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Driving Mr. Jocko: Cadre of fans provide rides for E.B. Green’s piano man

Parking is forbidden in the circle in front of E.B. Green’s, the steakhouse at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. Except for two reserved spaces.

One is for Paul Snyder, who owns the Hyatt.

The other is for whoever is driving Jackie Jocko.

Jocko is the longtime piano player at E.B. Green’s, the talkative and talented musician who sits at the piano five nights a week, playing everything from Henry Mancini to Rodgers and Hart to Rachmaninoff while welcoming diners who enter the restaurant and carrying on conversations with the bar patrons. All the while, his fingers never stop playing. But after four straight hours at the piano, it is time for him to leave.

“Cindra, put on the Victrola,” Jocko says at every closing.

That is the signal for Cindy Brennan, the bartender, to turn on the sound system.

And then begins the adventure of the night.

At 87, Jocko no longer drives. So he gets a ride to work with one of the staff members. Because he leaves a little earlier than the staff, he needs to catch a ride home.

Dave Granville, a longtime friend, had the idea to put the word out that others could enjoy the privilege of driving Jocko. So Granville, who does occasional acting and is a kind of mover and shaker, set up a Facebook group called Driving Jackie Jocko, open to the public. He posts available dates, and drivers step up.

“We have over 30 drivers. We’ve been doing it for a year,” he said.

“When they volunteer, we tell them the procedure. Enjoy the music, Jackie finishes – ‘Turn on the Victrola, Cindra’ – and then they escort him out and drive him home. And whether they take the 33, or they take Main to Bailey, it’s the drive of their life.”

The reserved parking space in front of the restaurant/hotel is special, Granville explained, because it used to belong to Jocko himself.

“You pull up at 7:30 or 8 p.m., and tell the valet, ‘I’m here to pick up Jackie,’ and you park right there. That’s where Jackie used to park.”

A spreadsheet of volunteer drivers reveals some well-known names. Broadcasting legend Doris Jones is up near the top. Former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello is on the list, and so are priests, including the Rev. Joe Rogliano of St. Mark’s and the Rev. Ben Fiore of St. Michael’s. Local historians, like Steve Cichon, Marty Biniasz and Joe Giambra, have driven Jocko and have stated their willingness to do so again. So have boogie pianist Ann Philippone, jazz trombonist Phil Sims and journalist Doug Smith and his wife, Polly, as well as Karen Colville, wife of The News’ publisher Warren Colville.

All the drivers, no matter what their backgrounds, share a love for adventure.

Ryan Lysarz, who works in UB’s Purchasing Department, celebrated his 33rd birthday on Oct. 1 by gathering with friends at E.B. Green’s and driving Jocko home. He pulled up outside the Hyatt, and a valet approached, ready to take his keys.

“I’m driving Jackie Jocko tonight,” Lysarz said.

“You’re fine right where you are,” the attendant replied.

The ride home went smoothly.

“He kept complimenting my Impala, saying, ‘This is such a great car, such a smooth ride,’ ” Lysarz recalled.

But there were surprises. Granville said the route is up to the driver, but Lysarz found that’s not true. The only route Jocko sanctions is Route 33 to the Bailey Avenue exit, and then north toward Eggertsville. On Bailey, the instructions changed.

“Stop at Family Dollar,” Jocko instructed him.

Obediently, Lysarz swung into the lot. To his distress, the store was closing.

Jocko was undeterred.

“Can you stay open?” he asked a security guard.

The guard smiled.

“For you, Jocko, yes.”

On another night, another driver.

Jocko was in a reflective mood at the piano, playing mellow numbers such as “Moon River,” “The Heather On the Hill” and a particular favorite of his, the theme from the ’80s miniseries “The Thorn Birds.”

By the time he called out, “Cindra, put on the Victrola,” he sounded a bit sleepy. If he were, it would be understandable. He doesn’t like to take breaks, which means four solid hours at the piano.

Susie Forster followed him out to Smith’s car, carrying his bag. She is an expat who lives in Sacramento, Calif., where she played the French horn in an orchestra. She was back in town looking after her mother, and dealing with the stress of caregiving by stopping in to hear Jocko play.

She was touched by the circle of drivers.

“I don’t think that I’d see this in Sacramento,” she said. “The way people come in and give this man a ride, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a special thing about Buffalo. You don’t find it everywhere.”

Outside, Jocko came alive.

“There’s my man. Bye, Jocko,” the parking valet called out.

“Wheeeee,” Jocko exulted, getting into the passenger seat.

His driver on this Thursday night was the Rev. Art Smith, who drives a Toyota with 155,000 miles, a “Coexist” bumper sticker, a rosary draped from the rear-view mirror and a license plate reading “PEACE-1.”

Smith is retired and now circulates among 14 parishes. He plays keyboards and contributes the occasional Communion meditation. Smith met Jocko at the pianist’s 80th birthday party, held in the social hall of St. Anthony of Padua Church, and has been going to hear him at E.B. Green’s ever since.

“Art, you sound good,” Jocko said to the priest.

Smith had been singing along during the evening inside E.B. Green’s.

“What a voice you have,” Jocko added. “You got a good way about you, kid.”

Smith has never been asked to reroute to a dollar store. But he said it would not surprise him.

“He has told me that candy is cheaper at the dollar store than at Wegmans,” the priest said.

Jocko’s house looks like any other house. Smith assisted him up the steps, carrying his bag. Mission accomplished. Jocko was home.

And so it goes.

On a Saturday night, the driver was Robert Miller, another regular.

The lounge was packed. The Buffalo Sabres were playing and so was the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and that made for a lot of preshow traffic. Glasses clinked, silverware clattered and wait staff struggled to pass between the tables.

Jocko thrives on chaos and was lively and loud, his hands scampering up and down the keyboard. His voice carried out into the hall.

Hearing him in full swing, you feel the magic that, in Jocko’s traveling days, won him such diverse fans as Marlene Dietrich, Richard Nixon and Jack Ruby.

Nights like this are what makes Granville, the architect of the circle of drivers, emotional.

“I stand in between the lobby and E.B. Green’s, and I think, this is beyond an otherworldly experience,” he said. “You are hearing a man who knows the music so well and plays it so beautifully. He moves from one song to another seamlessly, whether it’s a Rodgers and Hart, or a Cole Porter, or something by Rachmaninoff …”

Or the number Jocko’s driver lives to hear:

“Cindra, put on the Victrola.”