James Onysko marches to the beat of his own drum.

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Sitting at the Phoenix Coffeehouse on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood with an early afternoon cup of coffee, Drumplay's James Onysko gets recognized by just about everyone who walks by.

"This is Drumplay Central," he says proudly, nodding when one patron tells him "Drumplay rocks" in passing. "This is my coffee shop. You get a great cup of coffee for 60 cents, if you have your own cup. They have a special technique here. I like my coffee strong. I've finally found a coffee shop I can call home. The people here are quite eclectic, too."

His bushy hair tied back in a tangled clump, Onysko is wearing a wolf-embossed green sweatshirt in honor of Oona, his wolf hybrid dog named after Charlie Chaplin's wife, which waits patiently for him in the car. Born and raised in Cleveland, Onysko became a musician rather late in his life. He worked as a court stenographer for many years before being drawn to music, first through a gig at WCSB, Cleveland State's radio station, then through WCPN, a station that he says he doesn't "really want to give credit to, because I think they're crap -- white corporate power nincompoops."

Onysko doesn't look the part of a rock star. In fact, when he played with one of his inspirations, the U.K. space-rock band Gong, its leader, Daevid Allen, chastised him for not dressing up for the gig, which was held two months ago at an American-themed bar in Belgium called the Spirit of '66 (its decor is based on the old Route 66 stops).

"I had these jeans on that I'm wearing now, and I put on this flowery kind of shirt," Onysko says. "[Allen] goes, 'Next time, don't wear jeans.' There's a lesson to be learned there, because these people are ultimate showmen, and they take the whole stage presentation very seriously. It's very important. I'm more pedestrian about it. More Cleveland, I guess. But he said 'next time,' and there will be a next time. I'm very happy to report that."

Onysko started studying percussion in the late '80s, and after his first band dissolved, he formed Drumplay on a whim in 1992. He's turned the group, which includes percussionist Warren Levert as a core member, into a kind of rotating improv unit that mirrors Gong and its offshoot, Gongzilla. Drumplay and Gongzilla will play together (and share percussionist Phillip Kester, a onetime Drumplay member from Youngstown who's on tour with Gongzilla) on December 15 at the Beachland, in a concert that will also feature the performance of a conch-shell choir that Onysko has assembled.

The connection between Drumplay and Gongzilla represents just one aspect of an intertwining, neo-hippie circuit that finds different bands switching and swapping members like a group of musical swingers.

Onysko dislikes the notion that Drumplay is an extended drum circle, although he does admit that, at the Starwood Festival last year, he had a semi-religious experience during a six-hour drumming session that took place in the context of the event's notorious drum circle.

"It was about three or four in the morning, and Yaya Diallo tells me, 'You go drum, it will make you feel better,'" Onysko recalls. "And I drummed until 10:30 in the morning, and something opened up to me and was revealed to me. I'm in a meditation group, and there's something about [Diallo's] being that emanated that was pure. I wanted to connect with this guy of all the people I met."

Without even a hint of sarcasm, Onysko explains that his infatuation with percussion and world music stems from the fact that he believes he was an African drummer in a past life.

"I feel so strongly about it," Onysko says. "If you believe, as I do, that life is a continuum, and that this is only the body, then whatever it is, which is a mystery, is something more than we can see with our senses. I was probably a whole lot better drummer then than I am now."

Earl Neal Creque was honored December 6 at Oberlin College's Finney Chapel -- he taught at the school since 1988. Attesting to the legacy of the jazz pianist, who died of kidney cancer at age 60 on December 1, were family, associates, friends, and students. Dick Colbert, who studied with Creque, performed a passionate rendition of "My Foolish Heart." Also performing Creque's favorite song was Ki Allen, one of the area's finest jazz singers, who was backed by saxman Buddy Sullivan and guitarist Bobby Ferrazza.

Creque and Allen used to work together at the Lakewood club Snickers in the mid-'90s, around the time the St. Thomas, Virgin Islands native contracted leukemia, a disease that would come and go until his death. Students of Creque's from Oberlin and Cleveland State remembered his warmth, concern, and persistence. So did Ron McCroby, a jazz whistler from Chagrin Falls, who said he'd been privileged to work with the rhapsodic pianist.

Performances by some of Cleveland's finest jazz musicians and remarks by Creque's surviving family rounded out the two-hour service. Not only did Creque work all kinds of northern Ohio venues, from the Boarding House to the Canton Symphony to the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, he wrote more than 2,000 songs and played with jazz artists such as Grant Green, Leon Thomas, Carmen McRae, Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Melba Moore, and Oliver Nelson.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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