Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 85 - Joe Hunter
Story filed April 28, 2004

One of Clevelandís most popular and busiest jazz pianists is Joe Hunter. He plays almost every night somewhere with his trio or solo. He is also a featured pianist with Ernie Krivdaís Fat Tuesday Big Band and an important part of Bill Rudmanís concert series at Cuyahoga Community College. Now in his early 40s, Hunter traces his early interest in music back to the influence of his parents who were not musicians, but great fans.

"There was a wonderful record collection in my parentsí house," said Hunter, "a really wide range of great American music that, as I matured and grew, I could discover, everything from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, West Coast, Buddy Collette, and Chico Hamilton to Ornette Coleman. There was also live music. They would have parties and they would always invite a friend who would play."

Surrounded by all this music, Hunter began playing piano when he was only 8 or 9 years old. He said, "I studied first with Judy Strauss and later with Bill Gidney."

By the time he got to Cleveland Heights High School, he was already a pretty good pianist. He played in the school jazz ensemble and in a group formed by some of his friends. It was the 1970s and Joe and his young friends were hearing jazz from groups that were searching for new directions. "Fusion was very popular at the time," he recalled, "and we were all getting into electronic keyboards, synthesizers and those kinds of things. We would play Brazilian Latin music, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and that kind of stuff."

But Hunter and his young musical friends soon discovered the more traditional jazz of an older generation of jazz artists who were performing at a jazz club in University Circle. "We went down to the Boarding House (on Euclid Avenue) on Friday nights and listened to Ace Carter, Lamar Gaines and Weasel Parker. It wasnít long before they asked me to sit in with them."

As Hunter was growing up, the Theatrical Grill on Short Vincent downtown was still a major Cleveland club for national jazz artists, and Joe went there whenever he could. "My folks would take me down there," he said, "and I saw Earl Hines, Marian McPartland and other great pianists. It was a great place!" In a few years, the young pianist from Cleveland Heights found himself playing at the legendary Theatrical. In the early 1980s he was asked to play solo piano between the acts at the Theatrical "and hang out with people like Bill Doggett and Harold Betters."

After high school, Hunter went to Cleveland State University and studied classical music. He also played in the CSU Jazz Ensemble, directed by Howie Smith, and toured with the ensemble to Brazil in 1979. "I was so knocked out by that," he said. "We got an exchange student who lived with us in Cleveland Heights, and in 1981, I was the first exchange student from Cleveland State to go down to Rio." He spent seven months in Brazil which solidified his love of Brazilian music and culture.

In the 1980s, Hunter got involved in a rock band called Nation of One. "I also got hired by Hank Geer," he recalled, "to play at Sammyís (in the Flats).

By 1987, Hunter decided to move to Columbus where he played a variety of gigs for ten years. He also began teaching music in 1992 at Capitol University.

Hunter moved back to Cleveland in 1997, took a part-time job as a music professor at Cuyahoga Community College where he worked with such other musician-teachers as Steve Enos, Ernie Krivda and Lee Bush. Joe also began playing a very busy schedule of gigs in Cleveland. "The music that Iím involved in here," he said, "I feel a little bit more passionate about. Itís a little bit more interesting, the real hard-swinging stuff. I was starting to make that transition away from more modern jazz to just straight-ahead, music that makes me feel good."

Hunter has produced two compact discs with his trio. He recorded East of the Sun and From This Moment On with bassist Dallas Coffey and drummers Val Kent and Paul Samuels. He said he was tickled that the recordings of standard tunes appealed to many people who do not consider themselves jazz fans. While certainly playing jazz, Hunter says he likes to take it straight down the middle, keep a good beat going, and avoid going too far out.

After experimenting over the years with a variety of jazz styles, Hunter seems to have found his personal groove. "I like toe-tapping music," he said. "I like it to make me feel good, physically."

Looking to the future, Hunter wants to do a live recording. He said, "I know thereís an energy that the trio plays when weíre in front of an audience that you never get in a recording studio."

And, like other excellent pianists he admires, Nat Cole and Dianna Krall, Hunter has started to do some singing. "Itís kind of fun," he says, "another nice way of trying to communicate with the audience. I figure that by the time Iím 50, I wonít have any inhibitions."

Copyright 2004 Joe Mosbrook

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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrookís Cleveland Jazz History book is available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.