in taking it out of a Black neighborhood,” says Gentry.

She felt pressure to curate a lineup that people didn’t want to miss that first summer in Eden Park, and she featured Tia Fuller, Randy Villars, Thelma Massey, Ron Jones Organ Quartet, and the Mike Wade Quintet with Ralph Peterson. The series has been going strong at Seasongood ever since. Like Wallace, Gentry grew up listening to jazz and says she gets a sense of achievement and joy from building jazz audiences. “Jazz is so important to history and culture that it needs to be given equal consideration as our symphony, ballet, opera, or theater scene,” she says.

Like most major cities, Cincinnati once housed a wide array of jazz clubs. The music connected Americans everywhere as touring bands brought hip music to whistle-stop towns.

The Eddie Love Jazzmen perform at It’s Commonly Jazz in Eden Park.

Photograph courtesy of It's Commonly Jazz

Ron Enyard, whose trio anchored jazz nights at Kaldi’s on Main for eight years, grew up in Indiana. “Jazz was the people’s music when I was a kid,” he says. What makes it work, despite musicians’ wildly varying approaches, is how it thoroughly celebrates both the individual and group collaboration, he says.

Before urban redevelopment around the construction of I-75 sliced it up, the West End was the center of Black music in Cincinnati. The neighborhood was home to the Cosmopolitan School of Music, probably the first Black-owned music conservatory in the U.S., founded in 1921 by ragtime composer Artie Matthews and his wife. Black students studied there before CCM desegregated its admissions.

Jazz and blues thrived in West End nightclubs, the biggest of which was the Cotton Club in the Sterling Hotel. All the greats played there—Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller—and it was one of Cincinnati’s few integrated nightclubs at the time. The bigger hotels were off-limits, Cissie Hill wrote in a Cincinnati Enquirer reminiscence of the Cotton Club era: “Duke Ellington could bring his band to the Gibson or Sinton Hotels, but he couldn’t stay in them.”

Other popular clubs included Babe Baker’s in Avondale, where John Coltrane and Lester Young played. There was The Cabana Lounge, The Top Shelf, and Vernon Manor Hotel. Downtown jazz could be found in The Whisper Room, The Living Room, and The Playboy Club. Northern Kentucky had The Copa and, until recently, Dee Felice Café. Mt. Adams was a bohemian enclave with its own jazz scene at Captain David’s, The Blind Lemon, and Mahogany Hall. And The Greenwich was a jazz epicenter in Walnut Hills starting in the late 1950s, experiencing a renaissance in the 1980s until ceasing live shows in 2019. Pianist Ed Moss, who died in 2016, had a slew of clubs: Mahogany Hall, The Golden Triangle, Emanon, and Mozart’s. His final club, Schwartz’s Point, now run by his daughter Zarleen, continues to host jazz on the northern edge of Over-the-Rhine.

The Blue Wisp opened in O’Byronville in 1973 and became an important jazz community cog both locally and nationally. Following owner Paul Wisby’s death, the club went through several iterations in various downtown locations under the leadership of his wife, Marjean. It became home base for the eponymous Blue Wisp Big Band, driven by swing drummer Jon Von Ohlen, who’d played with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton.

Marjean died in 2006, and musician Eddie Felson and others tried to keep the legendary club going in yet another location, but it wasn’t easy. “All pure jazz clubs are held together by gossamer thread,” wrote Rick Kennedy in a 2007 Cincinnati Magazine story about the plight of the Blue Wisp following her death. The club finally shuttered for good in 2014.

Don’t equate the demise of jazz clubs here, though, for a decline in the art form. Recording technology extended jazz’s reach into American minds, hearts, and homes, including Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, which has been called the cradle of recorded jazz. Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Bix Beiderbecke, and Hoagy Carmichael all recorded there. The company cranked out records by the millions.

After Cincinnati-born Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” for Okeh Records in 1920, the record industry was never the same. Jazz music took the country by storm, hooking Black and white consumers alike.

Jazz drummer Gore came up “in the middle of everything,” he says. He was born after bebop emerged, “when Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were doing their thing.” He had maternal uncles who were musicians, and he started playing jazz at 16. “I got my start playing professionally in maybe the 10th grade,” he says, recalling his music teacher at Taft High School, trumpet player Oscar Gamby, who once played in Count Basie’s band.

Gore went on to play with a variety of musicians, including Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lonnie Liston Smith, George Benson, Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Watson, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Marr, J.J. Johnson, Hank Crawford, James Moody, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, Larry Young, and Woody Shaw. As a touring musician, he witnessed jazz’s ability to reach people.

“A lot of jazz music, there was a message in it about peace,” he says. “When we traveled around, we weren’t rock stars, but people would be waiting for us to come to their city. The people who understood the music and got the message loved it, and they were waiting for it. And I thought I was doing something good because the Vietnam War was going on and there was a lot of negative stuff, just like today.”

Trumpeter, composer, and band leader Mike Wade performs often at It’s Commonly Jazz and on stages throughout the region. He came to the Midwest from his native Washington, D.C., to study music at Central State University, and later arrived in Cincinnati to pursue a master’s degree in classical trumpet at CCM.

Wade has played and recorded with heavyweights across the musical spectrum, from David “Fathead” Newman, Javon Jackson, Herb Jeffries, Teddy Pendergrass, and Experience Unlimited to Earth Wind and Fire and Bootsy Collins. He served as band director at Withrow High School for 25 years, leaving in 2020.

Wade remembers It’s Commonly Jazz as literally a family reunion at Swifton Commons. “Families that were trying to get together started realizing that most of them would go to this shopping center for the jazz,” he says.

The music’s roots, Wade says, go back to Africa. “It echoes with the drum and the church and the fields, you know? The church, because there’s this religious aspect of it. The drum connects jazz with dance, because that’s part of African music. It’s all related.”

Back in the day, says Wade, “you would learn jazz in the neighborhood, on the streets, and in the clubs from other musicians.” As fewer clubs featured jazz, partly because rock and roll took over, schools kept it alive. Jazz education emerged in the 1960s and ’70s in colleges and universities.

CCM Music Professor Emeritus and pianist Phil DeGreg thinks young musicians will always be interested in jazz “because it’s a challenging music. I haven’t seen any decline of interest in young people. What changes is the venues available to play it. And the aesthetic itself has changed over time.”

DeGreg led the house trio at the Blue Wisp and followed pianist Steve Schmidt in the house band, playing with Gore and bassist Bob Bodley. His CCM connection made the club an important developmental stage for students in CCM’s jazz studies program.

Many of DeGreg’s students have gone on to become music teachers and professional musicians as well. “It’s all part of people trying to put together a living and still get to play their music,” he says. “It’s certainly not motivated by money, because the burn to play jazz music is completely from within.”

The nonprofit model for funding jazz performances is more and more common, DeGreg says. The Cincinnati Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, with whom he plays, is a nonprofit, as is the biggest jazz club in town these days, Caffè Vivace. “Jazz as a historic art form needs that kind of support,” he says.

Caffè Vivace is the brainchild of Brent Gallaher and Vanessa Keeton, saxophonists who met through a shared love of Joe Henderson’s music and eventually married. Gallaher credits his wife’s subsequent success as a software engineer with enabling them to run the Walnut Hills club, which launched as a coffeehouse-by-day-jazz-club-by-night in 2018. He books performers around 290 nights a year, averaging five or six shows a week.

Gallaher has played in Cincinnati since 1988, touring with the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller orchestras and appearing with the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops orchestras as well as with the Blue Wisp Big Band, which he’s given a home at Caffè Vivace. He played his first It’s Commonly Jazz show at Jordan Crossing in 1998. “Beyond the music, there were so many people who were there just to see other people and hang out,” he says. “It was like a picnic, a party.”

Playing at the outdoor shows and clubs all over town, Gallaher says he never felt like an outsider in Cincinnati, “because if you could play, people gave you love. Everybody loved and respected jazz.”

William Menefield performs at It’s Commonly Jazz in Eden Park.

Photograph courtesy of It's Commonly Jazz

He believes jazz uplifts the soul and brings people together, an important benefit in the current world of divisive media and politics. And jazz is best heard in an intimate setting, he says. Vivace’s high-ceiling Italianate space is cozy, though limited seating makes profitability a challenge. That’s where the nonprofit side of the operation, Jazz Vivace, comes into play, raising funds to bring top-tier national and international acts to town. That enabled Caffe Vivacè to pay musicians through the pandemic lockdown.

Gallaher consistently pulls 10-hour days, he says, but “when 7 o’clock rolls around and the house is packed and people are digging it, all of the hassles of running a business fade away.” The dream, he says, “is seeing the art created in the moment. People need to be around jazz when it’s created right in front of them.”

The music’s living, organic quality is echoed by trombonist, educator, and arts administrator Isidore Rudnick, whose Cincinnati Public Schools after-school jazz academy is helping train the next generation of jazz musicians. Music teachers recommend students from across the district for the program, and they receive private lessons and practice weekly as a group.

“When jazz is played live together, that moment will never, ever be totally recreated,” says Rudnick. “Each experience is unique, the perfect combination of individual skill, talent, and personality with group collaboration.”

Growing up in Las Vegas, Rudnick learned what a difference jazz can make in a young person’s life. When his high school jazz band won a local competition, they were sent to the Montreux and North Sea jazz festivals in Europe. “I got to see Ella Fitzgerald sing,” he recalls. “I got to see the Count Basie band play with Clark Terry. I got to see Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea do the dueling piano thing. And that was it for me. Jazz became a part of who I was, and there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that I’d be involved in music going forward.”

Jazz academy students perform at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center and hold an annual spring showcase, the CPS International Jazz Festival, at the Aronoff Center for the Arts downtown. They’ve traveled to Pittsburgh and New York to perform, and last year they traveled to the Sant Andreu International Jazz Festival in Barcelona, Spain. They’re learning that jazz connects people around the globe and for a moment are living the jazz truism that performers find recognition far beyond their home turf—think Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Nina Simone. DeGreg has performed in Brazil. Cincinnati native Napoleon Maddox, who founded the jazz/hip-hop ensemble ISWHAT?!, now calls Besançon, France home.

While it’s rare to make a career as a jazz musician, Rudnick says, the music is a great preparation for life. “Students are thinking on their feet,” he says, adding that jazz requires problem-solving skills, communication, and collaboration. And they’re learning to be jazz consumers and audience members, “so they’ll purchase tickets and make donations to It’s Commonly Jazz and find other opportunities to keep this music alive.”

Maintaining the tradition is every jazz educator’s top priority, says Rudnick, because it isn’t just a musical legacy—it’s a social and economic legacy. “Jazz single-handedly gave Americans a huge boost during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s with big band swing,” he says. “Then bop came along, and OK, it wasn’t as popular, but it created some of the greatest artistic virtuosos of the 20th century.”

Jazz continues to renew itself today. In Cincinnati you can watch that happen at Caffè Vivace, Schwartz’s Point, Memorial Hall and Washington Park (on Mondays), Fountain Square (on Tuesdays), the Symphony Hotel & Restaurant, or The Lounge in Northside, where musicians take the stage and cut their chops with some of the area’s finest talents, including Wade, DeGreg, and Schmidt as well as drummer Tony Franklin, vibraphonist Josh Strange, and bassist Justin Dawson.

What do Wallace and Gentry have in mind for It’s Commonly Jazz’s big 40th birthday this summer? The 2024 theme, Wallace says, is “The Roots of Jazz,” with the concert finale focusing on the next generation of Cincinnati musicians. And she’s working on a book of photos from the past 40 years, asking for pictures taken by audience members so she can see what they’ve seen. “Looking back, I’ve been in tears because I can’t believe all that has happened during those 40 years,” she says. “There have been some major, major players who came to Cincinnati.”

Jazz is constantly developing, Rudnick says, and he believes its future will incorporate technology and entrepreneurship. “You will start seeing more and more of these unique artists like Emmet Cohen,” he says of the Harlem-based pianist who performs at Caffè Vivace when he comes through town. His virtual concerts, started during the pandemic, are essentially 21st century all-star versions of the rent parties cash-strapped jazz musicians in New York would throw at the beginning of the last century.

The fortunes of jazz might rise and fall, but you can bet on its supporters to keep pushing. As the great man once sang: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

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