Fourth Street was alive and hopping. From one door I could hear a ballgame blasting from a cheap radio, from another the rhythmic chant of the auctioneer in Karp’s showroom. “Five, 35, who’ll give me 35…” A middle-aged couple walked out of the door, carrying a table and chairs over their heads to a double-parked van on the corner. A car horn honked; a man swore loudly; and a young woman jogged by in a tight fitness suit, her midriff bared, her shorts tight around her legs. The pianist Steve Schmidt, who was walking beside me, raised his eyebrows just slightly, then opened the door to the Härth Lounge, which he calls his new musical home. “The Härth” is appropriate: It’s a cocktail lounge, artfully decorated, dimly lit, with French provincial chairs and low sofas here and there.
My friendship with Steve goes back many years. We may not see each other often, but then, suddenly, he is everywhere: backstage at a gig wearing a tuxedo, hanging out at a coffee shop in Clifton, or on a piano bench in some unexpected musical dive. I used to listen to him play jazz piano, his hands moving over the keys like magic, his face a study in rapt concentration. His hair, once a premature salt and pepper, is silver now, his body a little fuller. Otherwise, he is just the same as the young player I met nearly four decades ago.
When I first saw him he was in his early twenties, maybe 21, and already a star fronting the Steve Schmidt Trio with Lynn Seaton on bass and John von Ohlen on drums at the original Blue Wisp in O’Bryonville. Lynn Seaton had moved to Cincinnati from Oklahoma just to play in this trio. You couldn’t miss Lynn. He was a bear of a young man with a halo of blond curls around his face and really big feet. “In school,” he told me once, “they measured my feet and figured I’d grow into the bass.” It was a happy choice. He was so at home with the instrument that he rarely showed up anywhere without it.
I listened many nights as Steve and Lynn wove in and out of the music. The grace notes, the arpeggios that linked his chord changes, were rapid-fire, and his blues licks said a lot about his early love of that music. Lynn’s tone was deep and low, almost like a growl.
Steve and Lynn were backed up by John von Ohlen on drums. He had been Stan Kenton’s big band drummer. When he quit Kenton, he went to India and studied with an authentic guru just about the same time that the Beatles were there. Everybody thought he was cool. That and his reputation as a musical drummer—the only drummer who read the band arrangements and tuned his drums before every gig—made him the most requested player in town.
As for Steve, “I studied piano a couple of years in grade school,” he told me once. “In high school, I heard blues bands and began to play the guitar.” But he turned to piano because “the keyboard was laid out logically, not mixed up like guitar…I started at the Wisp about four years later.”
In a relatively short while, the Blue Wisp was the jazz bar in Cincinnati. Other musicians drifted in to listen after their own gigs were done. These musicians, many of them fresh from playing a wedding reception or some hotel job, leaned quietly on the bar dressed in tuxedos like so many penguins.
Guests sitting in and jamming with the trio added an extra fillip of excitement to the night. But the band never knew who was going to be playing or what they would play. Steve fed off this contained chaos. “Being able to lay down a foundation to accompany different horn players or singers is a challenge,” he told me. “If the rhythm section can get in a groove then you don’t need to think so much about it, and you can just let loose and have fun.”
The cream of Cincinnati’s crop of players came to jam because the Wisp was the place to play bebop, the trio was so good, and you never knew who you’d run into. The result was more than the sum of its parts, and as a consequence, all the music was elevated. It was an authentic “scene.”
It was natural that the owners would decide to book national players as added attractions on the weekends. Steve took on that job, his creativity seasoned with a good sense of humor. In those early years, he was able to get musicians like Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache to play with the Blue Wisp Big Band on Wednesday nights, then stay over—usually at Steve’s apartment—and play weekends with the trio. He booked a heady mixture of local, national, even international acts.
“The airlines were running $100 round-trip specials to New York City,” he says, “and I could get just enough out of the budget to book some quality players.
“I tried to get a cross-section. We’d have Scott Hamilton, for instance, who was straight ahead swing and bookend him with another guy, like Bennie Wallace.” Wallace was an avant garde saxophone player whose instrument pinged like a cell phone.
John von Ohlen remembers that period. “Steve was the one who made the Blue Wisp a big name nationally,” he says. “I came in there because it was a five night a week gig, and that sounded good to me since I was getting tired of the road. Here’s this kid who’s been playing rock and roll in garage bands, and he was just nailing bebop standards. Everything was hot.” John laughs at the memory. “Steve started bringing in old beboppers and giving them what they needed to play.”
“Steve is an unusual cat,” John adds. “He is an old soul.”
When the Blue Wisp moved to Garfield Place downtown, Steve stepped up his booking effort. One of the first bands to play the new club was Sun Ra, a different kind of group whose usual audience were Grateful Dead fans. “His whole band name,” says Steve, was “the Cosmo Love Adventure Arkestra, and they represented themselves as a spiritual group, futuristic.” Steve told me they had a guy who did yoga stretches on stage while playing the trumpet (he put his foot behind his head) and another player who held a lit torch.
The band marched out at the end of the night playing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” They were wearing space helmets.
We laugh. “Marjean didn’t know what to think,” Steve says of Marjean Wisby, the owner of the Wisp.
The years of being around eccentric musicians have made him a good storyteller with an eye for detail. (He wrote his own liner notes on his first long-awaited CD.) Wisby placed a cover charge to help cushion the cost of the bands—cover charges which got as high as $20 for some musicians. It was a fair price to pay for the likes of Lew Tabackin, guitarists Herb Ellis and Tal Farlow, and nobody complained. It was a New York scene in small-town Cincinnati, and free publicity was furnished by writer Dale Stevens of the Cincinnati Post and by The Jazz Ark, radio station WNOP. The more they booked great music at the Wisp, the more musicians wanted to come and play there. Musicians like Joe Lovano, Al Cohn, Joe Henderson, and Ira Sullivan—even Ruby Braff—would play at the Blue Wisp, which amazed everyone.
I usually came and caught the last set. One night I even sang a song with Cal Collins and trumpeter Warren Vache. It was an honor to be asked, and I was in a good mood, so my defenses were down when Lynn Seaton pounced. It was a frosty Saturday night, and Lynn wasn’t in the mood to go home. He insisted Steve and I go out to breakfast with him. “I know this great place in Newport. It serves killer Mexican food,” he said, planting himself squarely in front of me.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “It’s below zero out there. I’m going straight home and get under an electric blanket.”
Of course the next thing I knew Steve and Lynn and I were crowded into Steve’s “jazz car,” headed for Newport. The car was an old-model American four-door gas-guzzler with a hole in the muffler and another hole in the floorboard. If you closed the windows you risked asphyxiation, but with the windows open you risked freezing to death. The cold was palpable— like having another passenger in the car. “Close the window, and let me die with dignity,” I whined as we skidded a little on the Brent Spence Bridge. When we got to Newport the Mexican joint was closed.
Before we realized what was happening, Steve was the premier pianist in Cincinnati. Everybody said that. He was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Corryville when Count Basie’s band called him to sit in for Basie in Cincinnati when the Count was out sick. Steve grabbed his music and his tuxedo, and his mother made him a sandwich and drove him downtown to where the band bus was waiting for him. “Don’t tell anybody you had to drive me to the gig,” he told his mom sternly. But the trip was the talk of the town, and word got out. Dale Stevens even wrote an article about it in the newspaper.
It wasn’t the last time he was to play with the Basie Band. After Basie died, Cincinnatian Frank Foster ran the group, and one day Steve came home to hear Foster on his answering machine with the job offer of a lifetime.
“I can still quote it,” he said. “‘Steve, we need you. Could you meet us in Chicago and join the band?’” Steve had two days to think about it. He was finishing his degree in school, he was deeply involved in the running of the Blue Wisp, and as close as he came to saying “yes,” the eventual answer was “no.”
“We agreed to try it again in a month,” he recalls, “but it just never happened.” I asked him if he ever regretted that decision.
“It was hard to give it up, but I was so busy and so involved in various things at that time I would have been giving up weekends with players like Joe Lovano and Al Cohn,” he told me. “At times I think about it, but it just didn’t happen.”
It was a loss for the Basie Band, too. One night I watched the Blue Wisp Big Band with Steve at the piano, and they were blowing the roof off of the new Blue Wisp on Garfield Place. This Band was John von Ohlen’s baby, and they were playing a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” a lush chart of difficult changes, unexpected dips and swoops. It was the arranger Alan Kiger who said of that tune, “Many a trumpet player has crashed and burned coming off the bridge of ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ ” I laughed when he said it, imagining horn players lying tangled in parachute cords out in a cornfield somewhere.
The last chorus started with a long solo by Steve. He took a chance, brought the volume and the tempo way down until it was a tender ballad, and you heard the longing in those yearning intervals. It seemed to go on forever, luminous, lovely. By the time Steve brought the band back in, the audience was screaming and clapping wildly. I’ve heard Steve play that solo a half dozen times over the years. He’s never played it the same way twice.
“Nothing gold can stay,” some poet said, and it was true. We drifted in different directions, to different clubs with different musicians. Steve and I kept in touch through the years. We phoned one another now and then, followed each other’s fortunes on Facebook. I heard through the grapevine that he had been seriously ill, and later, that he had married—and divorced. Then one day he called, and we decided once and for all we were going to have lunch and catch up.
So it was that I found myself walking down West Fourth Street to The Härth, where Steve plays now on Friday nights—solo—and on Saturday nights with a group. We are both a lot older, but when Steve began to doodle around on the ebony grand piano, I quickly realized that he is still the coolest piano player in town. It’s something about the tone he gets, as if he strikes every key directly on the sweet spot.
We talked for a while about his recent trip to New York to finish a project with vocalists Amy London, Darmon Meader, Holli Ross, and Dylan Pramuk called the Royal Bopsters. The CD took two years to finish, and the players and singers celebrated with a packed-house week at Birdland in New York City. The CD, devoted to vocalese (the art of singing lyrics to jazz lines), got rave reviews from DownBeat and The Wall Street Journal. The Journal made a short film of the musicians and vocalists performing and put it up on the paper’s website. The singers brought the house down every night.
“Who is your favorite piano player?” I ask.
“My inspiration was Ahmad Jamal,” he says. “He had a trio around the late ’40s and into the ’50s, which transcended jazz. I like Herbie Hancock, too, but I’d have to stick with Ahmad Jamal as my favorite. I used to go see them a lot at the original Gilly’s, a jazz club in Dayton.” He pauses for a moment and looks out the window. “He’s still alive,” he says. “I think he’s about 86, and he’s decided not to play concerts anymore, but I’m just happy he’s still on the earth.”
Steve moved to the piano bench and began picking out some Bach variations, some Ravel. “That guy [Ravel] was one of the first ones to play jazz chords,” he told me. He played a little more, and I was mesmerized again by that tone. He coaxed me into singing.
“It’s very clear,” I started, surprising myself a little. My voice was little more than a whisper.
Steve found the key quickly, laying down some tasty chord changes under me. Inspired by his playing, I pulled myself up and reached for notes I hadn’t reached for in years. “In time the Rockies may crumble…” For a minute I felt a little like Ginger Rogers, and Steve was Fred Astaire, and we were moving over the melody like silk, so easy, so effortless. “Our love is here to stay,” I sang, and together we brought home a respectable rendition of the last chorus of that Gershwin tune, looked at each other, and smiled.