The Legendary Johnny O’Neal
After more than 45 years as a professional pianist, vocalist and entertainer, Johnny O’Neal has earned the title of “master” with fellow musicians and audiences around the world. Highlights of his awe-inspiring career include stints with Ray Brown, Milt Jackson and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, as well as a Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 on solo piano opening for Oscar Peterson and induction into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998. While playing with Blakey, he accompanied some of the great jazz divas, including Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. O’Neal has also been tapped for appearances by Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Pass, Nancy Wilson, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Benny Golson, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Clark Terry, among others.
Performances in Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, China, Israel and South Africa have gained him an international following, and he is beloved by audiences around the U.S. Yet, he remains a fixture on the New York jazz scene, regularly playing in local clubs or stopping by a jam session to check out the young talent. A stint in his band has become a coveted apprenticeship among young players, comparable to that of Betty Carter or Art Blakey. He is the tie that binds the classic jazz traditions to the evolution of the form, making him legendary in his own right.
The Detroit native considers himself a piano player first, but was encouraged to sing in his sets more by Joe Williams. He recalls Williams advising him, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Astonishingly, he is largely self-taught. His playing evokes the influences imbued in him by his idols Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, with a nod to bebop master Barry Harris (who first heard O’Neal play as a teenager in Detroit). He has reshaped these elements into his own very swinging and melodic approach.
In live performances, he is apt to catch his audience off-guard with his blues shouting, soulfully rendered yet unpretentious vocalizations or seemingly effortless scatting. No two sets are ever alike. O’Neal explains, “I’m a tune guy. I know 1,500 songs. My father was a pianist and singer who emphasized that learning lyrics creates dynamics and a better interpretation of melody. I rehearse so that the bassist, drummer and I can get familiar with each other’s styles—not to set the songs we’ll play.”
Spoken like a true legend.