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Johnny O’Neal’s Jazz Message

January 19, 2020

For a jazz pianist, earning a recommendation from Oscar Peterson was kind of like a fellow director getting a good word from Martin Scorsese. But Johnny O’Neal didn’t just land a plum spot in the 2004 Oscar-winning biopic Ray at Peterson’s suggestion, he was cast as Art Tatum, the nonpareil keyboard virtuoso revered by Peterson, Ray Charles, and just about every other pianist since the 1930s.

“When I did the screen test, the director didn’t let me finish the song,” recalls O’Neal, 63, who opens a three-night run at the Black Cat on Jan. 23. “Halfway through he just said, you’re our Tatum. I got to meet Jamie Foxx, who’s a pianist himself and he was infatuated with how I played. I can’t play like Tatum, I just conceptually think like that.”

OP’s praise is not surprising. While sounding little like the imposing Peterson, O’Neal is heir to a similar heritage running through Nat Cole. He possesses the buoyant rhythmic feel, open-hearted wit, and two-handed drive that turns up-tempo numbers into rip-snorting adventures and ballads into finely calibrated, self-contained narratives.

A New York City institution, O’Neal had been absent from Bay Area stages for more than a decade before the Black Cat’s Fritz Quattlebaum booked him at the swanky Tenderloin nightspot last winter. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the pianist was a regular presence here, performing at Keystone Korner accompanying vibes legend Milt Jackson and with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He played leading San Francisco supper clubs, like an engagement at the Fairmont with Lionel Hampton.

What makes his Black Cat run so exceptional is that prying O’Neal out of Gotham is a major accomplishment. He’s one of those rare players who doesn’t need to leave town to stay busy. “People say ‘You’re the most workingest pianist in New York,’” O’Neal says, pointing to four ongoing residencies, including Ginny’s Supper Club, Minton’s, Smoke, and Mezzrow.

“I’m really grateful for that. I’ve been at Smoke for 10 yeas. The thing is, I treat a residency like an event, like it’s the first time I ever played there. I keep it fresh, and I’ve never had a problem not drawing.”

Born in Detroit, O’Neal moved to Birmingham Alabama in 1974 and established himself as one of the region’s most accomplished accompanists over the next six years. By the time he felt ready to take on New York in 1980, he’d impressed some of jazz’s greatest improvisers. Trumpeter Clark Terry, whose track record for nurturing young talent dated back to boosting a teenage trumpeter in East St. Louis named Miles Davis, told O’Neal to look him up when he got to town.

“I arrived in New York on a Tuesday afternoon, got a copy of The Village Voice and see an ad for Clark appearing at the Blue Note,” O’Neal says. “I called him and said ‘I see you’re playing at the Blue Note, Who’s your pianist?’ He says, ‘You are!’ He’d been calling around looking for a piano player. The day after I moved to New York I played the Blue Note for a week.”

When drummer Art Blakey, also in need of a pianist, stopped by the Blue Note to catch Terry, he ended up recruiting O’Neal for the Jazz Messengers. Before he had a chance to unpack, he was off to Europe for three months with a blazing young band featuring two rising horn players from New Orleans, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison.

“It was a relatively new band and we went right in the studio in Holland and did a recording,” O’Neal says, referring the 1982 Timeless album Oh — By the Way. “I’d been playing more of the standards and playing with Blakey enabled me to be more of an ensemble player on contemporary tunes like that. It gave some diversity and I learned from those guys.”

In establishing himself as a headliner, O’Neal didn’t just depend on his prodigious keyboard prowess. He’s also a suave singer who with an unerring sense of swing. Rather shy on the bandstand, he didn’t often feature himself on a song until Joe Williams, whose 1950s stint with the Count Basie Orchestra catapulted him to stardom, heard him one night.

“He said if a jazz musician can sing, you’ve got it flaunt it,” O’Neal says. “I took his advice. I enjoy telling the story. I give a lot of credit to singers. I learned how to be a better piano player being an accompanist. You should learn how to play behind a singer. It gives you more of a sound, so you can sit down on phrases and not rush it.”

For O’Neal’s return engagement at the Black Cat he’s playing with his New York trio featuring British bassist Mark Lewandowski and Israeli drummer Itay Morchi. They’re rising young players, and O’Neal sees his ensemble as a finishing academy. It’s an opportunity for him to give back to a scene that has provided him with so much.

“I’ve had five trios since I’ve lived in New York,” O’Neal says. “Every few years I change it up and give different young musicians a chance to play with me. It’s like a school. They’ve traveled with me all over the world. When new guys come in, if there are tunes they don’t know, every rehearsal we’ll go over 10 or 15 songs. Since I have a lot of residencies in New York, we play together a lot, and we use the residency like a training camp. Out of town we can do what we want.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.