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Ballads, bounces, and bossa novas: In praise of Jackie Jocko

Mary Kunz Goldman

Jackie Jocko, Buffalo’s pre-eminent piano man, sang one song that nobody else seems to sing. It was called “Only the Finest.”

It was written for him, under mysterious circumstances. Apparently someone showed up at Jocko’s dressing room, wherever in the world he was, and handed him this song, and told him he should sing it.

“Only the finest for me in my lifetime, for I’ll pass this way only once,” the song begins.

It continues eloquently:

“And on the day that I die, there’ll be a twinkle in my eye, for the life that I have lived will be the best.”

He more than sang that song. He lived it.

When the news broke that Jocko had died this week, the Internet lit up with tributes.The emotions reflected the weather on that day: torrents of rain one minute, blazing sun the next.

So many people loved Jocko, and were loved by him. Many of them, including me, knew him from E.B. Green's, the steakhouse at the Hyatt. Others had first encountered him at Fanny's on Sheridan Drive. And a fortunate few went back with him to his days at the Cloister, a venerable restaurant where he played many years ago.

Everyone's memories were intensely personal. But no one competed with each other. No one needed to be first. There was this universal understanding: Jocko loved all of us.

Jackie Jocko, Buffalo's legendary piano man, has died at 90

Remembering my own friendship with Jocko, I have to keep reminding myself I was only one in a million. I met him because of my job at The Buffalo News. Anthony Violante, our pop music critic 20 years ago, sent me over to the Hyatt to do a story on Jocko. He assured me Jocko and I would hit it off.

The first evening I went there, Russ Salvatore was at the bar. So was Electra Klager, a glamorous woman who took people's pictures for licenses at the Auto Bureau. Later I would wind up going to parties at her house. Jocko presided over the crowded room, bantering without missing a beat. He would hold up his custom-made sign that he could flip to display different messages. “Hubba hubba,” was one. And: "You're Sure Cute.” Another, naughtily, inquired: "Do You Fool Around?" Jocko's close friend Joe Peters was by his side, playing drums. It was like some kind of a dream.

I needed to get Jocko alone so I had him and Joe over to my house. I can still picture them sitting on my couch. Jocko was a journalist's dream. He loved to talk and he didn't care what you wrote. He just wanted you to write it.

"I want that write-up!" he would roar, calling me on the phone at odd hours.

It was easy to write about Jocko and sound brilliant. All you had to do was write what he said.

He talked about celebrities he had known. Like Marlene Dietrich, whom he knew from playing in Las Vegas And Richard Nixon. Nixon, a fellow pianist, once sat down with him at the piano. Jocko had also encountered Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

Jocko spoke eloquently of what he called "the era of the great lounges," where he would meet the stars. A few years going to see him, and I got a more vivid picture of what that era must have been like. Jocko was a portal to it. You could imagine the glamorous lives being lived to the tune of these beautiful songs.

When I met Howard, the guy I ended up marrying, naturally he had to meet Jocko.

"If you break her heart, I'll kill you," Howard remembers Jocko telling him.

But they became friends.

Howard and I were part of a big group that would see Jocko every Tuesday, for years. I learned early on that as a journalist, you could do a lot worse than turn up there, and see who else showed up. One night, Howard called me and said to come down there. I soon saw why. At the next table was Kirk Jones, the daredevil who had just survived a trip over Niagara Falls. People were looking for him all over town, staking out hospitals and jails. And here he was, in the lounge, listening to Jocko.

Jocko brought so many of us together on those nights, serenading us all. He called us to check up on us. He gave us advice. He introduced us one to another. Musicians, politicians, priests, poets, conventioneers, traveling insurance salesmen – everyone mixed and mingled in the lounge, to the tune of Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. He was a kind of superman, playing every night for four hours without a break. When he was through, he would head to Fort Erie to play bingo, or to Sheridan Drive for a late-night breakfast.

He was irrepressible, but as the shadows lengthened he realized he would not be here forever. Perhaps with that in mind, he began coaching Howard – as his protege, and a possible fill-in.

They would get together after hours, often joined by Jocko's good friend Dave Granville, who works at City Hall. Howard loves to film video, and Jocko was game.

"Hubba hubba," the piano man would call out to the camera.

In more serious moments, he dispensed wisdom. Just as one example, he told Howard to keep three stacks of music on the piano.

"One for ballads, one for bounces, and one for bossa novas," he said. All music, he believed, belonged to one of those three B's.

One winter, the unthinkable happened: Jocko got sick and had to take a month-long break. And Howard did fill in. For a month or so, he played Jocko's piano at E.B. Green's. The piano was covered in papers that seemed to be decoupaged on. They had song titles, charts, lists of songs, so there would be never a dull moment.

When Jocko did say goodbye, it was as if he wanted to make it as easy on us as he could. He faded out gradually. His hands began shaking, though they would stop shaking when he played the piano. He became more frail. Finally he retired from E.B. Greens, with a party. The place closed after that.

In his last days, at Brothers of Mercy, he had a way of gently discouraging visitors. But even at the end, he was still himself. A few days before he died, Howard got to talk with him on the phone. The call did not end with goodbye.

"Hubba hubba," Jocko said.

Mary Kunz Goldman was the classical music critic and a columnist for The Buffalo News.


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