Appreciation of an unsung master pianist: Johnny O’Neal

Harlem jazz scribe Ron Scott, a past participant in our series of conversations with black jazz writers “Ain’t But a Few of Us,” and a regular contributor to the Amsterdam News among other outlets, wrote this appreciation of a truly unsung master jazz pianist, Johnny O’Neal. A native of Detroit Johnny O’Neal is most assuredly part of the pantheon of Detroit pianists. A former Jazz Messenger, O’Neal is one of those many unsung jazz artists deserving of your – and wider – recognition. In addition to the regular Johnny O’Neal gigs Ron chronicles here, you might also catch him in the DC area as part of the Jazz Knights lovely Monday night jazz series at Vicino’s in Silver Spring, MD. There are a number of such unsung masters out here toiling in the jazz fields and we intend to feature some on an occasional basis in The Independent Ear.

By Ron Scott

Pianist Johnny O’Neal has two regular weekly gigs; one on Saturday the “Round Midnight Session, starting at 12:30am at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club-Lounge (West 104th Street and Broadway), and on Sundays the “After Hours” session at 12:30am to closing at Smalls Jazz Club (183 West 10th in the West Village).

Those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him should definitely do whatever it takes to catch his performance. Art Tatum was the best pianist to touch the keys. O’Neal is a close second bar none. His unique genius style swings from the down-right home blues to gospel, stride, crazy improvisational straight-ahead jazz and his ballads will pull your heart strings to capacity.

So why this incredible pianist is just playing late night gigs is baffling to me, he is assuredly a marquee performer with all the goods. His talent is beyond approach, he possesses that old school performance motto; great playing ability, he is extremely engaging with a little humor and wit. Like Ray Charles he plays and sings his butt off.
During his recent gig at Smoke O’Neal wowed the audience with tunes like “This Could be the Start of Something Big.” This was not the Broadway Show tune that we were accustomed to he transformed this tune into a rousing uptempo jazz burner. The song was filled with his unique rich tones that transitioned into fierce melodic notes with wild crescendos before he easily came back to the familiar melody.

On the ballad “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” he opened with an acappella intro with a smooth transition to scatting and then a cascading run of the piano keys and he was off into a signature O’Neal reconstructed ballad.

Eubie Blake’s song “I’ll Give A Dollar for a Dime” is one of O’Neal’s favorites, on this ballad his piano playing and vocals send vibrations to your soul.
He was amazing on Duke Ellington’s composition “Please Be Kind,” O’Neal noted it was a tribute to Art Tatum. On this tune like the rest he has the ability to stretch the basic melody into an exciting journey of rich crescendos, and acrobatic rhythms before returning to the original melody.

He closed the set with a down home gospel song “While the Blood is Running Warm in Your Veins.” The only thing missing was the southern Baptist preacher.
“I don’t like to be predictable,” stated O’Neal. I never write down what tunes I will be doing during a set. I just call out the tunes as we go along.” The Detroit pianist knows over 1,500 songs that he can play in any key. His improvisational interpretation of the American songbook and jazz repertoire is a unique gift.

The noted saxophonist Lou Donaldson [a man not generally given to heaping high praise] was also in the house that evening. After his set Donaldson walked up to O’Neal and said, “Man you can play, you are king of the piano.” Not only is O’Neal a genius on the piano but he an exceptionally nice person. In 2004 O’Neal portrayed the great Art Tatum in the Academy Award nominated film Ray. Upon hearing him play it immediately becomes clear why he was selected for the role.

O’Neal was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997. In Alabama he worked with local jazz musicians before moving to New York. As a member of the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers he toured extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, South Africa and made five trips to Japan. His mentors are pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. It was Peterson who recommended him for the role in Ray. “When I think about the people that came before me it keeps my humility in check,” said O’Neal.

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3 Responses to Appreciation of an unsung master pianist: Johnny O’Neal

  1. Chad Carter says:

    YES, YES, YES! Man I was in town myself that night for a gig at the Lenox Lounge. After we finished at Lenox Lounge, I boogied on over to catch my friend, Johnny O’Neal doing his thing and who should I see front and center was Mr. Lou Donaldson! Lou was truly eating up everything Johnny was playing! Lou was saying stuff like, “Man this is bad dude…” and so on. Brother Scott I’m so glad you were in the house that night! You may not recall but we met an Ernie Andrew’s show a few years back at Dizzy’s. As for Johnny’s show, had I known you were at Smoke that night, I would have said hello but then we were all captivated with the great Johnny O’Neal! As you stated he is “a genius on the piano” and yes a truly kind hearted cat. My first encounter with Brother O’Neal was via a phone call. I had a gig in Detroit and I desperately needed a great pianist to accompany me on this gig. In fact, I needed a whole rhythm section. Well, I was over to my friend, Ron Compton’s house, a locally based jazz drummer and teacher in Washington DC, and we were there for a surprise party he was having for his wife. As the party ensued, who should we put on DVD to watch and listen to but the great Johnny O’Neal. Johnny was doing his thing as always, tearing it up and through small talk, I mentioned needing a pianist and basically a whole group for a private gig I had coming up in Detroit. Well, Ron turns to me and says, “Johnny’s from Detroit. Why don’t you call Johnny?” I respond, “You think Johnny would play for me, really?” Ron says, “Sure, you can always give him a call and see what he says. My boy Kermit is the cat on the DVD playing with him now.” So I get Johnny’s number through Kermit and the next thing I know Johnny has me auditioning over the phone from my office at work. Wow, Johnny was so nice and encouraging. The next thing I know, Johnny’s not only playing for me in Detroit for the gig but he’s playing a gig for us at Vicino’s! Truly a decent cat and I simply pray he continues to do well. The funny thing about all of this is I just called him and happened upon this piece by you Brother Scott. It is funny how things work and how everything is connected when you dig deep enough or even when you don’t; you just have to see it. Thanks again for giving Johnny a much deserved shout out! BTW, when I called Johnny just a moment ago, he was doing fine and was on his way to a gig! I told him, that’s all I wanted to know my Brother, peace!

  2. Ray Reach says:

    When he lived in Birmingham (at the YMCA), Johnny used to come to my apartment and I’d let him practice on my piano while I ran daily errands. I was first alerted about Johnny’s great talent by a sax player friend of mine, Dave Amaral. Johnny was playing at a local Italian restaurant downtown. He was 17 years old, and already playing like Oscar Peterson! What an incredibly gifted guy!

    Ray Reach
    Director of Student Jazz Programs
    Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame

  3. Josy Erne says:

    Hi — very happy to see this article, even two years later.Like you, I’m amazed he isn’t doing major gigs, and known to jazz fans and musicians everywhere. I’m not a musician, just a music lover who walked into Smoke mid-set one Saturday night, knowing nothing about Johnny O’Neal. By the time I got three feet into the club, it was clear I was in the presence of a virtuoso. I’ve been back many times since, and have been sending friends and telling everyone I know–especially musicians, for whom his gigs should be “required listening”–not just for his mind-blowing technique, but for his deep understanding and synthesis of the full span jazz and pop, of classical…of music, period (which you sometimes have the good luck to hear in one single, sweeping number). It’s a blast watching the young players in the know, who stand at the wall behind him to watch how he plays. Let’s keep passing his name around!

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