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You can tell by the tapping fingers that some people automatically feel the beat of the music, others are constantly humming or singing along with the tune. For Grady Nichols, it has always been the saxophone at the center of the sound.

“I started playing the sax in sixth grade,” explains Nichols, as he begins telling the story that currently places him as one of Tulsa’s premier musicians.

(Okay, I confess from the start that I became totally infatuated with Grady Nichols during our first encounter. But it was his sound, the feeling that came from his saxophone, that first caught my attention, plus the fact that my date liked his music enough to dance all night. It wasn’t until several months later that we actually shook hands, and even longer before we exchanged words and I discovered that the person behind the music was just as intriguing…and personable.)

Grady's road to (or possibly through) Tulsa began as an innocent college boy with a dream, mixed with sheer determination, pure talent, and a variety of experiences.

“When I was a junior at John Brown University (in Siloam Springs, Arkansas), I had my own television show called ‘TV4 Soap Box’ where we aired everything from community opinions to livestock auctions,” recalls Nichols.

As a savvy senior he went on the air in Siloam Springs as a news anchor, where he may be better remembered as the guy who once cracked up on the air for more than two minutes, rather than for his somber delivery of the facts.

There were also many hours spent behind the microphone of the college radio station as Nichols hosted the “Night Music” show from 10:00 p.m. until midnight. It was here that he was alone again with the music, listening to and playing the saxophone styling of Kenny G, David Sanborn and many others.

“I like listening to and studying the technique of others,” says Nichols. “However, I purposely try not to analyze any one artist, because if you study their solos too closely, you start emulating their style, instead of developing your own.”

Developing his own sound has been the impetus for many of Nichols’ ventures throughout all of his 26 years. He took just enough piano lessons to be able to write his own music, and continues now on the path of self expression with the help of writing partner and guitarist David John. He also credits another local artist, Tim Pottorff, with much of his success in writing original tunes.

“About 70 percent of what we play now is my own music,” explains Nichols. The “we” is the five-to-seven piece band called “Moment’s Notice” that has shared the stage with Nichols for almost four years. In fact, the group stays quite busy with about three gigs a week, often packing such local spots as the Bistro in The Farm and playing jazz festivals in Oklahoma City and surrounding states.

Nichols has also been expanding as a soloist lately, with a Valentine's Day concert that packed the house at Holland Hall and a second compact disc — “Mysterious Intentions” — this time without Moment’s Notice. In fact, he had the opportunity this summer to introduce William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame during his stop at the Fairgrounds Pavilion, and play for his childhood hero his own interpretation of the “Theme from Star Trek — First Contact” from that CD.

Recent personal and professional efforts almost seem at odds with each other: a record promoter has been hired to promote Nichols’ music nationally, while at the same time he’s decided to settle down in Tulsa with a mortgage to call his own. So, it’s natural to wonder why he decided to call Tulsa home.

“It didn't make sense to go to a city that was already saturated with starving artists,” explains Nichols. “Plus, Tulsa is home to some really great talent. It seemed like a good place to make a decent name for myself, and then expand nationally.”

The really neat thing about Grady Nichols is that all the popularity, success and ambition hasn’t tarnished the fresh face and sincere, lively eyes. Spiritual fortitude and desire to “just be a good guy” compels Nichols to tackle his dreams in a sometimes cut-throat industry with the hope of being a positive role model for those who may follow in his footsteps.

His balanced and approachable attitude is exactly what made a recent summer noontime possible when this up-and-coming entertainer stopped to talk music and rehearse a few tunes with a virtual stranger, TulsaPeople’s editor John Hamill, a player of the ivories. Even better, I had the chance to sit, listen, and watch the blending of two generations and approaches to the world of jazz.

These two gentle men of music had been asked to play together at a Celebrity Attractions reception for Cathy Rigby while she was in town performing “Peter Pan.” I was the luckiest girl that day, leaving the normal workday hassles behind to witness the first meeting of these two talents as musicians. Now, if it was true that “those who can’t, teach,” then I’d be the best music instructor in the world. However, it didn’t take an expert to realize immediately that both men have a true knowledge and a deep admiration for their craft.

The differences between the two were most apparent as they casually chatted about their jazz heroes over a soft drink. Nichols readily admits that his contemporary/smooth jazz style is heavily influenced by the aforementioned Kenny G and David Sanborn, two I guess who don’t top Hamill’s list of favorite jazz artists. The two really came to terms when the names of Miles Davis, Stan Getz and June Christy were brought into the room. Now that some harmony had been reached across the table, it was time to try out the instruments.

“I’m a minor third down,” Nichols informed Hamill as the two set out their books and positioned themselves. Now, I’ve never sat in on a session where two musicians are totally unfamiliar with each other — I would have had an easier time understanding two cooks as they compared knives or blanching styles, but I doubt I would have had as much fun.

It was absolutely compelling to watch two men with very little else in common begin to test out each other’s rhythm, to find a balance that created for history yet another of the endless interpretations of

great tunes like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and "Laura.” Both men had forgotten any position in life, and were talking to each other with a voice not everyone shares. Like I said, I was the luckiest girl in town that day.

The music stopped much too soon as Hamill was again off to his editing and position and Nichols searched for KOKI advertisers, his “day job.” They left me to face the heat of the day and the realization that I was too quick to judge again. You see, I had assumed that any young man with such talent and good looks would be, well, less than tolerable on a personal level.

I was wrong. Grady Nichols is as approachable as his music. It was his saxophone that first caught my attention, but it’s the person behind the reed that truly deserves the applause.

Grady Nichols opens for Dianne Reeves on the main stage of the 1998 BOk/Williams Jazz on Greenwood on Saturday, August 8.

(1) comment

JKro

I remember shooting this photo with John McCormick at Saied Music on Yale. We tried a bunch of different poses with Grady. He was always easy to work with but I wasn't happy with what we were getting. It just wasn't clicking that day. We finally had something that was "good enough" to run on the cover but not great. We wrapped the shoot and Grady when to sit over by the front window to put away his sax. The light was perfect. I got John to get his camera out again and we quick snapped the photo that would end up being the cover shot. This was an exciting issue because it was the last newsprint issue of TulsaPeople. The next month we went to the current format and became a more modern magazine. Good times.

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