“He was such a great joy to everyone who knew him, not only as a musician, but he lifted your spirits just to be near him,” says jazz authority Oscar Treadwell. “There was such love in this man’s heart and it came through in his music. As soon as you heard Cal Collins, you knew it was him.”
“He was a world-renowned jazz player, he was the best,” says Mary Ellen Tanner, who frequently sang with Mr. Collins over the past 30 years. “But in addition to being a brilliant player, he was a great guy too, and that doesn’t always come in the same package.”
Mr. Collins began his musical career playing bluegrass mandolin in Medora, Ind. He switched after hearing the recordings of jazz guitar greats Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.
From the ’50s through the ’70s, he was a fixture in the Tristate’s thriving jazz scene. In 1976, he began a five-year stint as guitarist with Benny Goodman, one of the most demanding jobs in jazz.
Through it all, he never lost his unique fusion of down-home country and sophisticated jazz, a sound that set him apart from the jazz pack.
“He was just as at home playing a Hank Williams song as he was playing a bebop tune,” says guitarist Scotty Anderson. “To me, Cal set the standard by which all the other ones are going to be judged. But as serious as that sounds, at the same time he had such a fun-ness about his playing.”
Mr. Collins’ sense of fun and camaraderie made him popular in and out of jazz. In 1993, he toured with the multi-genre “Masters of the Steel String Guitar” tour with Doc Watson, bluegrass dobro player Jerry Douglas and the blues duo of Cephas & Wiggins.
“He was wonderful on the Masters tour,” recalls Joe Wilson, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which produced the tour and invited Mr. Collins to play. “I called him and he said, “Yeah, it sounds like fun.’ He joined us in Chattanooga and he made friends within the first 15 minutes.”
Many jazzers would consider such a folk-oriented tour beneath them, but Mr. Collins didn’t live by such rigid rules.
“His mind wasn’t made up about everything,” Mr. Wilson says with a chuckle. “Cal woke up every morning ready for adventure. It made him a delightful traveling companion and just a really good guy to be around.”
“A great picker’
His sense of adventure earned him fans throughout music.
“He was a great picker,” says blues-rock guitar great Lonnie Mack, who occasionally jammed and double-dated with Mr. Collins while growing up in Indiana. He admired the older musician’s ability to blend styles. “He really was able to mix it all up.”
“There’s a lot of great pickers out there, some unbelievable pickers, but he was just a natural virtuoso. He just played natural stuff, mashed potatoes stuff, but it was virtuoso,” says drummer John Von Ohlen. “There was never a better guitar player than Cal Collins. . . . And I’m not saying that just because he was my friend. Sometimes he played so good it was like I didn’t know him.”
Mr. Collins helped shape a younger generation of players, especially guitarists. He gave a pre-teen Sonny Moorman formal lessons. Greg Schaber remembers a Collins workshop at Morehead State University.
Keyboardist Steve Schmidt often played with Mr. Collins at the Blue Wisp in its early years in O’Bryonville.
Forefather of jazz
“He was one of the few forefathers of jazz to my generation,” says Mr. Schmidt. “I learned so much from Cal, not even about music so much as just his attitude. … Cal communicated the real reason you play music, to express joy and to give it to other people. He kept that in him and he made sure you felt it.”