Jazz guitarist ranks as true area treasure
by Jim Toner, Orlando Sentinel, November 27, 2005
Rich Walker is an Orlando original. It is that dang guitar. He discovered it as a kid, and he has never been able to put the thing down. It has defined his life.
Orlando has benefited. For jazz lovers, Rich is a hometown hero. For about 30 years, he has delivered live a type of sound you could find only on a compact disc.
Despite his talent, his gigs are spotty. There's lots of entertainment in the world's biggest playground. The noisy atmosphere can drown out the jazz, a great American art form that doesn't get its due. Clubs are quick to change groups while chasing the latest musical whim.
Clubs devoted to jazz come and go, making it a struggle for Walker to earn a living at something he does better than most. He also has a sextet, but it is even tougher to find a gig for a large group.
Although he will play solo, he enjoys performing with a group more. He is not a guitar purist. He prefers an ensemble in which his guitar and his voice are part of a whole musical picture. His CDs include Bar Hop and Lazybird Revisted, which have caught the attention of the jazz press.
Of Bar Hop, Randy Johnston, in a Guitarist review, wrote, "The musicianship is truly outstanding, and the product is first class. Rich's guitar playing is soulful and melodic, his tone is beautiful and his singing is something else! The supporting cast is top notch. I recommend this album to anyone who likes great jazz and great jazz guitar playing."
Nice words about a 1967 graduate of Evans High School, when Walker played in garage bands.
Rock 'n' roll was big, but not for Walker. The album The Dynamic Duo featuring guitar jazz great Wes Montgomery and organist Jimmy Smith showed the way for Walker. Another jazz album, El Hombre, with guitarist Pat Martino, sort of sealed the deal for him.
Martino would one day give Walker an encouraging call at his hospital bed. Before a performance in 2001, Walker's thumb went numb. He couldn't even hold the pick. It passed, but there were other episodes, including periods when practically his whole body went numb and he lost his speech.
Eventually, the problem was diagnosed as a form of meningitis. After a hospital stay, some of his musician buddies came to pick him up. He thought they were taking him to lunch. They weren't.
Instead, they took him to Dante's, a former club on South Orange Avenue.
A benefit for Walker was in full swing. The place was packed with friends and other musicians.
Clubs have nurtured Walker. In the early '70s, he and a few other musicians were the "only white guys" in west-side jazz clubs that included places like The Quarterback Club. That's where Walker started a long association with Joe Magic, an aptly named jazz pianist who died recently.
You can still hear Walker at places such as Dexter's and East of Paris, both in Winter Park, and Jinja Asia Cafe on International Parkway in Lake Mary.
Walker dotes on more than jazz. His son, Jonathan, teaches Renaissance and Elizabethan literature at Portland State University in Oregon.
"All I'm trying to do is keep writing, rehearse my group and hope to get a gig every now and then," Walker says.
It's all about the music.
All That Jazz
by Jim Carlton, Lake & Sumter Style, March 2005
Rich Walker, a fixture on the Orlando music scene for more than 30 years, may be the best jazz guitar player you've never heard. Truth is, there are many marvelous musicians in Central Florida who deserve our admiration and patronage, but a rarefied few, such as Walker, are considered extraordinary by their peers. And because of Walker's specialized focus and musical integrity, be's become a cult hero to local jazz aficionados as well. His dedication is endemic to the breed of jazz cat who has spent decades in the trenches at the grassroots level making great music, but not much money.
Walker's career began in similar fashion to many others who were enamored with the so-called British Invasion by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others.
"In the sixties, my favorite group was the Animals," he recalls. "Then I found Randy's Record Mart on WLAC in Nashville, a late-night radio show, and got exposed to real rhythm and blues."
Walker spent much of the seventies in an organ trio, a tradition for many guitarists on the gritty jazz scene. He worked downtown hotel jazz clubs in Orlando with organist Clarence Palmer, a George Benson alumnus. Before long, Walker was getting noticed by well-known musicians who happened to be traveling through town. The great Marian McPartland became a Rich Walker fan; George Benson yet another. Venerable jazz great, Ira Sullivan, used Walker on a number of recordings. And because of such favorable word of mouth, opening act gigs and featured appearances were soon dotting the guitarist's calendar.
After a while, he got turned on to Chicago glues and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band that featured Mike Bloomfield, the now late and legendary guitarist whose influence is still pervasive.