How do you keep the music playing?
That was the question faced by E.B. Green's at the Hyatt, after piano man Jackie Jocko left off playing in October. For a couple of decades, Jocko's playing would greet arrivals at the steakhouse in downtown Buffalo, and serenade them through drinks and dinner.
How do you keep the music playing? The steakhouse had an idea: Hold a benefit/retirement party for Jocko.
The party took place Thursday. It was a much-talked-about event. No one knew what to expect.
Jocko – whose real name is John Giaccio – has spent recent months in a retirement community in Clarence. He had not been playing the piano, but he had been playing bingo, something he was always passionate about.
[PHOTOS: Smiling faces at the Tribute to Jackie Jocko in Hyatt Regency]
By 5 p.m., when the party was set to start, crowds were streaming in. Paul Snyder, the owner of the Hyatt, anticipated Jocko's arrival. Snyder had met Jocko when Jocko was playing at the Cloister, a long-gone Buffalo restaurant.
"I would go in and see him," he recalled.
Snyder, then the owner of the Buffalo Braves, grew to admire Jocko. He said Jocko's playing reminded him of Bobby Short, at the Café Carlyle in New York City.
During Jocko's years at the Hyatt, Snyder could often be found at a table in the lounge, listening. He marveled not only at Jocko's musicianship, but his showmanship.
"He always had a nice word for everyone who walked in here – a little kid, a mother, anyone," he said.
Cheers went up at E.B. Green's when Jocko arrived.
He moved slowly, with a walker. But he grinned, greeting his fans.
"Hubba hubba," he said, in answer to a reporter's greeting. He joked: "I'm a wreck."
But, as Jocko settled in to a table, he greeted fans with aplomb.
Many a younger celebrity would have trouble keeping up as Jocko did with the onslaught of fans, familiar and unfamiliar.
"Jocko, I'm Joan –"
"Jocko, you knew my father –"
"Jackie, hi, we met when you were playing at Jocko's Supper Club –"
Beaming, the pianist shook hands with his visitors. In between greetings, he enthusiastically ate what appeared to be a hearty dinner.
Next to him was Audrey Clark of Leicester, Mass. Described as his oldest friend, Clark was the president of his fan club when she was 18 years old. She had flown in especially for this gathering.
"I met him through a deejay in Pittsburgh. We were friends. Then he disappeared," she explained. "It was 60 years before I saw him again."
She displayed a scrapbook of photos of Jocko, from years long ago to photos taken a year ago at a party for Jocko. The 2016 photos included Jocko's close friend and partner Joe Peters, who died last year.
Someone had brought Joe Peters' drumsticks to the party at the Hyatt. They lay on Jocko's table.
The occasion was bittersweet. Not only is Jocko no longer playing, but the Hyatt is due to change hands on April 1.
Still, the mood was festive. Celebrities included former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello; singers Joyce Wilson Nixon and Diane Armesto; Buffalo State College professor Charles Mancuso; former News food critic Janice Okun; and Father Joe Rogliano, pastor of St. Mark's Church.
"He's so talented. It has endured for generations," said Masiello, growing emotional. "The amazing thing about Jocko is his endurance. It's a legacy we should all admire."
Fans expressed their love and nostalgia.
"I wasn't going to come out," admitted Joe Heinie, a longtime friend. "It was cold. I was in with the dog. But my daughter got me on the phone. She said, 'If you don't go, you'll never forget it.'"
Jocko left two hours into the festivities. He was tired, he said. But before he left, he expressed delight that The Buffalo News was doing a feature on him.
"Everyone in the hospital loves these write-ups," he said.