The Over the Coffee Guy

Although nearly half a century has passed since this happened, I clearly remember looking out a top-floor classroom window of Perkins Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa early one afternoon. Usually the make-shift lunchtime football field emptied as soon as the bell rang, but on this day there was an ambulance on the field. “What happened?” “Someone broke his leg.” “Who was it?” No one knew, but obviously this was a younger kid, as the epic football battles my classmates and I experienced had by then become a thing of the past.

At that point I had no idea who the boy was who broke his leg, but eventually I met him. That happened later that school year, after a teacher introduced the newest member of our class, who, it turns out, had just skipped a grade. The rumor going around school was that, while recuperating from his broken leg, Chris Kaul engaged in a sort of warp-speed tutorial project that force-fed him a year’s worth of knowledge. Soon I discovered, though, that the leap ahead was already in the works and people were waiting for the right time to give it the okay. Hearing the true narrative taught me this valuable lesson: when life throws roadblocks at you, sometimes a broken bone or two helps expedite the process.

Perkins Elementary was an excellent school that instilled a love for learning at the same time that it allowed for fun and frivolity. I won’t say I never got in trouble, but usually my classmates and I were able to balance learning with our desire to get a laugh. Where the new guy with straight red hair and bangs fit into the scheme of things was hard to say. We always had the same classmates and our roster rarely changed, and this was the first time someone leaped ahead a year, and we were the smart class. If a genius was going to outshine the rest of us, well, that could be a problem.

My reservations were soon resolved, however. The shift in perspective occurred after I saw our new classmate sitting in a corner and throwing spitballs into a trash can. What he’d done to irk the teacher I didn’t know, but I now knew this guy could be trusted. We quickly became friends, and he quickly became part of a larger group of friends I had since early grade school. Chris Kaul and I played violin in the Perkins Elementary School Orchestra conducted by Glenna Greutzmacher, who also became our sixth-grade homeroom teacher. During that year, we often began our school days by toying around with percussion instruments and autoharps before homeroom, and we ended our days in an English class taught by Mrs. Gallagher. Every Friday closed with story time, which started with a blank page and dead silence. Many of us applied ourselves passionately to this assignment, which involved not only writing but, after time was called, reading our words to the class.

By this time I was no stranger to competition, the life-or-death battles on the lunchtime football fields leading to fist fights whenever my team lost, as I was convinced, once the bell rang and the final score set in, that the other side had cheated—but that was nothing compared to the intensity experienced during story time. Probably that was more of a guy thing, as there were maybe a half dozen sixth-grade boys vying for chief laugh-getter, and on Friday afternoon you never knew who was going to bomb or hit it out of the park. Sometimes Chris Kaul prevailed; sometimes Dana Reddick, another transplant who turned out, after a quiet first month, to be as crazy as the rest of us won all the imaginary awards; and sometimes top honors went to Chuck Franklin, whose surrealistic scrambled narratives made William Burroughs seem like a mundane and all-too-linear realist.

In this competition we were all hit and miss, which meant you never knew who would win the comedy war. Sometimes, when I stood in front of Mrs. Gallagher’s desk and faced the class, I struggled to get a single laugh. I didn’t know what I did wrong when I did wrong or what I did right when I did right. And the next Friday, no explaining it, the class would roar, and I’d think, heck, this is easy, but it wasn’t, not the next week anyway, or maybe that week was, but there was always the next week, when, after I composed what I considered the Great Comic Masterpiece of the 20th Century…nobody laughed.

There came a point late in the year, though, when I hit my stride. What changed I couldn’t say; it’s not like I had a formula. I do recall, however, altering the lyrics to some songs we sang in music class, including “Have You Seen the Ghost of John?” Somehow, I remember, I rewrote these lyrics—“Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?”—to comic effect. Not sure how I changed it.

In second grade I became sports-obsessed after seeing Johnny Unitas lead the Baltimore Colts to a come-from-behind victory where, until the last few minutes, his team seemed destined to lose. (I was to see many such Colts games in upcoming years.) I had never watched a football game before that, but it plunged me not only into football but sports of all sorts. In the morning I would snag the Des Moines Register off the porch and plunge into the sports section, a ritual that included lots of stats and name memorization, to the point where, when I attended the Drake Relays one year, the two-mile relay team for Oregon wondered how all that info got crammed into my head. (I assumed that in my age group such knowledge was universal.) With time I began wandering around to other sections of the newspaper, so I knew about the column entitled Over the Coffee before I met Chris Kaul, which I point out because it was written by his father, Donald Kaul. Like most grade-schoolers, I associated coffee (and alcohol and cigarettes, and EZ-listening music) with the taste-bud deterioration that seeped into people as they grew into adulthood. Over the Coffee seemed like a conversation between adults, and I assumed that grown-ups welcomed those moments when, mentally at least, the kids left the room. But I didn’t read it much; it might have helped if Donald Kaul had written about sports, but he didn’t care much about that, other than Iowa’s rich tradition of 6-on-6 girls’ basketball, which he wrote about with such a keen appreciation that you wondered why he didn’t become a full-time sport writer.

Des Moines wasn’t a place where famous people lived or grew up or moved, so I thought it was cool that a bit of a celebrity lived a few blocks away from me and that, on a regular basis, I visited his house. Anything but an anonymous, behind-the-scenes journalist, Donald Kaul was, in the public eye, a comedian whose eccentricities inspired cartoon figures by Pulitzer Prize winner Frank Miller. One of Miller’s Kaul drawings depicts the writer wearing the same aviator helmet Snoopy wore, ankle-length plaid slacks, and pointed shoes. Even though no eyeballs appear behind his glasses he delivered a deadpan stare. “I don’t want to be standing here for this portrait,” his stance and his face seem to say. “Please get it over with.” Another Miller caricature depicts a domestically-challenged Kaul sitting in a room where water drips from the ceiling and cracks line the wall. His hands clasped together as he bends forward anxiously in a chair with a goofy flower pattern, Kaul imagines a proud, confident version of himself in full Safari garb, decidedly more comfortable deep in the jungle than in the discomfort of his own home.

Photographs of Donald Kaul from that period include a picture where he’s wearing a less-than-snug Detroit Tigers baseball cap on his head and horn-rimmed glasses and has a cigar hanging out of the side of his mouth. In this photo he’s holding a baseball mitt so close to the camera that the mitt looks like it was made for a giant. Among other things, his deadpan stare make you question if, in spite of the appropriate memorabilia, the man in the picture was really much of a baseball fan.

That imagery underscored the fact that Donald Kaul was a public figure, a full-fledged persona, and a grown-up class clown—so it’s interesting that, in the presence of Donald Kaul, I never experienced a stream of one-liners. At home he seemed more like an aloof intellectual who could easily have been mistaken for a literary novelist or a museum curator. He spoke so softly that his voice was almost muffled, and while I witnessed brief flashes of wit, they were so subtle that it would have taken several minutes to process his subtle asides deeply enough to work up a laugh.

Every time I walked inside the Kaul house it registered how different it was from the other houses I entered in Des Moines. While shag carpet was all the rage at that time, the Kaul household was filled with oriental rugs. In the living room there was a life-sized white plaster sculpture of a man sitting on a chair with his legs crossed. The paintings on the wall including several female nudes, all of whom looked, to my eyes, too wide and round to register as prurient, but the fact that they seemed centuries old led me to wonder if…well, I didn’t know what to think. The den contained built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of hardbacks and a black leather daybed that even this dumb little Des Moines schoolkid associated with neurotic patients spilling the beans to cartoon psychiatrists.

For Des Moines the inside of the house looked different, and the conversations were also different. One of the first times I walked in the door Mr. Kaul and one of his daughters were practicing and discussing British accents, and that was the first time this grade schooler witnessed such a conversation. That same night Mr. Kaul shared his belief that missing the beginning of a movie ruined the film. I had never heard that opinion before, and to me it sounded quite suspect, as I already knew that the first hour of most films was something you endured in order to get the part where the shooting, explosions, or fast-paced zaniness took place. I failed to share my wisdom, though, as Mr. Kaul was an adult, which meant he was already set in his ways.

More evidence the Kauls were different: the family vehicle was an old Checker Cab. They were the only family I knew who owned one, and while I wondered what that was all about, I enjoyed the fact that, on a rare occasion, on that rare occasion when their car drove down a street where I was walking I knew exactly who it was.

You might think that, while visiting a house where the father was known for his sense of humor, children might get some wiggle room when it came to discipline, but on more than one occasion Mr. Kaul lashed out at his son and his son’s friend with the type of anger that came so naturally to Midwestern fathers. On one such occasion I was staying overnight, and the reprimand occurred early enough in the evening that I expected to be on pins and needles until I fell asleep, but the tone quickly shifted. Shortly after the reprimand Donald Kaul received a visit from a posse of young men and women who were out on the town that evening and were clearly in high spirits. These friends who spontaneously decided to drop were full of energy and frivolity, and there was something touching about a group of friends who dropped by because…well, just because. Mr. Kaul enjoyed the spontaneous funnery, but even then he remained soft spoken, slowly rubbing his mustache while delivering sly witticisms to his friends. The visit was brief—twenty minutes, maybe—but long after the group left I wondered about the kind of lives those people led who seemed so different from the other adults I knew in Des Moines.

I didn’t talk a lot to Donald Kaul, which meant that in that respect he was like most of my other friends’ fathers. With Chris and I both competing for class clown honors, though, I am happy to report that one thing I said actually made Donald Kaul laugh. (Not that I was there to witness it, but still.) One day I shared this joke with Chris: “If Raquel Welch married Eddie Flatt, she’d be Raquel Flatt. Impossible!” The next day Chris told me his dad cracked up when he heard that. I explained that the joke came out of a comic strip for Laugh-In and I had no idea who Eddie Flatt was, but Chris was nice enough to keep that to himself.

When I visited the Kaul household, Chris and I played Nerf basketball and listened to records, and our playlist included Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. I, Who’s Next, and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story. Once, in the bedroom of his older sister, we stumbled upon a copy of Woodstock, which for us had achieved mythical status due to the reports that had filtered down to us from people we knew who had actually heard it. Finally, after all that waiting, we got to hear Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner.” We cranked that as loud as we could while bombs bursted in air. When Country Joe screamed “Give me an F!”—a religious experience, or so we’d been told—we responded by dropping to our knees on the oriental rugs and flailing our arms, as we were convinced that something that outrageous deserved the utmost reverence.

We also did some wandering. When the 1970 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Tournament came to Des Moines, we snagged the first two tickets and, until less-committed fans arrived, had Drake Stadium to ourselves. On Saturday afternoons we caught some double features at the Varsity Theater, where the hippies who always showed up in big numbers whenever the Marx Brothers played and had big, shit-eating grins on their faces as they waited in line at the concession stand. On some Saturdays we’d walk down to a head shop called Elysian Fields with a sign in the front window that said “Yes, We’re Closed” on one side and “Sorry, We’re Open” on the other. Inside the dark store Afghan dogs lounged behind the counter and incense filled the air. While reverb-drenched blues records with deep bass played at loud volume, we’d kill an hour or two flipping through records and staring at huge posters that covered every inch of wall space.

We also took a trip or two downtown. There may have been a movie that sent us there, but if so, I forget what it was. I do remember seeing a billboard announcing that only one newspaper had earned more Pulitzer Prizes than The Des Moines Register; for this the sign congratulated The New York Times. On that same block we entered a building where journalists were clacking away on their typewriters and Donald Kaul was talking to a colleague. The image of that room was still fresh in my head when, at the beginning of college, I decided to major in journalism. I ended up becoming more of a literary type, but as sometimes happens in the serendipitous world of liberal arts majors, life bounced me around so many times that I ended up doing what I set out to do (I’m now a magazine editor). I too bang on a keyboard, although I do it at home and the keys don’t have the same rich timbre as a steel type hammer banging against a carriage.

Memory is fickle. What it wants to retain it does, and everything else is lost. Sometimes monumental occasions get zapped while something that left no impression on you at the time locks in permanently. One of my casual memories has to do with bicycles, which to me, the proud owner of a Huffy stingray, were prime targets for abuse (it’s a good thing I didn’t own a horse). The Kaul family had a different philosophy about bikes. They rode multi-geared bicycles that were several strata above the finest Schwinn and actually took care of them. Donald Kaul had the most expensive model, and it was purchased, I’m sure, after careful research. So he was flummoxed when he discovered, during a bike ride, that his wife, who owned a cheaper bike and rode behind him most of the time, went zipping past him whenever they coasted. When I heard that story I pictured the couple enjoying a leisurely bike ride on a quiet road out in the country. Donald Kaul died on July 22, 2018. Although his spirit left this planet, I still picture him on that country road, where, as so often happens in his columns, he finds humor in his frustration.

I said some stupid things when I was young, and unfortunately I remember them. For example, I told Chris Kaul his father had an easy job. For this I got rebuked, and I deserved it. Along with being a strong prose stylist and possessing a sharp wit, Donald Kaul was wise enough not to pander to his audience. He wasn’t trying to shake up Des Moines, but at the same time he assumed that the person drinking coffee while reading the paper in the morning could handle subject matter that was, at times, pretty highbrow. Imagine a current columnist writing about Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Calder, or Mies van der Rohe today—you can just see the editor telling the writer to dumb it down. Politically Donald Kaul held nothing back even though he knew some readers would be offended by his liberal views. Nor did he engage in nonstop flattery of his fellow Iowans. Yes, some natives were offended by his columns on girls’ basketball, but they overlooked the fact that those articles were highly educational. Consider, for example, this question on a multiple choice test Donald Kaul devoted to the subject:

When a coach is see with his team gathered around him during a timeout:

1—He is telling his players how to break a zone-press.

         2—He is telling his players how to install a zone-press.

         3—He is telling his players, “The round thing here is what we call a basketball.

With seventh grade came a new school. On my first day at Franklin Junior High an English teacher called out Chris Kaul’s name, but Chris Kaul wasn’t there, as he’d chosen to attend a more racially integrated school in Des Moines. The Kaul family moved to Washington, DC in 1972, which was the same year my family moved to Storm Lake, Iowa, where we lived across the street from a park that was on a lake. While sitting on our front lawn that day, the Wilson family saw bicyclists from the first RAGBRAI wrap things up for the day, and that was the first time I’d seen anyone in the Kaul family since they moved to DC.

After a year in Storm Lake our family moved to Ohio, but we still returned to Iowa a couple times a year. Once, while driving back to Ohio, I saw an old Checker Cab traveling in the same direction as our station wagon. That’s odd, I thought, I haven’t seen an old Checker Cab since the Kauls lived in Des Moines—and guess who was inside it? At first the Kauls stared at me like I was crazy (why’s that dimwit waving at us?), but someone finally figured out who I was. That was the last time I saw anyone in the Kaul family. The fact that our paths crossed was a neat coincidence at the same time that it was frustrating. There was no place to pull over, and all we could do was wave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holidays on Ludlow Photos – 2018

The weather was great for Holidays on Ludlow last night – cold like it should be but not too cold and not the least bit windy – and people came out in full force for the festivities.  That includes Santa Claus, who stopped by Petey’s Pet Stop to take pictures with some Santa-loving pets. There was a line out the door for this rare photo-op, and the pets loved it, as you can tell by this particularly felicitous canine, who was virtually brimming with the holiday spirit:

 

Again, there were carriage rides:

People love the new Sitwell’s. One of the owners, Florencia, was serving coffee drinks well as some more spirituous substances like spiced cider (yum!) and Irish coffee at Clifton Plaza while carolers sang:

The owner of Maya was feeling the holiday spirit:

And after a glass of his sangria, we were too!

When we walked past Lydia’s on Ludlow, Ma Crow was setting up for her performance there that evening, where she played to a packed house. Don’t forget that Lydia’s has open mics every Thursday!

Santa covered a lot of ground last night. Here he’s seen hustling to his next gig:

We’re SO happy to see Clifton Market spring back to life. At this table, folks signed up to win a $50 gift certificate.

Clifton Area Neighborhood School (CANS) partnered with Kindflash to provide hats and gloves to 600 students as a service learning project for pre-K through first grade.

Gosh, where are we? Oh, that’s…none other than Gaslight Bar & Grill, which had a soft opening last night. It felt mighty cozy – and how ’bout that woodwork, not to mention the view?

Another Santa sighting, this time at Ludlow Wines, which hosts wine tastings every Friday and Saturday night:

On to his next gig:

Santa also visited Ace Hardware, where they served goodies for kids and adults:

Eventually the carolers on Clifton Plaza moved to a warmer climate, sharing the Christmas spirit with the crowd at Ludlow Wines.

Once again, Holidays on Ludlow was a huge success, and spirits were especially high due to all the new businesses (including Sitwell’s, Gaslight Bar & Grill, and new ownership at both Clifton Market and the Ludlow Garage) that so quickly integrated with the old businesses. And we’re not done yet – there’s a record store right around the corner! More on that later…

Blues Shows Coming to the Ludlow Garage

Two blues shows are right around the corner for the Ludlow Garage. On Thursday, November 29, the venue will host Savoy Brown, a British blues-rock group that, like John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, features one permanent member (Kim Simmonds) and a long list of sidemen with impressive blues creds. Savoy Brown received a lot of FM-radio airplay in the 1970s due to solid musicianship and songwriting, and “Tell Mama,” from 1971, is one of their signature songs:

That same weekend, on Saturday, December 1, the Ludlow Garage will host Canned Heat, who played Woodstock and also recorded an album with blues legend John Lee Hooker. Special guest artist that evening will be Sonny Moorman, a fine blues artist and a true entertainer. It will be a great, blues-drenched evening! Here’s one of Canned Heat’s biggest hits, “On the Road Again”:

For more information on these shows and others – including the reggae show by The Meditations that takes place on Friday of that week – click the link below and add it to your bookmarks. See you at the Garage!

https://www.ludlowgaragecincinnati.com/

 

 

Revving Up for CliftonFest!

During my daily stroll, I happened upon some folks who were decorating the streetlights on Ludlow Avenue, which was something that begged documentation. At 8pm all of the light sculptures are going to light up, and tomorrow night CliftonFest begins. Gaslight Property is once again a proud sponsor of CliftonFest, which is one of many reasons the Gaslight District is a great place to live!

Weekly Specials at the Esquire Theatre

The Esquire Theatre has been an integral part of Clifton since opening in 1911. It’s movie choices are better than ever now, with six screens and special events ranging from this week’s Indian Film Festival 2018 to classic old Hollywood movies.  On top of that, the Esquire Theatre has weekly specials that movie lovers should know about. Here’s how you can save some money and see a movie during the weekdays:
Mondays:  Every Monday is boomer night, with tickets only $6 for customers 60 years of age and older.

Tuesdays: Every Tuesday is the perennially popular “Cheap Movie Night,” where tickets are only $6 for all customers.

Wednesdays: Every Wednesday the Esquire offers wine at half-price.

Thursdays: Also a weekly event, “Thirsty Thursday” offers $3 beers until 9pm.

Remember, if you’ve walked past the Equire and seen the movies on the marquee, you’re only getting part of the story, as the theatre has special events every week. To keep up with the Esquire, bookmark its website, www.esquiretheatre.com, and  while you’re there take advantage of one other bargain: if you sign up for their weekly email address, you get free popcorn.  See you at the movies!

 

 

Blood, Sweat & Tears Coming to the Ludlow Garage

Blood Sweat & Tears is coming to the Ludlow Garage for two shows on Friday, October 12. No history of late 60s and early 70s rock is complete without Blood Sweat & Tears. Their second LP was the #1 album for seven weeks, and it produced three top 5 singles. The album received a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and it has been certified quadruple platinum, with sales of more than four million units in the U.S. Blood, Sweat & Tears also played Woodstock and, along with Chicago, who also added horns to their sound, helped create jazz rock. Here is You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” the lead-off single from BS&T’s #1 album:

And here’s the second single from the album, “Spinning Wheel”:

Here’s the third single from that album that managed to crack the top five, a song Laura Nyro wrote, “And When I Die”:

This will be a great night of music – classic songs and first-rate musicians. Here’s a link to Ludlow Garage’s website, where you can buy tickets for this and all other Ludlow Garage shows:

https://www.ludlowgaragecincinnati.com/

 

 

 

Ludlow Avenue In Pictures – A Magical History Tour

Recently I’ve set out to find old photographs of Ludlow Avenue, the Clifton Gaslight Business District, and the Gaslight District in general. Mostly I’ve been searching for photos of storefronts that have changed over the years, either due to cosmetic changes or new businesses replacing old ones. I feel as if I’m just scratching the surface so far, but I figured I’d trot out some photos just to get things started. As more photos become available, I’ll keep adding to this blog entry and perhaps create new blog entries that are narrower in focus. I encourage anyone who has photos (or knows where I can find more) to add to this collection to contribute. Eventually I suspect this will become a separate page on Gaslight Property’s website, gaslightproperty.com. These are some of the photos I’ve collected thus far. At first I was going to write a caption for each one – but after posting them I thought, it’ll be more fun for people to suss out where these locations are. So can you identify all the locations from the past and the businesses/spaces that have replaced them? And can you add some photos to the collection? In any case, enjoy this soon-to-be-expanded magical history tour.

 

 

 

New Hours for Gaslight Gourmet Cookies

It’s been almost three years since Gaslight Gourmet Cookies opened in Clifton, and it was an immediate hit, its baked goods, classic awning, and walk-up window adding that much more charm to the neighborhood. Along with serving walk-in or walk-up fans of cookies, macaroons, and coffee, the store has always had its share of loyal large-order customers, and demand is so strong in that area that it recently opted to trim its hours to be able to fulfill that need. So plan accordingly, cookie fans: new hours for the store, which is located at 272 Ludlow Avenue, are:

Wednesday: 7am to 4pm

Saturday: 7am to 6pm

Sunday: 8am to noon

When I spoke to the owner of the store, Tom Jacobsen, he said coconut macaroons are the most popular item on the menu, and it turns out they earned a “Best of the City” award in Cincinnati Magazine. The best-selling cookie is the dark cherry cordial cookie. When you speak to Tom, he makes it clear that the store is located in the perfect spot. “Clifton is the best neighborhood in the city,” he said, “and it’s been the best neighborhood for 100 years.”

And his civic pride extends to other Cincinnati neighborhoods. Tom donates cookies and macaroons for fund-raisers at St. Boniface, Fairview-Clifton German Language School, Roger Bacon, Elder, DePaul Christo Rey, and other local schools.

And if you’re wondering how to arrange large orders yourself, Tom encourages interested parties to text, all, or leave a message at (513) 602-5253. Also, you should check out his facebook page. Gaslight Gourmet Cookies is one more reason the Gaslight District is a great neighborhood and a great place to rent.

Thank You, Jerry Gillotti

The memory is still fresh of walking into Gilly’s for the first time. I had never been to a jazz club before, and my sense of excitement quickly combined with…well…desperation, as I was informed by the owner, a short, squat man sitting in the entrance and taking money, that the show was sold out. That man was Jerry Gillotti, the owner of Gilly’s. I told him the drive to downtown Dayton took over an hour, and my plea for sympathy worked—he let in me and my posse.

All the tables were full that evening, and the club was beyond standing room only—even finding a place to stand took some doing. While tripping over other people’s feet I noticed that the crowd at this dark, small club largely consisted of well-dressed black people who were a bit older than this white boy who might have been all of 19 by then. The band was already playing, and folks who think of jazz as background music should have felt the energy in that room. Leading the group was McCoy Tyner, who had played on the John Coltrane albums that I purchased after Carlos Santana and other rock stars raved about him in interviews. The group that night was on fire. Band members included the fire-breathing George Adams, a tall tenor sax player whose eyes rolled back into his head during his solos. Constantly switching instruments, Guilherme Franco would disappear and then reappear from behind a percussion rack and throw in other visual effects that seemed almost shamanistic. That performance was intense, and seeing it in a small club made it reverberate even more. I knew I’d be back.

Prior to that night my concert-going had mostly been limited to rock shows at big venues, which was fun, but at Gilly’s it amazed me that I could witness such a high level of musicianship, the playing so inspired and so intense, in such a small space. Although I never lived in Dayton, I drove from Celina, Oxford, and Cincinnati to see two other McCoy shows, Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, JJ Johnson, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Muddy Waters, Mose Allison, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, Flora and Airto, and many other artists.

Most of the shows I saw there were in the late 70s and the 1980s, when the more “out” jazz enjoyed some popularity and was part of the tour and festival circuit. During a performance by Old & New Dreams, (a group consisting of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell), the second set opened with “Lonely Woman,” a beautiful and haunting Ornette Coleman composition, and sitting in the front row while listening to Charlie Haden droning, mournful bass solo was mesmerizing. On another night Sam Rivers brought a heady mixture of free jazz and funk. And there was Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition with David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Peter Warren. The playing was so powerful that evening that increased my fascination with jazz, as it amazed me that I could walk into a room and hear such remarkably musicianship by guys who (other than DeJohnette) I hadn’t even heard of before that night. Later David Murry returned with a quartet that included Ed Blackwell.

One of the last shows I saw at Gilly’s was a series of duets by Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron. That was one of two concerts they played in America on that “tour,” and it was my only opportunity to see either of them. When Mal Waldron soloed, the smoke rising from his cigarillo behind his thick white hair while the spotlight shone down was jazz imagery at its finest. To think that, for years, Waldron worked with Billie Holiday in different formats, including duets, as the final verse of “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara describes:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

The fact that Waldron played at Gilly’s begins to tell you some of the history that passed through the club’s doors.

About the time that I started hitting small jazz shows I caught wind of punk, with its DIY ethos, and something similar has always been at work in the jazz world. Certainly it was in Jerry Gillotti’s DNA. (And somehow it makes sense that Gilly’s hosted some early and now legendary punk and new wave shows when that scene was still in its infancy.) Although both Columbus and Cincinnati were larger cities, neither had a club comparable to Gilly’s. To put it simply, Jerry Gillotti booked bands who shortly before or after that gig were performing at the Village Vanguard. Jazz lovers within driving distance of Gilly’s were quite spoiled, as this was all about one person going out of his way to make something happen. Jerry Gillotti passed away on November 23, 2017, and it should be noted that even though he suffered from increasingly bad health he continued to run the club until the end of his life.

Memories of Gilly’s shows always return to his voice, which you’d hear before the show and between sets. (He also did the highly caffeinated phone messages announcing upcoming shows.) He had the perfect voice for a jazz promoter—energetic, enthusiastic, hip. “I always thought that if you did it right you could make money doing it but I was wrong,” he said. “You can’t make any money doing it.”

Did that stop him? No. And why not? Because he loved jazz. The idea of starting a jazz club came to him at a Modern Jazz Quartet concert he attended overseas. That show must have moved him deeply, and that’s something that every jazz lover would understand. Somehow a myth has been passed along that jazz is all about massaging your cerebral cortex, but the truth is it’s a deeply human thing. One song that quickly wipes away the notion of jazz as Think Music is “Left Alone,” for which Billie Holiday wrote the lyrics and Mal Waldron, who decades later performed at Gilly’s, wrote the music. Although Billie passed away before they could record the song, Mal went on to play and record it for the rest of his career, not as a crowd-pleaser but as a deeply-felt tribute to Billie. Thank you, Jerry Gillotti, for bending the rules that first night and for bringing in so many great jazz artists over the years, including the guy who used to play with Billie Holiday. You made the world a better place.

Double Digits

On January 2, 2008, a group of people wearing caps and masks watched someone of similar attire plunge a knife into my neck. But the people gathered around me meant me no harm—in fact, they were trying to do me some good, as I had, it turns out, not one but two cancerous nodules inside my thyroid, so a complete thyroidectomy was in fact in order. The second nodule I never really told anyone about until now (other than some doctors) because I didn’t want to acknowledge it myself at the time, as two nodules is more worrisome than one and while #1 was the least dangerous form of thyroid cancer (papillary) #2 was some sort of papillary/other cocktail that increased the cause for concern (plus I was nearing 50, which for males especially makes those mortality charts change in ways you don’t want them to), that’s the stone cold scary truth.

I had woken up in an operating room before that day, so I knew what to expect: arctic temperatures (they help you to wake up) and chattering docs + nurses (that also helps). This time, though, I came to in a dark room by myself, and everything was silent. All I knew for sure was that I was still in a hospital. I couldn’t hear any voices, and no one was passing by in the hallway in front of me. I could tell it was dark outside, which seemed weird considering that my surgery began early that morning (or was it that morning?). What little voice I had kept asking if anyone was there. Finally a sixty-ish nurse entered the room. She stared bluntly at me and said in a most serious voice:

“You know what happened, don’t you?”

“No, and you don’t have to tell me,” I said.

She told me anyway: I had stayed under so long that standard post-operating procedure had been abandoned. My parents had left the building, and the hospital was now a very quiet place. Later, in my hospital bed, with plenty of morphine to keep me company, I watched television during the awake/asleep cycle that kept repeating itself that evening. In the middle of the night the local news showed some footage that looked like a helicopter crashing into the hospital where the surgery had been performed, and in my altered state I quickly imagined a narrative wherein, as the surgeon was about to make the first and biggest cut, the entire building wobbled. While that wasn’t entirely accurate (and in fact, I came to learn, the accident that occurred was slightly less dramatic than what I first assumed and actually took place the day before my surgery), I have sometimes embellished this story in order to impress my friends with just how tough I am. Much to my disappointment, thus far everyone has read through that particular tall tale.

Again, the date of that surgery was January 2, 2008, which makes it ten years ago today, which takes us to double digit years of cancer-free living, and that’s a really nice number. After the thyroidectomy, four months passed before we ran the tests that determined if the cancer had spread beyond my thyroid (it hadn’t), but I will always mark January 2 as The Big Anniversary because that’s the date (as we eventually came to learn) that cancer left my body. Surgery is no no fun, but those four months that followed were the hard part, and I’ll freely admit that during that time I experienced some good old-fashioned fear. Not a crazy amount, but it was tough sometimes. Everyone who has cancer handles it differently, and I’m well aware, as I’m sure you are too, that some folks respond to a cancer diagnosis with a burst of good karma and positive energy and do a superb job of dodging the heebie-jeebies. That’s a perfectly fine approach, but it isn’t universal, and if these words should happen to reach a person who either has cancer or is being tested for it, I hope you know you shouldn’t second-guess yourself if that diagnosis sends a shiver down your spine. It’s okay to worry, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

On the other hand, when it comes to the regimen of tests involved when suspicions of cancer arise and the treatment that’s required, you need to follow through on all that. Maybe you’re not the Rock of Gibraltar, but you need to give other people permission to save your life. One of the fringe benefits you’ll experience along the way is a deepening of friendships and other relationships that can only happen when you undergo such trials. I can vouch for that, and today, as I began a list of the people whose support during that time is still fresh in my memory, it really hit home how lucky I was to have them in my life. Here my mind travels first to Dr. Timothy Freeman, the primary care physician who ordered the test that revealed something we weren’t even looking for (“Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes” is how he put it); Dr. Fischer, the surgeon who performed the thyroidectomy, which included some intricate parathyroid work; Dr. Silberstein, the nuclear medicine specialist at UC Hospital; and my endocrinologist, Dr. Denny-Queen.

My mind also travels my brothers and sisters (and I’ve got lots of ‘em), and I should also mention my brother-in-law, Ed Holder, who I saw during that time and was always supportive. Molly and Jack Bredl were there for me, as was Mary Jo Wilson. Greg Bredl and Kristin LaCroix, both cancer survivors, helped boost my spirits. And Jim Schwartzhoff, now deceased, was a pillar of strength.

The list of friends who helped me keep my spirits up during this time included Luke Domet, Pam Sweet, Laura Kristal (thank you for the flowers), Vivian Vinyl, Bill King, and Tom Wendel. The comedy team of Maarten and Ashu, whose wild antics during that four-month period kept me laughing, also deserve a shout-out. Also, Jeff King, who is now deceased, was a bedrock of support during that period.

My mind also travels to people I knew at work, including, definitely, Sonja McLaughlin and Anita Clary. And how lucky I was to have as an “officemate” Asmaa Gharbi Alami, who offered support and prayed for me—and made me laugh, for that woman has a wicked sense of humor. It’s been too long since the two of us have conversed, but we are friends for life, and she knows it.

Looking back on that time, I’m especially grateful for my parents, John and Gary Wilson, who, along with providing emotional and practical support, endured many inconveniences while dealing with the post-surgical logistics (and weren’t bothered a bit by it). Many decades ago, in Des Moines, Iowa, a friend of our family surreptitiously placed in front of our house a huge roadside sign announcing that it was my mother’s birthday and that anyone driving past was invited in for donuts and coffee. That sign brought in many visitors who were previously strangers, and it provided lots of laughs. Anyone who knows my parents will tell you that the same welcoming spirit so prominently on display that day has always defined them. Lest there be any mystery, that’s how we all should live.