Looking back: Dayton saxman fatally shot on stage in 1972

Big Jay Bush and the House Rockers never scored a major hit or toured nationally. However, the Dayton-based R&B group ruled the local club scene in the 1960s and early 1970s and enthralled fans from Indiana to Upstate New York. Tragically, Bush’s career was cut short when he was murdered on stage in 1972.

Jerry Bush was born in 1928 and grew up in Colfax, La. He was 15 when he lied about his age and enlisted in the United States Navy during World War II. After being discharged, he worked as a long-distance trucker and tire-recapper. Bush moved to Dayton around 1954. He bought his first tenor saxophone at Hauer Music at the age of 28 and devoted himself to learning to play the instrument. He formed Big Jay Bush and the House Rockers in the late 1950s.

In his “Off the Beat” column published on Aug. 19, 1972, Journal Herald writer Ron Goldwyn wrote, “Off-stage, Jerry Bush was a businessman with a horn. He lived a quiet, middle class existence with his wife, son and daughter at 660 Clegg St., in the shadow of I-75 on Dayton’s West Side. He had an occasional cigar, a rare drink, hearty meals … and his music.”

Bush’s wife, Geraldine, was a school teacher in Dayton. She came from a family of musicians, but that doesn’t explain how her husband, an untrained, late-comer to music transformed himself into a smoking sax player and respected band leader.

The band performed regionally and on the East Coast, but the musical documentation of Bush’s legacy is limited to a pair of 45s. “Dynamite” b/w “Come On Home Baby” came out on the Redbug label in 1962 and a second single, “Funky Horns” b/w “Soul Meeting,” was released by Vangee in 1969.

Of the singles, the first release is far superior. “Dynamite” is an amazing upbeat R&B dance number packed with double entendre and the flipside is an equally memorable soul lament about unrequited love. “Funky Horns” is a riff on James Brown-style funk, while the B-side has a Rufus Thomas vibe. While “Funky Horns” is available on Spotify and other streaming services, you’ll have to search YouTube to hear the other songs.

Business booster

Jennie Krynzel, who owned the Diamond Club back then, knew Bush well. In the mid-’60s, the House Rockers had a four-year residency at her venue at Troy Street and Stanley Avenue in North Dayton.

“This was the straightest man, white or black, that ever lived on the face of the Earth,” she said in the Journal Herald piece. “He was so great, so good. I didn’t have a problem for four years.”

Krynzel credits Bush with boosting the venue’s business.

“I was down at the club and when he came in, he brought me up,” Krynzel said. “He was responsible for me getting ahead. It was the best group in town. Nobody could touch them.”

The reputation earned Big Jay Bush & the House Rockers regular hometown gigs at other venues like the Tahiti Hut, Minnix Ratcellar, the Top Hat and the Show Bar. The group also toured in New England and Canada and performed frequently in cities such as Louisville, Fort Wayne and Evansville.

The final show

Bush met his sad demise during an out-of-town gig in August 1972. It was the opening night of a three-day booking at the Baby Grand Lounge, a supper club in downtown Canton. Bush’s group, which had recently been renamed the Ohio Exchange, made it through the first part of the evening without incident.

During the late set, as the band was blasting through a song called “Scorpio,” an unassuming young man moved through the crowd. Bush was blowing his tenor sax. His eyes were closed and he was drenched in sweat. Lost in the music, Bush didn’t notice the menacing figure walking across the dance floor.

Ohio Exchange guitarist Jesse Partridge, however, watched the entire deadly scene unfold. The newly-installed 22-year-old watched helplessly as the assassin pulled out a .38 caliber handgun and fired a single shot into Bush’s chest.

“Oh, God. Oh, God,” Bush reportedly sputtered as he clutched his chest. It was about 12:54 a.m. Patrons gasped as the saxophonist staggered back, collapsing on stage. Then, to the confusion of the musicians, some audience members began to laugh.

The guitarist recalled the incident a few days later in Goldwyn’s “Off the Beat” column. “The first reaction from the crowd, as Partridge remembers, was laughter. It seems a month earlier a different band had staged a stunt with a man shooting a blank pistol at the band leader, who’d gone into a mock swoon.”

The aftermath

This was no joke. Bush was pronounced dead on arrival at Aultman Hospital less than an hour after the shooting, becoming another senseless victim of gun violence. The band leader’s killer, later identified as 23-year-old Zerry Dale Arnold, managed to walk out of the Baby Grand Lounge without incident. According to newspaper reports, he was apprehended about 30 minutes later at his home in Canton and charged with first degree murder.

According to an Aug. 11, 1972 story in the Akron Beacon Journal, a former neighbor identified Arnold as a factory worker. The article also reported the shooter told police he used extra sensory perception (ESP) to determine he was in danger from Bush.

Goldwyn’s Journal Herald column reported, “The young man told police Bush had been giving him ‘the evil eye,’ and he had to shoot Bush before Bush could kill him. The two had never met. The young man’s father said he had been on drugs and in mental institutions, and was due to be recommitted this week.”

Bush, 44, was buried in Dayton on Aug. 14, 1972. He was survived by Geraldine and the couple’s children Terry Lynn and Stephen. He also left behind two singles that are highly regarded in collectors’ circles and plenty of fond memories for the thousands of music fans that saw his bands perform.

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