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|Personalities -- by Phil Cartwright
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Mike Kovach gives us another twofer. Not only is he
an accomplished musician but he has served EARLJAS
for many years.
First, his EARLYJAS service: Mike and his wife, Carol,
attended the very first meeting of the then un-named
jazz club organized by Jean and Paul Huling. Mike and
Carol signed up on the spot and been members ever
since. After a few years as member, Mike was elected
Trustee, then Vice-President, and then President.
Currently, he is still a Trustee. In addition to other
assignments, Mike has served for several years on the
Ad Hoc Committee for the EARLYJAS Festival.
With respect to his music, Mike is quick to point out that as a child he was surrounded by music. Both
his parents as well as his near relatives loved music and participated either as listeners or performers.
There were many musicians in his parents’ circle of friends and his Uncle Steve had his own dance
band. Mike and Carol are delighted that their own participation in music has carried over to their
children and grandchildren. For example, Carol and Mike’s daughter, (Karen), in addition to being a
Lutheran pastor, sings, plays flute, and runs a medieval recorder quartet with musicians from the local
symphony orchestra. Their granddaughter Kara is a vocalist who also performs on drums, guitar, and
Like many musicians, Mike got an early start in grade school with lessons provided by his public
school. He played violin for a few years beginning in second grade. Indeed, his first real public
performance was on violin in a Sunday school orchestra. A few years later, Mike was playing drums in
a dance band. In junior high, Mike began a career long interaction with reeds and began playing alto
saxophone in a dance band.
In a few short years, Mike played a couple of different styles of music on three different instruments.
That versatility has been with Mike during his entire musical career. He likes, and plays, a variety of
styles of swing and jazz music. In addition to violin, drums, and alto sax, Mike also plays guitar, banjo,
piano, clarinet, soprano sax, and string bass. In the last few years, he has concentrated on reeds and the
Mike enlisted in the Navy so he could see the world and became a Communications Specialist. While he
was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan for a couple of years he played in Navy dance bands. They had a
great gig scheduled in the best hotel in town. They played one number. Immediately thereafter all the
doors opened and the band was surrounded by a protest by the local Japanese musicians union. The
union members all wore red headbands and armbands signifying their allegiance to the Communist
party and protested the fact that non-union (and Western) musicians were playing in the hotel. The
hotel manager, terribly embarrassed, politely (but firmly) asked the Navy band to exit the band stand.
End of story for the Navy dance band’s public performances in Japan!
Mike is a Kent State University graduate in Business. His day job took him to different parts of the
Midwest and his job and family responsibilities forced him into a musical hiatus for 20 years or so.
Mike had always been interested in jazz – primarily big band and then the Getz-Brubeck cool jazz of the
50’s. He is especially fond of the Billy May “Sorta Dixie” album as well as the Bobcats and the World’s
Greatest Jazz Band. His current favorites are the Titan Hot 7 and bands that play good melodic lines,
have good harmonies, and ‘swing’!
We discussed what makes a band ‘swing’ and agree that’s it’s important but hard to define. Mike also
feels strongly that jazz music should be conversational with lots of white space to allow other musicians
to interact. Otherwise, with each musician doing his/her own thing it may turn into cacophonous noise.
Mike quotes a young Marion McPartland being critiqued by an old time piano player: “Girl, you sure
play a lot of notes!” Ruby Braff, cornet, is another favorite; Ruby “… leaves lots of white space.”
In 1980, he met Marty Schiltz, a banjo player who was part of the Stow library traditional jazz group.
Marty invited Mike to start playing with the group. Through that connection, Mike met Moe Klippert
and Al Kinney, both of whom encouraged Mike to become part of the traditional jazz scene. Al offered
chord books and tapes and helped Mike acquire a soprano saxophone. Mike credits Newman Williams,
bass player from Akron with encouraging him as well.
Another side of Mike: (one I especially enjoy!) Mike invited me to his home in Stow where we
conducted this interview. Shortly after my arrival, he cracked out one of his specialty brews! Yes, Mike
is a brew master! He brews several types of beers all of which follow the German law requiring only:
pure water, hops, barley, and yeast. His Anchor Steam style is one of the best I’ve ever had!
Here’s a wonderful anecdote: As a young man, he was playing in a trio in a bar. A drunk came up and
insisted they play “Momma, Call Me Baby!” Eventually, they figured out he wanted “Melancholy
With respect to the future of our music, Mike offers a mixed message. On the one hand, our audience is
gray, shrinking, dying. Few young people are interested, having been raised on Rock and Roll and
tuneless, chordless stuff. On the other hand, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart have survived for hundreds of
years. We won’t approach that magnificence but perhaps there will always be a niche for traditional jazz.
Ray’s bride, Dorie, was every bit the jazz fan as
Ray’s bride, Dorie, was every bit the jazz fan as
Ray. In fact, their first date was to go to the
American Legion to hear Harry Marshall’s band.
When he and Dorie were married Memorial Day
1953 there was no question about where to go for a
honeymoon: New Orleans. They piled into Ray’s
powder blue 1951 Cadillac convertible and went to
New Orleans to hear some good old jazz.
New Orleans to hear some good old jazz.
Back in 1953, New Orleans was crawling with jazz
musicians and you could hear good jazz in
practically every establishment. It is a different
story the last few years. Ray laments that even
before Katrina, good Dixieland had become very
hard to find in the Crescent City.
Ray’s mother played piano and organ – an old pump organ. Consequently, there was music and singing in the
house a good bit of the time. Ray sang in high school and church choirs but never became an instrumentalist.
Ray’s first exposure to Dixieland was at Marine boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near
Chicago. Eddie Peabody, the famous banjo player, was music director and brought in lots of good music for the
young marines. Ray was front and center at every performance, including many in Chicago at the Edgewater
Beach Hotel. Ted Lewis and Russ Morgan were favorites at the time.
As a young marine, Ray served in the 6th Marine Division in the Pacific during WW2; He saw action at
Guadalcanal and Okinawa to name just two postings. Fortunately, he remained safe and was discharged in 1946.
Ray’s early introduction to Eddie Peabody may account for Ray’s interest in banjo music as well as Dixieland.
Some years ago Ray became close friends with Fred Dodd, a great Peabody style player. Ray first heard Fred
playing at the Warehouse at Roscoe Village in Coshocton. Ray introduced Fred to Vic Tooker who was musical
director of the Delta Queen riverboat. Fred played on the boat for many years. Ray loves the old boat. He has
made 36 trips on the Delta Queen!! He even met Clyde McCoy on one of those trips.
In the 1960’s, Ray found out about Moe Klippert and the Peninsula library gang and soon became a regular
attendee at jam sessions. He ventured to the Wild West of Toledo to hear Ray Heitger. He heard Emmett
Wiley, Ralph Grugel, and others at various places including the Market Street Exchange, Fagan’s and Fagan’s
East – an old bank building on the East side. Over the years, Ray often became the Designated Driver for
musicians in the area.
In the 1960’s, Moe Klippert began gathering musicians to play for church services around NE Ohio. The band
became known as the Hymns of Dixieland. After Moe died, Ray became the organizer for the band and
continued to do so until quite recently.
In the meantime, Ray has been a genuine supporter of traditional jazz. He often is out two or three times per
week listening to various bands in the area. He had a regular table at the Rusty Nail and encouraged groups of
people to go with him to enjoy the music. He tries to attend the Central Ohio Trad Jazz Society events in
Columbus and regularly took his RV to festivals in Arizona, California, St. Louis and Colorado.
Here’s an angle about Ray that fascinates me. Ray is a died in the oil old time car buff. Here is a list of just
some of his cars almost all of which are open touring cars in excellent running condition. His first car was a 1917
Buick that he bought in 1948. He still has it! Other cars include: 1913 Overland made in Toledo; 1917 Dodge;
1918 Stutz Roadster; 1925 Chrysler; 1925 Willys Knight; 1948 and 1951 Cadillac convertibles; 1951 Dodge
Wayfarer Roadster. He recently sold a 1926 Studebaker and a 1932 Plymouth PB Roadster.
To show you just how serious he is about his cars, here’s a fun story. In 1966, he took two months off work and
drove to the West Coast in a 1925 Chrsyler open touring car!! He heard Fred and Mickey Finn in Reno and San
Diego and Turk Murphy at Earthquake McGoon’s in San Francisco. (Editor’s note: I spent a lot of time at
McGoon’s in the mid 60’s; maybe we were there at the same time!)
Ray is not slowing down and continues to try and support the music. He is concerned, though, that there are
not a lot of young musicians following in the footsteps of old timers. Hi thought is that the music is cyclical and
he hopes it will be re-discovered by future generations.
Thanks, Ray, for all your time and effort on behalf of traditional jazz.
|Earlville Association for Ragtime Lovers Yearning
for Jazz Advancement and Socialization