Share this article

print logo

Lounge wizard: Jackie Jocko is Buffalo's magic man at the piano

The sound begins as a muffled trickle, coming from a ceiling speaker in the corridor outside E.B. Greene's restaurant.

"Tell me Quando, Quando, Quando. . . . Look at that, bartender! Doesn't he look like Christopher Reeve? . . . Where are you from, sir? San Diego? I left my heart in San Diego . . . "

Turn a corner, and you get it full blast.

Jackie Jocko is at the grand piano, flanked by his identically dressed collaborator, drummer Joe Peters. There may be five people in the lounge, there may be 50. Either way, the short, effusive Jocko is rocking.

"Look at her!" he announces as a woman walks in. "Who does she remind you of? Brigitte Bardot in 'And God Created Woman.' "

Jackie Jocko playing his piano at E. B. Green's. (Buffalo News file photo)

He launches "Always Have an Ace in the Hole" as a table full of friends bellows along. "A couple more drinks and they'll be in the hole," Jocko jives.

More people arrive. "All of a sudden there's all this action!" Jocko exclaims. "I feel like I'm in one of those Lebanese markets!" He swings into Rachmaninoff, exhibiting his amazing piano technique.

As he plays, he twists. He shakes. He gyrates. "I feel like I'm overpowering myself!"

In Buffalo nightlife, there's no one like Jackie Jocko.

Friends follow him, people who have known him for decades. Wealthy out-of-towners fly in for the weekend just to catch his act. Waiters and waitresses pause to laugh at his antics. Guests linger, agog, in the lounge entrance.

Jocko has no "off" switch, and his volume control is iffy, too. He has been known to play an entire evening without a break. "I'm not a sleeping person!" he insists. "I'm a vampire! I hate the sun!"

If he is a man of extremes, maybe it's because he has led a life of extremes. His career has bounced around like a ball of Silly Putty. A hit song at 20. A subsequent stint at Birdland in New York. Twenty years in the great lounges of Las Vegas, Dallas and Newport Beach, Calif., where he knew the famous and the infamous, from Marlene Dietrich to Jack Ruby. Legend status in Buffalo, where for years he was a fixture among the minks and martinis of the Cloister.

Now he's on top again, serenading E.B. Greene's Wednesdays through Saturdays. It's a job Jocko relishes. "I love hotels!" he cries. "I was born to play downtown!"

One evening, restaurateur Russ Salvatore is at the bar. "I wish I had his talent, to be able to entertain," Salvatore says. "He'll sit at the piano and play for hours, and he's so good at it, because it comes from the heart."

Another night, dapper Buffalo Common Council member James Pitts drops in. "You sound wonderful!" Pitts tells Jocko. "Those fingers!"

Electra Klager, a stunning older woman typical of Jocko's glamorous crowd, has been a fan since Jocko's days at the Cloister. "He's crazy," Ms. Klager admits, "but that's part of his charm."

Grace Hanson, the young, sunny manager of E.B. Greene's, frequently puts aside her businesslike manner to josh with Jocko.

"He compares me with ('40s bandleader) Ina Mae Hutton and Mae West. I think that's a compliment," she laughs. "Jocko's so vivacious and outgoing, and Joe's the stabilizer," she adds. "When they come in, it brings a brightness to the place. We like to think they're classic and so are we."

As she speaks, Jocko is capering through Nat "King" Cole, Harold Arlen, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ravel's "Bolero," anything that suits his fancy.

"I play things that aren't written!" he beams. "I make up half the things I play!"

He tinkers constantly with music and words. In Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me," for instance, the line "the way you changed my life" becomes "the way you wrecked my life."

No one knows quite what to expect on any given night. Even Joe Peters, who has been a musical team with Jocko for more than 40 years, says, "I've got to watch his hands, 'cause he never plays the same way twice."

Bingo and Bacharach

It's tough to get Jackie Jocko to sit still, even in a normal North Buffalo living room.

"Do you mind if I put these pillows somewhere else? They're squeezing me off the couch!" he wails. "I love it here!" he exclaims, roaming the room. "Look at this piano! You know something, this house gives me a very good feeling!" Back on the couch: "Oh, get these chips away from me! I shouldn't be eating them!" (Joe Peters, sitting calmly nearby, moves the bowl away.)

Jocko doesn't drink or smoke. "I took a drink of beer once," he confesses. "Holy crap, I was drunk." His vices don't seem to go beyond Delta bingo, which he adores, and OTB. But he is a man of quicksilver moods -- of wide grins and sudden frowns, passionate loves and passionate hates.

"I love Burt Bacharach!"

"I hate Barbra Streisand!"

"I love Wagner!"

"I hate the accordion!"

He's not anything close to a family man. Recently, at E.B. Greene's, a 6-year-old asked Jocko for his autograph. "Isn't he cute?" Jocko mused as the boy and his parents disappeared onto the elevator. Then his face darkened. "But could you imagine having him with you all the time? Oh, no! Not me! I love my freedom!"

It's not easy to get Jocko to discuss the past. "I threw out all my scrapbooks. I don't like yesterday," he says, fidgeting. "I like today! I like moving forward!"

There are many things he'd rather dish about than his history. The future, for one: "My friend has the second-biggest gambling ship in the world and I'm going to play on it! I can't wait!" Or astrology, a passion of his. (He has a lengthy explanation, involving lots of stars and planets, for Tiger Woods' changing luck on the golf course.)

What's worse, when Jocko talks about celebrities, he often fails to come up with their names -- not because he can't, but because he can't be bothered. Chet Baker is "you know, the guy who sang and sounded like a girl." Victor Borge is "the guy who played the piano. Funny guy. The Swede." ("Dane," Peters corrects him.)

But the truth, more or less, emerges.

Jocko was born John Giaccio in 1929 in Buffalo's North Fillmore neighborhood. (Twenty-some years later, his name was changed to Jackie Jocko by a Cleveland disc jockey.) Peters is five years older.

"I'm Italian," says Jocko. "He's Arab."

"Lebanese," Peters corrects.

Jocko describes his family as "very beautiful people. They never argued," he says. "When my father died, when I was 1, everyone took care of me." His brother taught him the rudiments of piano, and Jackie was 2 when he started playing 'Just a Gigolo' on the piano. "I hate that song now!" he moans.

He tried his brother's patience ("He wanted to slap me off the piano bench!") and also the patience of formal teachers. On stage at Kleinhans Music Hall for a piano recital, he got halfway through a Debussy work and forgot the notes. He improvised.

"Afterward, someone came up to me and said, 'I never heard Debussy played like that before!' And my teacher said: 'Neither have I! I'm gonna kill you!"

Jocko and Peters met when they were barely out of their teens. At first they were part of a quartet, but they dropped the other two and decided to go it alone.

In 1952 in Cleveland, they were signed to Mercury Records and had a hit, a swingy version of "Lover, Come Back to Me." It landed them on the airwaves -- and took them to New York, where they were booked in 1953 for six weeks at Birdland, the famous jazz club.

"We were kids," Jocko says. "We were scared. I didn't know what I was doing.

"Everyone was there. Dizzy Gillespie. Sarah Vaughan. And the guy who died of dope," he adds, alluding to Charlie Parker.

Also in New York, Jocko met Buffalo's Dodo Greene, who was then working with the same record company. Then bad luck struck: His agent was let go from Mercury Records, and Jocko got the heave-ho along with him.

On their own, Jocko and Peters launched a 20-year tour of resort towns around the world.

They played on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. "But the island is built on a cone," Jocko frets. "If the cone moves, you're dead."

They played in Aruba, where Jocko enjoyed the tourists. "The Germans were fantastic!" he raves. "The Greeks were fantastic! The Argentinians were fantastic!"

Once, in 100-degree heat, Jocko sang the Aruban national anthem for the governor. "You don't have to know the language," he says. "Music is such a bond."

Music was a bond between Jocko and thousands across the country. Years playing at the Sportsman in Newport Beach, Calif., and at the Sahara in Las Vegas acquainted him with stars.

'Jocko, I'm dead'

Jocko gets misty, recalling the era of what he calls "the great lounges."

"Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner were there. Hedy Lamarr! And were these women beautiful!" he cries. "Always dressed, honey! They never came in like today's stars, with dirty slacks," he adds with a scowl.

He has fond memories of Marlene Dietrich. "It was 4 a.m., dead as heck -- the lounges were dead after 3 -- and she passed by the entrance. And I started playing 'Falling in Love Again.' She started laughing, and she said: 'Jocko, I'm dead. I have to go to bed.'

Jocko pontificates freely on other celebrities he has run across.

Betty Grable: "She danced to every song!"

Zsa Zsa Gabor: "What a character. I said, 'Your (stocking) seams are cockeyed.' She said, 'Who cares?'

June Allyson: "That crybaby. Everyone hated her."

Nelson Eddy: "He was gentle and kind. We would play the slots together."

Peggy Lee: "She was a bitch. With no personality."

Buddy Rich: "A bastard! He was obnoxious!"

Elvis Presley: "He'd just go past the lounge. He'd wave. He had a warmth about him."

Doc Severinsen: "He's beautiful! He comes in here and stays two or three hours. He said, 'You know 8 million numbers.' "

Barbra Streisand: "That Brooklyn stuff! And how many times can you sing, 'People, people who need people . . . ' My Gawd."

Mel Torme: "I still love him! But he used to be so arrogant."

Jocko and Peters had no manager. Instead, they simply met people who found them gigs. "We were well-known," Jocko says.

In Minneapolis, they inadvertently ended up playing a brothel. "I said to the owner, 'Why are there always 10 women at the bar, and then, 10 minutes later, they're gone?' " Jocko laughs.

In Dallas, Jocko got to know Jack Ruby, the unstable nightclub owner who was to kill Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Ruby, Jocko says, used to slip him tips in return for playing "Misty."

"When the president got shot, the FBI came to see me in Buffalo. They asked: 'What was Jack Ruby like? What did he give you?' I said: 'How should I know? He used to want to hear "Misty." ' "

Jocko leans back euphorically. "They didn't know what I was by the time I was done with them."

For Jocko, road life was never a problem: "I love living out of a suitcase! I used to be up all night and day!" In their free time, Joe Peters indulged in his two passions, golf and bridge. Jocko would tell fortunes. "There would be lines of girls waiting to see if Jocko was up yet," Peters says.

"I used to be quite psychic," Jocko says. Now, he confides, he stays away from the occult, because he went too far. "If I got mad at somebody, I'd say something was going to happen to him. That's how bad it got."

Home again

"Misty." "Whisper Not." "It Had to Be You." It's getting late in the lounge, but Jocko's nowhere near running out of gas.

A couple walks in. "Will you look at her!" Jocko raves. "This woman was an Egyptian princess. Reincarnated 31 times to get where she is today. And look! It's Ray Milland. He left Hollywood to come to E.B. Greene's."

When he looks back on his career, the high-wattage Jocko resists regret. He shrugs off any strokes of bad luck by saying, "I'm glad everything worked out as it did."

Since returning to Buffalo in 1979, he has enjoyed building his local-legend status. He loved the Cloister. "People would walk up and down the steps like they were in the movies! And I would play 'You Stepped Out of a Dream.'

"We worked in every joint in the city," he adds, happily recalling the Everglades on Hertel Avenue and Foster's Supper Club. Alas, a long stint as house man at Jocko's Supper Club, his namesake venue on Broadway in Cheektowaga, didn't end happily. "Seven years of stagnation," Jocko sneers now. But he loved his cabaret collaborations with singer Ann English and multitalented songwriter Joey Giambra. He and Giambra gained local fame with the Queen City anthem "I Love You, Buffalo," written and recorded in 1979.

Years of entertaining have given Jocko insights into life.

He deals fearlessly with people -- all people. One inspiring story centers on how he once handled an obscene phone call. "I told the guy to meet me at the statue of David," Jocko says. "He said, 'For what?' I said, 'You know for what.' Then I yelled, 'YOU'D BETTER BE THERE OR I'LL KILL YOU!' " He shrieks with laughter. "That's how you have to deal with people."

Club owners never fazed him. "I've played for every crook in the world," Jocko says. Even in bad situations, Jocko says he never left under a cloud. "I might say to the manager, 'I don't like you as a person, but I really enjoyed myself.' "

He has contempt for egotistical musicians. "They're boring," he jeers. "I've been around the world. They've been around the streets."

Jocko has set views of how entertainers should act: no ethnic jokes ("they're chintzy") and lots of audience contact. Too many entertainers, he says, fall short on this count. "They don't know how to talk," he scoffs. "If I just wanted to hear someone play, I can listen to a record."

About his current workplace, he has nothing but praise. He says of Paul Snyder, who owns the Hyatt: "I have never enjoyed working for a man like this!"

It's obvious he means it, because, at the end of the night, Peters can't get him to go home.

"In a minute," Jocko says.

Sitting around with friends, Jocko gets expansive and free with words of wisdom. "The secret of happiness is not to give a damn about anything!" he says.

Peters goes and camps out, like a tired child, on a sofa in the hall.

"Just live! Be loose!" Jocko continues. "That's people's problem today. Nobody knows how to be loose! I've got no problem! I'm flying! Why would I want to leave?" he shouts. "I'm enjoying myself."


There are no comments - be the first to comment