For over 50 years, bandleader and clarinetist Ray Heitger and his mates have been serving the area with the big brass sounds of classic New Orleans jazz with the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band.
Using the stylized moniker, “Jass”, harks back to over a century ago, the height of the Dixieland era of jazz music, paying tribute to the pioneers of the signature New Orleans music — a brass heavy syncopated sound with a street parade vibe that gets people up and moving around.
Live Music Everywhere
Since the late ‘60s, the group has been a mainstay at the original Tony Packo’s, on Front St. in the Birmingham neighborhood. Decades ago, the band rounded out their sound with the addition of piano and drums. “We had our first gig at Packo’s on July 3rd 1968, and the rest is history,” says Heitger.
By Heitger’s estimation, people used to go out to listen to music a lot more than they do now. Heitger recalls a time in the ‘60s, before television was popular, when “pretty much every restaurant had a piano and (some kind of) live music. In those days every place had music and it was incredible because places would be packed.”
In addition to gigging out several nights a week and performing coast to coast, Heitger also taught college math for 47 years, retiring from Bowling Green State University in 2021. He explains that he “came to Toledo in 1965 to attend graduate school at Toledo University and finished the coursework for a Doctorate in Mathematics.” However, the band began to pick up and he chose music over writing a dissertation.
Despite having advanced mathematics knowledge, Heitger is a completely self-taught musician. “I don’t read music. My cornet player, Dave Kosmyna, teaches music at Ohio Northern (University), and when he speaks to students I have no idea what they’re talking about,” says Heitger. “I just taught myself to finger the clarinet and played 4-16 hours a day – I learned by listening. Physics helped me with the horn. I figured out how to close holes on the clarinet to get the lowest notes, then I went all the way up from there to get all of the notes to sound clear. I don’t use the side keys because I can figure out all of the notes without them.”
On the Upswing
In spite of the pandemic, and perhaps less people venturing out for musical entertainment, jazz remains alive and well in Toledo. “We’re still in business,” says Heitger. “Toledo has a big history of jazz, and with the Brick Bar opening up in the original Murphy’s spot, jazz in the area is picking back up.”
As a long-standing fixture in the Toledo jazz scene, Heitger has seen generations grow up with an appreciation for the music. “My goal isn’t to convert people,” he explains. “I just love seeing them come out and enjoy it, especially young kids — kids love this music and they dance around and have a great time.”
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