Arts feature: Tenor Titans

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Photo by Tim Johnson

In the 1990s, operatic giants Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti gained wider, popular fame performing as the Three Tenors. The trio's success gave rise to a collection of takes on the concept, including the Irish Tenors, the Canadian Tenors and Three Mo' Tenors.

Columbus has its own set of three storied tenors, although with a much twist-ier twist — they're tenor saxophone players.

>>Read more: Columbus Fall Arts Guide

The Jazz Arts Group will pay tribute to these three late, great tenors — Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Rusty Bryant and Gene Walker — in concert when it presents “Tenor Titans of the Capital City” at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 22.

“Everybody loves … to celebrate stuff that's truly of our city. And with these three, their impact reaches far beyond Columbus,” said Pete Mills, saxophonist with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and one of a team that programs JAG's Jazz at the Lincoln series. “We're sitting around talking about the series, and I'm a saxophone player, sitting in the Lincoln Theatre, with the Lincoln Theatre Walk of Fame right outside, knowing the history of the great saxophone players in the city. We thought, ‘Let's celebrate the tenor saxophone in Columbus music history. It's such an incredible legacy.'”

Kirk was born and raised in Columbus. Blind from age 2, he became a musician at a young age, eventually relocating to the East Coast where he developed an international reputation in the 1950s and '60s as a bandleader (Kirk also played alongside Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones, among others), as well as for his outspoken political commentary. Primarily remembered for playing multiple instruments simultaneously and the technique of circular breathing, which allowed him to play lengthy passages and sustained notes, Kirk was also an influential soul and hard bop stylist.

Bryant balanced national success (his recording of “All Nite Long,” an arrangement of Jimmy Forrest's now-standard “Night Train,” was a hit R&B single in 1954) with significant contributions at home, including frequently sharing the stage with keyboardist Hank Marr and singer Nancy Wilson. He recorded and toured as a bandleader and sideman for jazz and R&B notables throughout the '70s and '80s.

Walker's reputation in the Columbus music scene comes from both his commitment to performing and education. He toured the world in the '60s and '70s, sharing the stage with, among others, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Aretha Franklin, before returning to Columbus, where he worked as a popular bandleader and advocate for music education in public schools.

“When my dad passed in 2014, there was a memorial service at the Lincoln Theatre. I talked about when I was little and would go with him to his shows, he would have me come out and wave to the audience, and I said this would be the last time,” said Melody Walker, Gene Walker's daughter. “I guess I'm going to get to do it one more time.”

“Gene and Rahsaan grew up together,” said Candace Kirk-Howell, Rahsaan Roland Kirk's sister, in an interview at a Linden cafe. “We're still so proud of what Rahsaan accomplished. It's important to our family that Columbus continues to remember and appreciate him.”

“My dad was a huge fan of Kirk,” said saxophonist and OSU professor Shawn “Thunder” Wallace, one of the nine players who will be featured at the Sept. 22 concert. “He always said that he wanted me to also be able to play a lot of different instruments the way Kirk did. I definitely studied his techniques and his playing quite a bit.”

“Rahsaan was more of a global figure. I'm originally from Toronto and I knew of Kirk from early on,” Mills said. “After I came to Columbus about 20 years ago, my first professional gig was with Gene. Over the years we had so much fun. I've always been enamored of Gene as a musician and as a person.”

“Tenor Titans” will feature a program of tunes made popular by the three players, including Kirk composition “Three for the Festival,” from the 1961 LPWe Free Kings, “Soul Liberation” from the 1970 Bryant LP of the same name and the aforementioned “All Nite Long.” The program's first half will also draw from standard tenor sax repertoire, including “Body and Soul,” “Stardust” and “Canadian Sunset.”

The program's nine saxophonists — Mills and Wallace, plus Eddie Bayard, Michael Cox, Chad Eby, Randy Mather, Bryan Olsheski, Byron Rooker and 17-year-old Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra member Devin Coons — will take turns out front of a seven-piece rhythm section, assembled from the local scene and featuring players who were in bands with Kirk, Bryant or Wallace.

The program's second half will consist of the premiere of a new composition by tenor saxophonist Eby, a performer and arranger with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, dedicated to and inspired by Kirk, Bryant and Wallace, titled, “The Titan Suite.”

“We have these three players who sort of epitomize everything we study and strive for in the music,” Eby said by phone. “I learned to play while I was living in Columbus. It's a scene that was and is so vibrant. It's a testament to Columbus and to these three gentlemen who are titans that we can do a concert with nine players … and there could have been more.”

“There's not much about this concert I don't like,” Wallace said. “I don't get to play with or even see a lot of these other guys because everybody's always working. And to celebrate the scene here in Columbus and these three players who helped make it … it's going to be fun.”

The program will also call attention to the Rahsaan Roland Kirk Scholarship for the Arts, administered by the Columbus Foundation on behalf of Kirk-Howell and the rest of that family, which provides college scholarships to students pursuing a degree in the arts.

Additionally, a Thursday, Sept. 13, event at the Jazz Arts Group's Jazz Academy, housed in the Lincoln Theatre, will serve as a preview of sorts. The “Tenor Titans Listening Party” will feature stories, audio clips and portions of interviews conducted with the performers and family members of each of the three “titans,” Mills said.

Lincoln Theatre

8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22

769 E. Long St., King-Lincoln

“Tenor Titans of the Capital City”