"There were concerts every night," Ritchie says of witnessing his first professional Jazz experience. "And all these guys would get up and play their asses off. I had no idea what was going on. I was just like, 'Whoooa!' One group gets down and then this other group gets up and does something totally crazily different. I'd listened to them before on records. But to see it go down ... that's heavy."
Baptized by Jazz, Ritchie walked away from the epiphany ready to immerse himself in the scene, ready to step up and play with the heavies. But, of course, you can't just jump head-first and expect to find work in a heartbeat. Honing your hook ups takes time.
"That's what's rough about moving to another town," says Ritchie. "Yeah, you'll start working, maybe, if you're good. But to really get into the scene takes years. People aren't just going to call you because you want to be good; they'll call their friend, or the dude they've played with a hundred other times. They have a little thing going and they know how to play with each other."
So it took a little while for Ritchie to develop his chops and his connections. Like most Jazzers, Ritchie had to pay his dues. But unlike many, Ritchie, now 22, paid his dues in a hurry.
In 1997, Ritchie moved to Cincinnati as a freshman to study Jazz and Classical performance at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) with up-and-coming, nationally-recognized bass-master Albert Laszlo.
He started playing with other students at local venues, like Baba Budan's and the Cactus Pear, restaurant gigs that made the bread. At that point, he had little technical discipline and found similar kids who'd rather blow loose than adhere to conventional Jazz standards.
"We'd basically play free the entire night," the bassist says. "It was like, 'Let's just play for a little while. Let's get high and turn the lights off and make some noise.' And you know, sometimes it gets really heavy and sometimes it's like, 'What?' "
Eventually, Ritchie was gigging three nights a week while schooling full-time and rehearsing in five CCM ensembles. He got to a point where he had to drop the Jazz major and stick to solely Classical coursework. He was already studying the world of Jazz in the best way possible, anyway: out in the trenches, in front of folks, wood-shedding, making mistakes, learning the changes and exercising his network.
Ritchie played out so much (to such an extent his grades and classes suffered) that he ended up on established Cincinnati Jazzers' short sub lists. To the outsider, the degrees of subbing can appear overly complicated, but to those in the know, it's as natural as blowing over chord progressions.
As Ritchie came up through the ranks at a remarkable rate, he learned the ins and outs of that complexity and landed himself a steady gig, replacing long-time bassist Jimmy Perkins, with Mary Ellen Tanner and the Lee Stolar Trio, whose continual time slot at the Celestial in Mount Adams had topped 15 years.
With the combined Jazz experience of over 150 years, Tanner, Stolar and drummer John Van Ohlen are some of the heaviest superweights in the Queen City.
"Everybody was telling me that that was the best gig to have if you're young," Ritchie says. "Because you got to learn all the standards. Like hundreds and hundreds of standards you're not going to learn anywhere else."
You'd think age-difference would be a barrier, and huge differences in experience might hinder playing well together. Ritchie is a Gen-Xer, after all, while Tanner, Stolar and Van Ohlen are from the Brokavian "Greatest Generation." They dwarf Ritchie with the girth and richness of their playing histories. But Ritchie thinks age and experience matter little, or if they do, he doesn't care, because he's learning so much from the Tanner/Stolar posse.
"I used to play up at Baba's every Monday night last year with just drums, bass and sax. It was real free-form. So when I first got to the Celestial, I was used to being all (makes a skronking noise), playing all this shit and trying to copy what John just played, trying to play counter-rhythms and imitation. Then John was like, 'Look man, you play in four and you play in two. And that's it.
"The thing about hanging with John, who's the greatest, is that he showed me there's a million different ways to play in two and four. It's very simple, but there's a whole plethora of feels you can get from just being simple. Once you're being simple, you already got the base set, and then if you want to go off and do something fucked up, go ahead. Then it will actually make sense."
Ritchie started with the swingers in March 1999. Two years later, the Celestial's new management effectively forced Tanner to quit her long-standing appointment at the hottest old-school club in the city. By hiring inferior bands and doubling their typical fee, according to Ritchie, the management hit Tanner's pride button, forcing her to say so long. Many have claimed that severing its bond with Tanner was the worst thing the Celestial could have done. Fortunately for Ritchie, Tanner already had new digs staked out at Michael G's, a boat club in Columbia-Tusculum along Kellogg Avenue. They've been playing there every Friday and Saturday night since leaving the Celestial.
Ritchie hardly cares where they play, though, as long as he can keep playing with Tanner and Co.
"The guys who come in to hear you play appreciate that tasteful stuff," Ritchie says of Jazz standards and learning artistic restraint. "They're like, 'Yeah man, that's what you need to do.' And once you have that, you've earned your wings. And then you can play with whoever and call all the old tunes, because you know the fundamentals." ©