Blog #4: Hometown Disadvantage

I have learned that musicians can often be neglected in their hometown, regardless of whether their hometown is Cincinnati, Ohio like mine, or a jazz mecca like New York City, New York. After returning to the USA for the first time in 7 years abroad, (2 years in Hong Kong and 5 in Singapore), I returned to Cincinnati with a Japanese girlfriend to visit my parents in Cincy, via NYC where my international flight had landed. Before coming to Cincy we hung out in NYC for a couple nights. I went to a jazz club in NYC to see some jazz and as I walked into the club, I heard someone shout out: “Greg Chako! How ya doing' Come here!” I was really taken aback, because this was my first time back in 7 years and I knew virtually nobody in NYC. It was the publisher of a jazz magazine in NYC who had called me over. I asked him how he knew my name? He said he recognized my face from media advertisements of my work and . . . “of course” he knew who I was! 

Similarly, after leaving Singapore where I led my trio for years and was well known as a jazzman there in the late 1990's, I returned in Jan. 2023 for some concerts. I was amazed at how many people recognized me and came up to talk to me about my music, even though almost 30 years had passed since I'd last played in Singapore. 

Recently, I saw Russell Malone play at Cafe Vivace in Cincy. I approached him and said, “you probably won't remember me . . . ” and before I could finish the sentence, he said, “Greg Chako, Tokyo Blue Note, right?” He was right! That was almost 20 years ago. We'd only met that once in Tokyo, and even back then, he told that he'd heard about me from NYC . . .

Yet, in my own home town this sort of thing never happens. Nobody recognizes me. Nobody in public comes up to chat about the old days or asks me about my music. For a year, just before I finally moved from Cincinnati to New York City in 1987, I booked a regular jazz series showcasing a multitude of locally-based talent as well as internationally-known jazz stars. When I returned to Cincy in 2017, even people whom I had hired to play there regularly didn't remember who I was or that I had hired them back in the day. One guitarist(!) even thought that another top local player/bandleader booked that club when in fact, I managed the 4-nights a week of jazz there in 1986. I hired his bandleader on a regular basis, to play with his own group as well as my own as a sideman. I hired everybody on a local level who was anybody, as long as they could play, a veritable who's who on the Cincy jazz scene at the time. I did not hire only my inner circle of friends . . . no, I didn't do that. 

Unfortunately, none of the local players I hired repeatedly then, guys who are still on the scene today in fact, ever actually returned the favor and hired me at any point during my 65-year life. I don't even get friendly phone calls, unless it's from someone I played with while touring the Far East back in the day. I have noticed that musicians who have played internationally do tend to stay in touch with each other. In fact, the first musician who gave me my first gig in the Cincy area after I moved back in 2017 was not any of the local players I'd hired time after time at Doc's Place, but rather now locally-based saxman Brooks Giles, who I'd met whilst we were both gigging in Asia. Despite my impressive resume and 16 albums to my credit, I struggle to get good gigs in my own hometown. The local scene is somewhat clique-ish. The best pay and response usually comes when playing out of town. For instance , the reception I got in Miami, Florida where I performed a month ago, was outstanding and highly validating for me. I am looking forward to upcoming gigs in Cleveland, New York, and a return to Miami later this year.

We artists long for more acclaim and recognition, to be sure. But I believe that in order to achieve the recognition many of us desire, we must leave our hometowns for greener pastures beyond. As an example, two of the most skillful jazz guitarists to have ever lived anywhere(!) were from my hometown area: Cal Collins and Kenny Poole. Cal accepted road tours with Benny Goodman, left Cincy and achieved an international reputation; Kenny preferred to stay in Cincy close to his family. Having never left, he never achieved the world-wide recognition that Cal did, despite his high worth and value as an artist.

As far as I know, my booking 4-nights a week of authentic jazz in Cincy featuring such a varied roster of quality local and internationally known artists, is quite unique in any decade and any city. I'm sharing for those who either have forgotten, or never realized that this scene existing for a hot minute, and to say that I take immense pride in what I accomplished in my hometown. I will continue to share and promote this music that I love for the rest of my life, regardless of where I am and whether or not it's appreciated. 

There's not room here to list all the amazing musicians I hired to perform at Doc's Place back in the day, some of whom are no longer with us, but this is just a sample of what Cincinnati's jazz scene looked like when I was doing the weekly booking at Doc's:

During this time, I brought singer Francine Griffin out of retirement. She'd given up on the scene here until she met me. I'm happy to say that she moved to Chicago after I left Cincy and ended up recording with pianist Willie Pickens and a stellar cast on Delmark, a fantastic album called, The Songbird. But before then, while we both lived in Cincinnati, we talked on the phone daily . . . and I convinced her not to give it up entirely just yet . . . I hired her for my ‘house' band of Wayne Yeager-B3 organ, Bobby Scott-drums, Dave Blinkenstaff-ten sax, and myself on guitar. I also featured her with Cal Collins and others at Docs. I miss her dearly . . . she passed away some years ago in Chicago. She felt over-looked here in Cincy too - I know because we talked about it all the time. Check out her album The Songbird. In Chicago, she found some of the attention she deserved as an artist. When I visited Chicago on one of my trips back from Asia, she had me sit in with her amazing band at some club in Chicago and we had a great time.

Parochialism and cliquishness is antithetical to my artistic vision for the future. But when you encounter it, as I have, you must stand firm in your commitment to the music. Please feel free to comment - I welcome a civil exchange of thoughts and ideas!