Musician Tom Kaper remembers seeing jazz great Herb Ellis pull up to the Blue Wisp Jazz Club several years ago in his ’72 “beat-to-shit” Ford LTD.
“That said it all to me,” Kaper recalls. “Here’s arguably the greatest Jazz guitarist that ever lived. That was his tour bus, and he drove up from Texas to play for $300 or so.”
It’s a story that can be told thousands of times both on a national and local level. Those who choose a musical career aren’t always well compensated, to put it mildly.
The life of the “struggling artist” has become something of a romantic cliché. But it can also mean real hardships for people who choose to live the life of a creative calling.
Enter Play It Forward, the year-old Cincinnati support group that wants to financially help musicians who give us remarkable entertainment in clubs and concert halls on a nightly basis, often at the expense of their financial security and well being.
The organization is the brainchild of Gary Burbank, the veteran humorist, radio personality and former Memphis session drummer who retired from WLW-AM at the end of 2007.
“The main thrust is to build up our coffers so we can help in big and little ways,” Burbank says. “When someone comes to us and says, ‘I just crushed my glasses,’ we can help. Or ‘I’ve been injured, I’m going to be down for a while.’ We might pay some medical bills or cover a couple months’ rent until they get going.”
The group kicks off its first major fundraising effort with a benefit concert Thursday at the Madison Theater. It’s also releasing a 30-cut double CD that plays as a “who’s who” of the local scene, spanning generations.
Tracks range from King Records session drummer Philip Paul (joined by Peter Frampton on Jazz guitar) to hard Country artist Bobby Mackey.
It includes tracks from Cincinnati music heroes such as psychodots, Kelly Richey, Sonny Moorman, Robin Lacy, Larry Goshorn, The Bluebirds and the late Katie Reider.
The local music community has seen its share of catastrophic events, including Reider’s death last year from a rare cancer. There was also bassist Chris Walker’s auto wreck that left him partially paralyzed. Many site the cases of Kenny Poole, Big Joe Duskin and H Bomb Ferguson, Cincinnati music legends who died during the last few years without healthcare coverage.
A couple of years ago Blue Wisp Big Band leader John Von Ohlen took a spill and broke his wrist — not good for a man who makes his living drumming. Friends rallied to hold benefits for Von Ohlen and help him over the tough times. There are plenty of stories of hardships, but sometimes musicians are reluctant to publicly tell their stories, too proud for a handout.
Organizers acknowledge that to do this right requires a serious fundraising effort, and they are likely months away from actually being able to help.
“Our plan is to have an endowment so we can help people using the interest of the fund, which, of course, is going to take something in the six figures to do,” says Kaper, Play It Forward president. “We would have an application format for those who need to get some aid. The focus would be on career musicians who have sacrificed a normal livelihood and lifestyle to be an entertainer.”
Kaper says fundraising will also include grant writing and approaching wealthy donors. In some circles the fundraising effort could be a tough sell — there certainly will be people who think, “Why don’t those deadbeat musicians get a real job? Times are tough for everyone.”
That sentiment raises the larger issue for Burbank, who’s out to convince people the working musician is just as worthy of financial aid as any other artist.
“It’s time to recognize that that guy playing piano at the bar is, many times, a great artist, too,” Burbank says. “We need to support him as much as you would support the guy in the tuxedo playing the oboe. It has the same impact on the quality of life in a community. I know they say, ‘Go get a job.’ But this is their job, their passion.
“The symphony player is following a passion, and they are subsidized. What we’re trying to do in a small way is subsidize the regular musicians that play out because of what they give to us.”
Burbank, who has backed off from actually running the organization, feels he has a high-powered team in place on the PIF board that includes members with expertise in the healthcare field, event planning and financial planning. There are also several veteran musicians working on the project, such as Lemon Pipers founder Bob Nave, Sonny Moorman, Marcos Sastre, Noah Hunt, Nathan Whitt, Larry Goshorn, Tim Goshorn, Lance Boyd, Keith Little, Tim Beckert and Roger Yeardley along with media personalities Norma Rashid and Bill Whyte.
The lineup for Thursday’s benefit includes Burbank with Blue Run, The Blue Birds, Ricky Nye, Tracy Walker, Keith Little, Rootbound, Scotty Anderson, Moorman, Hunt and possibly an appearance from a certain Grammy-winning artist who happens to live in the Cincinnati suburbs with the initials I.H.
PLAY IT FORWARD hosts a benefit concert at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Madison Theater. Find more information at www.playitforwardcincy.org.