Back to the beginning: After 21 years, a return to the Buckeye State

The Bill Cunliffe Trio: Tim Horner, Bill Cunliffe and Martin Wing at Dayton's Pine Club.

I left Cincinnati 21 years ago to pursue my fame and fortune in the City of Angels. I left a lot of great friends and great memories there.Last week, I got to relive them by returning to the Buckeye State for the first time to perform with my own band, my trio featuring the bassist Martin Wind and the drummer Tim Horner.I met both of these guys when I was living in NYC a few years ago, and the musical rapport was instant, so much so we knew we had to play together. We’ve done an album as three quarters of the Martin Wind Quartet (with saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson), and plan to record next year as a trio.

Last Thursday, I returned to the scene of the crime, where my career started; the idyllic campus of Central State University, in Wilberforce. When I graduated from the Eastman School, my only job offer was here. The man who would become my best friend, Paul Evoskevich, taught there, had been a classmate of mine at Eastman, and knew I might be looking for work.

Returning to campus was a real time-capsule experience, as the place looks exactly the same, and many of my faculty colleagues were still there, including guitarist Jim Smith and choral director Bill Caldwell. The kids are bright, interested, and a lot of fun, and we invited faculty member and master percussionist Leonardo Moses, who was one of my students back in the day, to sit in.

Next, we hustled down I-75 to get to the Redmoor Theatre, about six blocks from where I used to live in Cincinnati. This is a gorgeous old movie house that has been renovated into a fantastic performance space. We played two sets there, and lots of old friends showed up, including ex-girlfriend Joan Hoskins, her husband Steve, a fine saxophonist and arranger; guitaristWilbert Longmire, drummer Art Gore, singers Kathy Wade and Eugene GossCincinnati Symphony violinist Paul Patterson, pianist Phil De Greg, bassist Don Aren, and lots of other friends from the old days when I backed up people like Joe Henderson and James Moody at the Greenwich Taverntoo many years ago.

Southern Ohio is host to many rewarding heartland cuisines, like Skyline ChiliGraeter’s Ice Cream, and Montgomery Inn Ribs. But, for my money, the quintessential Midwestern experience is dining at the Pine Club,Dayton’s finest steakhouse.

A flawless example of 60s Midwest dining, the ambience is low lit, the waitresses have been there forever, and red naugahide and wood paneling surround you. The martinis are huge, as are the steaks. A favorite dish is the “split dick,” named after a customer, which is a filet cut butterfly style,  with a garlic butter pat in the middle.  You have to stay away, however,  from the stewed tomatoes, which, for my money are way too sweet, although one customer allegedly garnished  his portion with six packages of Splenda. Rough.

Jerry Gilotti, truly one of a kind, proprietor of Gilly's in Dayton.

That night, we played at Gilly’s, owned by Jerry Gillotti,  a shrewd businessman and true music lover who has been doing this for about 40 years. I think he pays about a dollar rent a year to the city for the space, which is in the Dayton Convention CenterGerry has a droll sense of humor; he once mentioned to me about a certain woman in the club, “She’s just like Jesus Christ, she loves everybody.” He also called an ex-girlfriend of mine, “sugar britches.” I let that pass.

Next, we trucked up I-71 to Cleveland, where we met Painesville native Holly Hofmann for a quartet session atNighttown, the top jazz club in town. We were absolutely knocked out by the club, which has a brand new Yamaha C7, and the neighborhood, where you can literally buy a 10 room mansion for about 400K. The natives said the taxes would kill us, though. We stayed in a lovely guest house in the neighborhood, but you go ONE block in the wrong direction, and you are really in the ‘hood. Guess all those taxes go for extra police.

The cats are all Starbucks fanatics, which can be a problem in Ohio. The iPhone handled the situation fairly well, but once led us to a dead end at Kings Island, where  the Starbucks proved nonexistent, and on the next try the road just came to a stop. They need to put a Starbucks finder on that phone. In addition to an app that lets you make phone calls! AT&T, are you listening?

Flutist Holly Hofmann (left), Bill Cunliffe and Holly's sister, Jean, in Cleveland.

Last stop was Columbus, where we played a clinic/concert at Capital University, which has a very fine jazz department run by percussionist Bob Breithaupt and bassist Lou Fischer.  The dining in the area is quite excellent and we found a delicious Middle Eastern/vegetarian place nearby. The kids were very enthusiastic, and asked lots of questions.

The music was great, the people were lovely, the food was great, and I didn’t lose any money. So, let’s do this again sometime!!

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