Music: King of Queen (City)

Local Jazz mainstay King Reeves offers lessons from the 'old school'

King Reeves, 69, points an emphatic finger at me. "This is your first lesson from a master," he says.

I almost expect to hear the word "grasshopper" follow.

Compared with him, I'm a neophyte; he's been playing Jazz for 45 years, I've been playing for 10. What we hold in common is our instrument of choice: the vibraphone or vibraharp, also known as the vibes.

The vibes is a lesser-known Jazz instrument similar to the marimba but with metal bars, a foot pedal like a piano and a rotating fan to give the characteristic vibrato. It's an instrument that has always been on the fringe — these days, the majority of players who take it up are drummers trying to learn their scales. When I studied vibes at the UC's College-Conservatory of Music, they had to enlist the help of a Classical percussion professor and custom create a program for my instrument.

Reeves shakes his head at the idea of learning Jazz in educational institutions, however. He's all about old school — the school of hard knocks.

"Suffering is what makes your playing significant," he says.

"It's not the good times. Jazz is emotion. It comes from the heart. They're making like it's a science. It's not the notes, it's the feeling you put in the notes."

Reeves is walking history. His father was a guitarist during the Cotton Club days, his childhood began during World War II and he came of age during the time of segregation.

He lived through the Civil Rights movement, a time of turmoil, change and incredible music. He was around during the heyday of such legends as Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. He personally knew giants like Sonny Stitt, Grover Washington and Milt Jackson.

But today he carries a legacy that is quickly going extinct. It's an issue Reeves finds painful.

"I've got a wall in my house going up the steps and I call it my wall of success," he says. "I've got all the musicians that I know and that I've played with — everybody — if I had someone associated with music, I tried to put them on the wall. And I happened to take a look at that thing the other day, and ... most everybody on that wall is gone ... dead now, you know. And it just broke my heart."

It's a reality many Jazz players and fans find grim. Few people regularly patronize Jazz clubs, and even fewer venues host it. The handful of Jazz legends still around are dying off.

"It really frightens me where this music is going to end up if we don't have audience participation," Reeves says.

He talks about the old days, when clubs used to have grand pianos and when players like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie roamed the streets. "But even guys like Bird (Parker) would starve to death," he adds.

It's a situation that causes many Jazz musicians to despair — and sometimes quit. Reeves once stopped playing for five or six years until a friend chastised him for being selfish, holding his music back from the world. This motivated Reeves to start playing again, but not in low-paying clubs. Nowadays he plays infrequently — only at festivals, benefits and for special programming where he feels his art is valued.

This "State of Jazz Emergency" — the fact that older, expert players are going extinct and taking their secrets with them — motivated Larry Robinson, a close friend of Reeves, to start a series of concerts. Called the "Jazz Master Series," these performances will feature outstanding local players in a suitably respectful environment. Proceeds will also go to Habitat for Humanity for the rebuilding of the Musicians' Village in New Orleans.

"I just thought it was critical for people to hear and experience these guys 'cause it's a rarity," Robinson says. "If you see a master, you always remember it."

Reeves and his partner Charlie Wilson will perform together at the next Jazz Master Series concert Sunday at the Cincinnati Art Museum. They go by their childhood nicknames, "Bowl and Bunns."

The concert which will offer the unusual opportunity to see two legends who used to hang with giants like Milt Jackson and Charles Mingus and who have developed their own unique voices as players perform together. The concert will be followed by a Q&A session in which audience members can get to know the musicians.

In light of Herbie Hancock's recent "Album of the Year" Grammy (the first time a Jazz artist has won that award since 1965), perhaps the future of Jazz isn't all grim.

Reeves says, "You have to bring high quality back." He adds, "Jazz is like fine wine — the older it gets, the better it gets."

In this case it's up to us to make sure the barrels don't all run dry.

KING REEVES (with Bowls and Bunns) performs at "An Evening with the Masters" Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Cincinnati Art Museum's Fath Auditorium. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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