Ricky Nye’s musical pedigree is well known by now. An Elder grad with a Berklee School of Music education, Nye (then under his given name, Rick Nieheisel) returned home for a six-year stint behind the keyboards for one of Cincinnati’s most renowned Rock bands, The Raisins. When they dissolved in 1985, Nye worked with local icon Big Ed Thompson, and it was then that he discovered his true Blues passion.
“For three years I played with Big Ed, and I learned,” says Nye over beers and Jagermeister at the Gaslight Tavern. “He’s the reason why I do what I do, the way that I do it, to this day. When I started working with him, that changed everything. The way he ran a band, the way he played, his music. He brought so many different styles together in his own way.”
For more than a decade, Nye rubbed elbows with some of the city’s most renowned Blues icons (Big Joe Duskin, H-Bomb Ferguson, Pigmeat Jarrett) and learned new facets of his already well-schooled craft. He assembled a couple of bands — Ricky Nye and the Red Hots and the Swingin’ Mudbugs, now known as Ricky Nye Inc. — and became a presence himself in the local Blues scene. In 1996, he played his first gig at the Cincinnati Blues Festival’s Arches Boogie Piano Stage where he met British pianist Carl Sonny Leyland and was exposed to the magic of Boogie Woogie.
“I did know Big Joe Duskin but I didn’t learn any Boogie from him directly,” says Nye. “I spent more time with Pigmeat Jarrett but he was more in the style of Jimmy Yancey. Carl really made this kind of music attractive to me.”
In 1999, Leyland contacted Nye about the possibility of gigging while he was in the vicinity for a wedding. Nye decided the best way to attract an audience would be with a marquee of piano players behind his then-rhythm section of upright bassist Steve Flora and drummer Erwin Stuckey (a great pianist in his own right, now head of the SCPA Jazz program). He invited Duskin, a mutual friend of Leyland’s, to join the Southgate House bill, which grew to four pianists with the inclusion of Belgian Boogie Woogie master Renaud Patigny, who Nye had met the previous year at the Arches stage and who was coincidentally flying into Cincinnati to visit friends the night of the show.
“I didn’t have a grand scheme in getting this together,” Nye says. “I had some posters made up, and I talked to Darren Blase at Shake It (Records) afterward and he said, ‘How’d it do?’ And I said, ‘About 80-100 people.’ And he said, ‘That’s great!’ I didn’t think it was so great.”
Patigny spurred Nye to consider producing the event annually, chiding him gently about his primitive publicity and showing him the poster for his own regularly scheduled piano duets in Belgium.
“I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It looked great, it was really professional and he had a whole bunch of sponsors, and he was like, ‘You can do zees, you can be an organizer,’ ” Nye says with a laugh. “It’s more than just showing up for a gig. You’re trying to do something on a grander scale.”
Through his Arches Stage affiliation and his association with Patigny, Nye met like-minded pianists worldwide and began the hard work of securing sponsors and funding; the Blues & Boogie Piano Summit was officially conceived. The Summit has naturally spun off into other opportunities as well, particularly with the live CDs resulting from each year’s performances (an amateur recording exists of the inaugural year featuring Duskin, who passed away in 2007, and Nye may mix and release it at some point). The Summits have also served as an exchange program, as the international pianists that Nye invites to Cincinnati have returned the favor offering him slots at their home country events.
Although Nye isn’t necessarily conceptually deliberate about programming the Summit, he likes to assemble artists that have an interconnected relationship with at least one of the others to create synergy within the bill. This year, the lineup includes Nye’s Inc. rhythm section of bassist Steve Perakis and drummer Brian Aylor with guitarist George Bedard accompanying Leyland, the Summit’s original catalyst, French pianist Fabrice Eulry and young 19-year-old Iowa prodigy Chase Garrett, whose debut album Nye just produced.
“I don’t always have a brand new lineup each year,” Nye says. “I think when people see someone and they’re engaged and entertained by them, they would like to see them again. What’s fun for me is arranging the lineup. What’s going to be fun this year is to see how Carl and Fabrice are taken with Chase. Carl and Fabrice are really heroes to me. When I play, I have four piano players playing in my head, and they’re two of them. And Chase was invariably influenced by me, which kind of trips me out. There are big names that I’ve been influenced by, but the guys I’m influenced by the most are friends, not necessarily people known in the big world.”
Even without the demands of the Summit — which Nye quickly clarifies as not having a stuffy recital atmosphere — there is scant little room in his schedule. He has regular nights booked around the area (Wednesdays at Chez Nora in Covington, first/third/fifth Thursdays at Arnold’s; check his calendar at www.rickynye.com), he works with vocalists Bekah Williams and Dottie Warner on those and other nights, he travels the world to play with Summit friends (he just returned from a Paris gig) and he plays deeply gratifying shows for the elderly under the auspices of a program called Creative Aging.
While Nye is almost pathologically busy, it’s clear he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve never had to be forced into doing any of this,” Nye says with a smile. “Music is what I love to do.”
THE 10TH ANNUAL BLUES AND BOOGIE PIANO SUMMIT takes place Saturday at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.