Jazz saxophonist Gene Walker has played with some of the most important musical figures over the past half century, Hall of Fame names like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Brook Benton, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Neil Diamond, Brenda Lee, Elvin Jones, The Isley Brothers and dozens of others. The 72-year-old Columbus native has been a critical element of the state capital’s vibrant Jazz scene as a solo artist, a bandleader (he fronts both the Cotton Club Orchestra and the Generations Band) and an educator (he taught Jazz saxophone and combo classes at Ohio State University, the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camps and does outreach to area schools through the American Jazz Experience Program, among other educational programs).
Walker was born in 1938 in one of Columbus’ most musically and culturally fertile black neighborhoods, an area that actively supported nearly 40 Jazz and R&B clubs and, as such, was a frequent tour stop for artists traveling between Chicago and New York City.
Immersed in music at home and school, Walker learned the saxophone as a teenager and got good enough to sit in with local groups (so did Walker’s best friend Ronnie Kirk, who would become Jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk), eventually hitting the touring circuit in the late 1950s. Walker was later a part of King Curtis’ band when they opened for The Beatles’ first American tour.
After two decades of playing with the highest profile artists in the business, Walker returned home to care for his ailing parents. In 1983, a friend asked him to substitute in his classroom at Ohio State, and within weeks Walker enrolled as a student, graduating in 1988 and taking a teaching position in OSU’s Jazz program the following year while continuing to pursue his performing career.
Gene Walker has said his job is entertaining people, but that job is a close second to mentoring his students over the past three decades. Filmmaker John Fraim is working on a documentary detailing Walker’s life and the Columbus Jazz scene that nurtured him, but it’ll be difficult to get it all in a single film. Gene Walker might have been in backing bands during his career, but he’s been bigger than life to everyone he’s taught.
(The Gene Walker Quartet plays at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Blue Wisp. Get event and club details here.)