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Jackie Jocko plays on, despite loss of his drummer partner

“There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low,” wrote Irving Berlin.

Berlin, no stranger to Buffalo, should have been at E.B. Green’s Steakhouse at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo on Thursday evening, when piano legend Jackie Jocko showed how spot-on those lyrics were.

Jocko was dealing with real heartbreak. His lifelong friend Joe Peters – whom he referred to, on Facebook, as his partner in music and life – had died the day before, at 92. Their friendship and collaboration had lasted over 70 years.

"You get word before the show has started that your favorite uncle died at dawn/Top of that, your pa and ma have parted, you’re broken-hearted, but you go on."

Though flip, Irving Berlin’s words had a lot of truth.

Brandy Perry, the general manager of E.B. Green’s, knew how close Jocko and Peters, pianist and drummer, were.

“Joe would call every night and say, ‘Tell Jocko I made it home,’ ” she said. “And then he always said, ‘God bless.’ ”

Hearing of Peters’ death on Wednesday, she was surprised to hear that Jocko would be at the piano as usual the next night.

“I said, ‘Are you sure? Let me know if you need anything,’ ” she recalled, as Jocko scampered through Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me.”

Jocko needed nothing but music.

“He’s doing what he loves to do,” Perry said. “It’s his family here.”

The family – longtime friends and fans – began filling the lounge. A few regulars had not heard the sad news. Jazz singer Diane Armesto, the daughter of composer John Armesto, was among them. Someone told her when she walked in, or she would have been confused when Jocko, doodling on the piano, sang to her, “Johnny Armesto and Joe Peters, they’re probably up there writing songs.”

Jocko’s old friend Joseph Heiney understood.

“Jocko has a world where he tries to keep away things that hurt him,” confided Heiney, sitting at the pianist’s elbow. “When his mother died, it was the same way. He says to me, ‘I don’t let it get me.’ He has the gift of shutting out things.”

People who had been regulars for over 10 years could remember when Joe Peters and his drum set used to join Jocko in the lounge.

Peters had a low-key charm. He loved to socialize and all his life he was a graceful dancer, with polished ballroom moves. His quiet personality was a remarkable contrast to the ebullient Jocko.

Still, listeners knew they were in the presence of a master drummer. Musicians stopped to admire his technique. Once, in the lounge of E.B. Green’s, comedian Mark Russell joshed Jocko: “You’re lucky you’ve got Joe Peters, honey. He saves your act!”

Jocko, reflecting on Peters’ artistry, chose his words carefully.

“He never overshadowed anybody,” he said. “He was very well schooled. He was thorough in his learning. He was very passionate about music.”

Jocko was proud of how many musicians Peters inspired. Ann English, the mother of TV writer Diane English, grew emotional thinking of that.

“My grandson Richie English, who is now with the Goo Goo Dolls, he sat on Joe’s lap when he was a little boy, as Joe played the drums,” she said.

Dave Granville, a close friend, spoke touchingly Thursday of Peters’ spiritual side.

“On this past Ash Wednesday, Joe called me, and he said, ‘I want to go to Mass,’ ” he said. “We went to St. Leo’s. ... The pastor, Monsignor Zapfel, handed out a book of Lenten reflections. Joe took it and read the whole book. He finished it before Lent was over. He called me asking if I knew where to get another copy.”

Jocko corroborated that recollection.

“He was very religious,” Jocko said. “He loved being a Catholic.”

But sorrow was banished as the lounge was suffused in good feeling, all because of the man at the piano.

“You can’t keep those redheads down,” Jocko called over to a new arrival. He launched into Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance.”

He smiled broadly at his friend, retired Appellate Justice Salvatore R. Martoche, and handed around Hershey’s Kisses.

“You’ll be playing at my funeral,” Martoche informed him. “You’re going to be around 150 years.”

“Oh, my God!” Jocko joshed. Then, fulfilling a request, he segued into Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

He accepted condolences happily.

“I wanted to say something when I walked in, but it was awkward,” said one friend, sitting down next to him at the piano.

“Never regret anything you do,” Jocko lectured him. “When you do it, you do it.” He turned to the crowd. “Remember that song Joey Giambra sang, ‘Don’t Want No Memories Hanging Around,’ ” he said. He put the blues at bay with a dismissive wave. “That’s past. We’re going to do new things now.”

Heiney, Jocko’s old friend, shook his head.

“Honey, he’s an entertainer,” he said. “This is what it is. They’re not like everyone else.”

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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