Saturday, April 27, 2002

Jazzman's jazzman

Powers made old sound new

        Play something sweet and mellow. Frank Powers is gone.

        A virulent strain of leukemia silenced his music Thursday. He was 70.

        Frank learned late in life that he was dearly loved and deeply appreciated. Let that be a lesson to us all: Don't hold your applause until the end.

        Frank was a jazzman's jazzman. He knew almost everything there was to know about the music he played.

        He spent his nights hauling his tenor sax and clarinet onto stages across the country and around town, including regular stops at Arnold's Bar & Grill and the Dee Felice Cafe.

        By day, after retiring as an architect charged with designing rides at Kings Island, he added to his scholarly knowledge of American music. His specialty was early jazz.

        Inquiring minds from around the world came to him as a noted authority on jazz's classic era. They came to the right place.

        The collections of books, sheet music, videos, films, photos, LPs, CDs, 78s and audio tapes that Frank maintained at his Clifton home put many a museum to shame. His recordings and arrangements, his compositions and his solos left musicians in awe.

        Yet, Frank remained a humble man, unaware of how good and how gifted he was.

        “He was never sure of his abilities,” said Julia Hagan, Frank's long-time companion. She spoke with me Friday between making arrangements for his memorial service at 6 p.m. Monday at Clifton's Hillside Chapel.

        Maybe Frank felt that way because people in the audience did not always know him by name. He was usually a sideman, not a leader. But he didn't need the spotlight to do his best work.

        Frank Powers may not have been a household name. But anyone who caught him in concert soon knew him by sight and sound.

        On stage, he looked like a friendly walrus who had just climbed into a suit. Big-boned. Slightly roly-poly. Sly smile spreading under a bristly mustache drooping from the corners of his upper lip.

        He played an antique tenor sax whose bell resembled the protruding grille of a 1936 Dodge. Massive. Solid. Lots of brass.

        His tone rumbled and purred like that Dodge's engine. How apropos. He often played tunes from the '30s. Songs by people named Ellington and Gershwin.

        In Frank's hands, these songs, and even the more vintage numbers he played on his clarinet, never sounded dated. They were as up-to-date as the grille on a PT Cruiser. Retro. Yet modern.

        Frank had a gift for making the old sound new, whether he played a song or told a story.

        Along with keyboard master John Keene, I sat across from Frank for seven years as he spun yarns during Oscar Treadwell's late-night jazz show on WGUC-FM. His well-told tales made the music come alive.

        Frank went into the hospital after driving home through a snowstorm from Racine, Wisc., where he had played and given a slide-show presentation during the last weekend of March.

        He came home tired and feverish. He checked into the hospital. He thought he had pneumonia. It turned out to be leukemia.

        Frank played love songs for other people. But when someone told him they loved him, even on his deathbed, he grumped: “There's no accounting for taste.”

        He heard the L-word a lot during his stay in the hospital. Calls and visits came from an international chorus of well-wishers.

        The vast outpouring of affection surprised him. He told Julia, in typical sideman fashion:

        “I had no idea I had that many friends.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; e-mail


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