VOICES: Roy Meriwether and honoring Dayton’s jazz community

Roy Meriwether was an accomplished, popular musician in the Dayton area almost from his birth. Meriwether writes “when I was 3 years old, I climbed up on a piano bench and started playing, and within a year had composed two original pieces. At four years of age, I played the organ in my father’s church…” Born in Dayton in 1943, he honed his chops over three decades, playing clubs all around the area, but especially Dayton and Indianapolis. Jazz fans love to feel when a combo is playing “in the pocket” and when Roy played, he liked to say “the pocket will not be denied!” He was particularly welcomed by servicemen at a Fairborn jazz club near WPAFB.

Perhaps, like me, you are surprised to learn that a well known jazz musician is from the Dayton area. Stivers School for the Arts honored Billy Strayhorn some years ago, but usually it is an article, recording liner notes or even passing conversation that illuminates the Dayton connection. Imagine if you could go to a source where Dayton musicians are honored and highlighted? This would in turn spotlight the musical influence of the Dayton area. Roy is not alone; Snooky Young (trumpet) with Count Basie, Dave Carpenter (bass) with Buddy Rich, Norris Turney (sax) with Duke Ellington, Bud Shank (sax) with Stan Kenton are some of the jazz musicians I learned about through conversations with Dayton jazz fans.

In the case of Roy Meriwether, he became inextricably linked to a long-time, popular Dayton jazz night club called Gilly’s when he headed the very first group to open the venue on July 7, 1972. Over the years, Gilly’s and Jerry Gilloti brought lots of national talent and recognition to Dayton. Jazz clubs and jazz club owners also deserve to be included in a Dayton jazz honor roll.

Like many young people do, Roy went to discover the world outside his home town when he moved to New Your City in 1976. His influence on the New York scene is perhaps best represented by the number of accolades and awards he received while he was there, including a Grammy nomination. He also had a long, mutually beneficial relationship with The Jazz Foundation of America. An album once described as “some of the most compelling soulful Jazz ever recorded live to tape,” following the 2016 rerelease of this 1973 recording, “Nubian Lady,” a New York Times “Popcast” proclaimed that “one yearns to have been present in the small Dayton, Ohio club [The Magic Carpet, for you Daytonians who remember] on the night this dazzling set was recorded.” A jazz critic once described him as a “two-fisted pianist who … has the sound of a champion, with thunder in his left hand and lightning in his right!” Roy also became known for his interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar. Luckily, you can still find renditions of this piece on YouTube, along with various other Meriwether performances.

Jazz composer/arranger, Roy Meriwether wrote In the liner notes to his recording, “The Art of the Groove”: “What is it that gets our toes tappin’, our hands clappin’, our fingers snappin’ or our heads swayin’ and ultimately reaches into our hearts and souls? IT’S THE GROOVE!...” It seems safe to say that Roy did reach into our hearts and souls and no doubt he’s still out there somewhere, in the groove! A Dayton Jazz Honor Roll would help shine a light on Dayton area musicians like Roy Meriwether, who died last December, and the musical influence of the Dayton area.

Jim Woodford is a Board Member of Jazz Advocate in Dayton, a Dayton Public Radio show host at WDPS and a retired educator. Thanks to local jazz musician/artist Cliff Darrett, UD jazz professor Eddie Brookshire and Jazz Advocate President Walt Williams for their contributions.

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