a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed October 25, 1996
Jazz pianist, composer and teacher Neal Creque calls Cleveland his musical "utopia." That’s a big statement from an artist who has served as singer Carmen McRae’s musical director, recorded with dozens of top name artists and had his compositions performed and recorded by such jazz names as Ramsey Lewis and Grant Green.
Creque, who came to Cleveland in 1973, was born and raised in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the son of a classical piano teacher. Neal spent his early years playing classical piano and was introduced to jazz at the age of 14 by his older brother. "I remember listening to Dave Brubeck’s album Red Hot and Cool," says Creque. "I took a liking to it immediately because he was a classically-trained pianist and I could relate to that."
He left the Virgin Islands in 1956 to attend Thiel College in Greenville, Pa. where he formed the school’s first band. He spent four years in the Air Force and played bass drum and cymbals in a marching band. After the Air Force, his drum beat took him in a completely different musical direction. "I went to Miami," remembers Creque, "and immediately got involved with a rock ‘n’ roll band." He spent two years on the road with the rock band before going to New York where he played with Mongo Santamaria’s Latin jazz group and began recording with all sorts of jazz groups.
"I got a chance to meet and record with such people as Oliver Nelson and singer Theresa Brewer. The producer would call and say, `Hey, Neal, come on down, we have a session! I did things with Stanley Turrentine and many others."
After Creque had established himself as a talented, reliable pianist in New York, he became the musical director for singer Carmen McRae. "I was very fortunate," remembers Creque, "because I had seen her make some musicians feel very small. I did my homework and never had any problem with her." McRae wanted Creque to go with her to the West Coast, but with his wife, Nina and their young daughter, Neal decided to come to Cleveland in 1973.
Since then, he has become an acknowledged leader of Cleveland’s jazz community with his obvious artistry, class and style. He says, "The best thing to do is to follow your heart in this field because I’m not going to make a lot of money in this business of jazz."
Besides playing tasty jazz in Cleveland, Creque is a prolific composer. He says he lost count after about 3,000 compositions. Some of his songs have been recorded by guitarist Grant Green and pianist Ramsey Lewis. Creque says he still gets royalties from his composition "Wandering Rose" which Lewis recorded several years ago.
In addition to playing and composing, Creque has been a busy teacher at Oberlin College and Cleveland State University. He says, "Every musician must find his utopia. For me, I see Cleveland as my utopia because I enjoy the teaching part of it. Cleveland has more to offer in jazz than New York, Detroit or California."
Neal Creque is one of the reasons Cleveland has more to offer in jazz than other areas of the country.
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Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).