He rehearses only to get to know his musicians better rather than to plan which songs to perform, out of the 1,500 songs from his repertoire. It has been written that even when his performance begins at seven-thirty in the evening it always has the warm embracing air of a jazz club at 2AM. It was also said that there are very few pianists with a touch like his that produces such a unique sound, and even fewer with such a natural sense of swing.
Johnny O’Neal, a pianist, singer, and all-around stage persona was born in Detroit, Michigan, 61 years ago, to a father who was also a pianist and a singer. The New York Times described him as coming from the other side of time, from the late vernacular age of jazz. He began his career in Alabama, in the 1970s, at a time when there were still active local jazz scenes, and a young pianist had the opportunity to work with the greatest. Throughout his career, which began on a local scale and continued all over the world, O’Neal had worked with and performed alongside Ray Brown, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Clark Terry, and Milt Jackson, as well as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Pass, Nancy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Benny Golson, and more.
A self-taught musician, his music reverberates with the influences of his idols – Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell – and is reshaped to create his unique swing-and-melodic approach in the spirit of post-bop and neo-bop. Singing is his passion however, he primarily considers himself a piano player. O’Neal was also selected to play the character of Art Tatum in the 2004 Oscar-winning film, Ray, a role that he played successfully. “I just want to play and preserve the style of the jazz masters,” he says, and carries out this mission with dedication through original interpretations of jazz classics as well as original lyric compositions. While his fingers hover over the keys with technical virtuosity, he adds soulful and gentle renditions to the ballads featuring a unique versatile vocal style that combines a velvety sound with thrilling improvisation. “Jazz,” says O’Neal “is the highest level of performance
because it’s instant composition. I like to be spontaneous and respond to cues from the audience.”
He often laughs while playing, enjoying the musical jokes, and his enthusiasm is contagious, causing him, the musicians, and the audience to smile throughout the performance, spreading the spirit of swing, playfulness and the sheer pleasure of music. With a charming and captivating personality, O’Neal is living proof of the well-known theory – excellent jazz is fun jazz.
Johnny O’Neal piano and vocals
Ben Rubens bass
Itay Morchi drums
Photographer: Roberto Cifarelli