The New Jazz Age: Founding Fathers of Columbus Jazz

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1936–1977)


Even as a youngster, Columbus native Kirk didn't do things the predictable way. "His sisters and parents noticed him blowing into a garden hose, trying to make sounds out of it," says Jack Marchbanks, co-host of Jazz Sunday on WCBE 90.5 FM. Kirk-who played with Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones-applied his creativity to his names, first renaming himself Roland (from Ronald) then adding Rahsaan. "He woke up one morning and said, 'I had this dream where everybody was calling me Rahsaan,' " Marchbanks says, adding the idea for the multi-instrumentation Kirk achieved fame with-playing the saxophone, stritch and manzello simultaneously-also came to him in his sleep.

Mark Flugge (1962–2014)


Columbus native Flugge parlayed his studies at Ohio State University and the Eastman School of Music into a performing career. He had a knack for emulating others without losing his own style, says Jim Rupp, a lecturer at Ohio State. Flugge was also passionate about teaching; he held positions at both Ohio State and Capital University. Beginning in 2012, Flugge struggled with conditions, including tinnitus, that affected his hearing-a tragic fate for one to whom music was everything. He ended his life in May 2014. "Of all the things that can happen to a musician, I can't think of anything worse than what happened to him," says Ray Eubanks, founder of the Jazz Arts Group.

Hank Marr (1927–2004)

Jazz organ and piano

Born and raised in Columbus, Marr was inspired by the magic jazz organist Jimmy Smith created with the Hammond B-3. "Most jazz organ players tend to rush," says Jim Rupp, a lecturer at Ohio State. "Hank had just rock-solid time." One professional highlight came courtesy comedian George Kirby, for whom Marr was musical director in the 1960s and '70s. Like Gene Walker, he later became a professor at Ohio State. And you had to hear his sound to believe it. "Hank did things on a Hammond organ that no one else did," says Ray Eubanks, founder of the Jazz Arts Group. And, he adds, Marr saw to it that no one tried: "At the end of a tune, his hand would go up, and he would push all the stops off-so nobody could take a picture of it."

Rusty Bryant (1929–1991)

Tenor and alto saxophone

Bryant (born in West Virginia but raised in Columbus) could play both tenor and alto saxophone with equal proficiency. "Rusty had that big boss tenor sound, and he could fill a room with that tenor. But when he would switch to alto sax, he sounded like Cannonball [Adderley]," says Jim Rupp, a lecturer at Ohio State. A big break came with "All Nite Long," a re-imagination of "Night Train," which Bryant "energized … by doubling the tempo," according to the book "Ohio Jazz." The Dot record of "All Nite Long" sold about 700,000 copies, and a 1954 item in Billboard quotes a disk distributor saying the record "has taken hold with operators at greater speed … than any other record in his experience."

Eugene "Gene" Walker (1938–2014)

Tenor saxophone

Walker, who attended East High School, was a "classic example of a street player who everybody wanted to play like and sound like," says Ohio State University lecturer Jim Rupp. Walker played alongside Aretha Franklin and Neil Diamond, and he was a member of an act that opened for The Beatles in 1965. "He was there in old Mets Stadium when it all started in the United States," says Ray Eubanks, founder of the Jazz Arts Group. Late in life, Walker earned a degree from Ohio State. Ted McDaniel, director of jazz studies at Ohio State, says Walker was "a walking encyclopedia for students and always willing to help out in any way that he could." Walker later taught at Ohio State, too.

Sammy Stewart (1891–1960)

Piano and bandleader

Stewart was a son of Circleville but arrived in Columbus early in his life and was performing by age 10, says Arnett Howard, co-author of "Ohio Jazz." Tapped by booking agent Charlie Parker to join Parker's Popular Players, by 1918 he formed a group with an equally alliterative name: Sammy Stewart's Singing Syncopators. Jazz wasn't their only specialty, though: When playing at the Deshler-Wallick Hotel in Columbus, Howard says, "During the dinner hour, he would play classical music or he would play just music with a four-or five-piece group." His musical legacy is grounded in his classical training, Howard adds: "He really played music, while people like Louis Armstrong played jazz music."