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.