Blue Note

Marjean Wisby’s death didn’t close down the Blue Wisp, her 30-year-old jazz haven. But with her estate stuck in probate court, the famously laid-back club is hanging on by a riff and a prayer.

The musicians who huddled two rows deep at the bar spanned the club’s storied 30-year history, from Steve Schmidt and Phil DeGreg, the club’s house pianists, to graybeards from the Blue Wisp Big Band, to Fred Hersch, one of the country’s best-known and most prolific jazz artists. As an unknown Cincinnati teenager, Hersch learned at the feet of local jazz bohemians like Bodley. Now the multiple Grammy Award nominee had blown in from Manhattan to celebrate the life and music of his friend and mentor. As 200 people squeezed into the room, Hersch—a quiet, diminutive man—stood near the bar, hands in his pockets. Nevertheless, the emotional tug of the evening was evident in his face. He looked pensive. Before sitting at the piano for an impromptu solo set, he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and, shading his eyes from the low-hanging stage lights, read a soulful eulogy. Hersch listed everything Bodley had taught him—from the beauty of Thelonious Monk’s music to certain aspects of the jazz lifestyle not intended for publication. It was a tribute delivered with the earnestness and assurance of a best friend.

Such nights are Blue Wisp legend. But amid the warm embraces and jam sessions at the Bodley tribute, the club’s future weighed on those who are doing their utmost to keep it alive. Marjean Wisby died from pulmonary disease after four months in the hospital. She left behind huge medical bills and little else. She rented the building the club has used for the past seven years; the only assets were the contents—chairs, tables, a grand piano, top-notch speakers, an elaborate-but-now-useless smoke-eliminating system, and a liquor license appraised at $35,000. Her club (the sign hanging out front actually reads: “Marjean’s Blue Wisp Jazz Club”) never made significant money, so the goodwill value of the “Blue Wisp” brand name is debatable from a financial standpoint. In the past few years, crowds could be sparse. Plus, whether Marjean left an heir to the club (she is survived by a son) is, apparently, not relevant. She didn’t carry health insurance, and, in order to pay those outstanding medical bills, one of America’s oldest jazz clubs must ultimately be sold to raise the money.

At the Bodley tribute, pianist Phil DeGreg played his heart out, giving fans the kind of powerful, rhythmic performance they’d come to expect over the years. The black-bearded DeGreg, a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, has been the club’s house pianist since 1995; these days, he’s one of the key people working to keep it on life support. During a break in the evening, he described his telephone calls in search of a financial white knight—someone who will buy the Blue Wisp, settle the debt against the business, and continue to operate it as a jazz-only club. “It’s like having a second job trying to find a way to make this work,” he said.

Gaye Stamboulian, a longtime friend of Marjean Wisby, is executor of her estate, which is still in probate court. As I talked to DeGreg, she sat at the same stool she’s been stationed at for years. “I don’t know what will happen,” she said. “Somebody will have to come forward and save it.”

Call it karma or a simple twist of fate, but the Blue Wisp has experienced renewed energy in the year since Marjean died. The club’s handful of employees and house musicians rallied to keep things running. Doug Scott, who served drinks at the club for 18 years, was deputized as club manager in her absence, and he quickly set about tidying up the room, cleaning the large windows along Eighth Street, and most important, improving the service. The club’s crowds are steady and the finances are purportedly in the black. Scott says the state’s smoking ban has also helped to attract new patrons—jazz fans previously turned off by the club’s perpetual haze of cigarette smoke. The long-reigning Blue Wisp Big Band still draws good crowds on Wednesday nights, and has issued its eighth CD, Tribute, which was recorded live at the club.

This is why Jim Tarbell, Cincinnati vice mayor and a longtime Wisp advocate, is upbeat about the future. “The Wisp has always been directed by the musicians,” he said. “They are the club’s support system, which has always made it unique. It’s a bare bones operation and a new owner won’t need start-up money to get things going. Even though a jazz club is a tough proposition, the Wisp can make a living for an individual operator who is reasonably savvy.”

Add “fairly lucky” to “reasonably savvy.” All pure jazz clubs are held together by gossamer thread, which makes the Blue Wisp’s long run all the more astounding. Since 1977, the club has provided an intimate stage for hundreds of local and touring players as well as its namesake big band (a dozen of the 16 original members still play). It has also given area university jazz programs an authentic stage.

“I regard it as a performance space with a bar to service it, rather than a bar with music,” says DeGreg, the club’s music director. Thanks to DeGreg’s CCM connections, jazz faculty and students treat the club as a CCM annex. The Blue Wisp has launched the careers of such performers as bassist Lynn Seaton and trumpeter Tim Hagans, and inspired two boutique jazz record labels, MoPro and J Curve, created by zealous patrons. Over its 30-year history, the club’s cozy atmosphere has also remained unchanged. “I’ve always loved that about the Wisp,” Scott says. “We have many of the same patrons and musicians. It always feels the same to me, and we don’t have problems because the people are great. For a place that serves liquor at night, that’s unusual. But it’s a jazz crowd.”

One afternoon, with the sun streaming through the wall of windows facing Eighth Street, Scott sits on a bar stool, surveys the empty chairs, and smiles like a man happy with his living room. “There’s a definite feel here,” he says. “I always think of the Wisp as simply a pleasant night out.”

Like Scott, pianist Steve Schmidt attributes that largely to Marjean. “She always had a corner neighborhood bar mentality,” says Schmidt, who has played the club since the beginning. “The music people around Marjean made the jazz scene happen, and that made the club nationally recognized.”

In fact, jazz was the furthest thing from Paul and Marjean Wisby’s minds in 1973 when the couple leased the bar, then in an old storefront in O’Bryonville. Paul was a prototypical bar owner, a tough character who didn’t tolerate troublemakers, and he ran his business as a neighborhood establishment—a no-nonsense joint. Among the regulars was an eccentric and burly jazz aficionado named Harry Garrison, owner of the Player Piano Shop just down the street. Over the years, Garrison urged Paul to add live music. In 1977 the Wisbys finally took the plunge, booking local players such as saxophonist Jimmy McGary and guitarists Kenny Poole and Cal Collins. The Blue Wisp easily morphed into a classic jazz dive with a tiny stage, an odd assortment of chairs and tables, ugly green curtains for a backdrop, a bar to the side, and a loyal, relaxed, and largely chain-smoking clientele.

The club bumped along, hosting local players and keeping the bartender hopping, but things didn’t really get rolling until 1980, when drummer John Von Ohlen, a mountain of a man with a booming voice, stepped in. Tired of traveling across the country in a tour bus full of musicians, Von Ohlen settled down in the area and was subbing in the WLWT studio band for The Bob Braun Show (imagine a house band on local TV today). Not surprisingly, he was bored with the gig. “We weren’t playing jazz and I’m a jazz player,” he says. He and some of the guys from the Braun band pooled their arrangements and formed a modern jazz big band. “There was nothing happening musically, so we had to get something going,” Von Ohlen recalls.

The band needed a place to perform. Von Ohlen’s audacious proposal: squeeze a 16-piece ensemble into the Blue Wisp on Wednesdays, traditionally a slow night for the bar and a night when most musicians didn’t have gigs. Von Ohlen approached Paul Wisby with an offer he couldn’t refuse. “We offered to play for the door,” he says, explaining that the band’s cut would come solely from the cover charge, not from the more lucrative bar tabs. Immediately, the Blue Wisp Big Band found a loyal audience. The group made a name for itself with its thundering drums and an explosive sound reminiscent of the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman big bands. No surprise there: Von Ohlen drummed for both of those legendary outfits early in his career. With a bombastic, swinging sound and a relaxed, neighborhood style, the Blue Wisp was on the way to becoming a legend itself.

As it turned out, the 1980s were heady days at the Wisp. The big band packed the house on Wednesdays, and Steve Schmidt led a house trio to support great musicians passing through on weekends. Back then, veterans of the reigning big bands—including those led by Kenton, Herman, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington—toured as soloists in smaller combos. With few big-name bands touring today, this traditional rite of passage in jazz has faded. But in the 1980s, musicians went out on the road, and that supplied many of the country’s small jazz venues with big talent.

Schmidt, who grew up in Clifton, was 23 in 1979 when he took over the club’s piano duties, and booked weekend acts for the Wisbys. The job gave him the chance to back a roll call of outstanding players, including saxophonists Joe Henderson, Scott Hamilton, Eddie Harris, Al Cohn, and Charlie Rouse; singer Mark Murphy; and guitarist Herb Ellis. “It was a golden era,” he says. “Each guy had a different style and I learned to be empathetic as a musician.” It just so happened that as Schmidt was stepping into his role at the Wisp, local guitarist Cal Collins was finishing a three-year stint touring with Benny Goodman and was recording for Concord Records, one of the country’s preeminent jazz labels. “Through Cal’s connection with the label, we were able to book great people,” Schmidt says. Another stroke of luck: People Express, the no-frills airline of the 1980s, was flying out of Cincinnati. That meant Schmidt was able to arrange flights for players from New York City for $95.

In 1984, at age 45, Paul Wisby died of a heart attack. The loss might have sunk another club, but the Blue Wisp and its big band soldiered on under the command of Marjean, who stepped in to run the bar. To keep the music thriving, she had plenty of help from Schmidt, Von Ohlen, and many others, such as the late Helen Morr. Wife of banker Fred Morr and a Blue Wisp regular, Morr formed MoPro Records and released several albums by the big band and its soloists, such as Tim Hagans, who later moved to New York and recorded for Blue Note. Known in the club as “the blonde bombshell,” Morr loved to recall the magic moment when she presented a MoPro album to Frank Sinatra. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve heard of the Blue Wisp Big Band,’” she told me in 1986. “He heard them on a West Coast radio station.”

At the time, the Blue Wisp also had a free on-air publicity machine in WNOP, a low-power jazz station that floated on an oil drum (not a barge, but a single oil drum) on the Ohio River along the Newport levee. DJs such as Ray Scott and Leo Underhill faithfully promoted and interviewed the club’s touring acts from the microphones of the “jazz ark,” as it was dubbed.

For local listeners, the combination was full jazz immersion. I once listened as Phil Woods, one of the country’s best bebop saxophone players, was interviewed live and his records played on WNOP all afternoon. Then I sat an arm’s length away from him on the bandstand at the Wisp that night. During his break, we chatted about his famous solo on the 1975 Steely Dan recording “Doctor Wu.” Woods had been married to Chan Parker, widow of Charlie Parker, the all-time high priest of bebop, and we spoke briefly about the impact of bebop on his life. This direct access to jazz history made the storefront bar in O’Bryonville seem like a night at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. To me, Cincinnati never felt more hip.
The 1990s marked a new era, with the club moving downtown. Wisby’s O’Bryonville landlord and neighbor, Chateau Pomije, expanded and needed the club’s space, so she leased the basement of the Doctors Building at 19 Garfield Place. The transition was like moving a private party from one room to another—the surroundings were changed, but the vibe stayed the same.
Shortly after the move, Marjean and Schmidt parted ways after a disagreement (he stayed in the big band), and DeGreg, a Cincinnati native who toured with Woody Herman and had a master’s degree in jazz studies, became house pianist. Schmidt and DeGreg are equally accomplished, but contrasting, pianists. Schmidt plays rich chords with a gentle touch and sense of humor (à la Bill Evans), and moves about like a hipster from a Jack Kerouac novel. DeGreg is technically brilliant and a more muscular pianist, in the vein of Oscar Peterson, and approaches jazz with a certain professorial acumen. “I’m part of that first generation of musicians who came through a formal jazz education system,” he says. In 1996, DeGreg recruited Art Gore (whose long résumé includes a stint with George Benson) as the house drummer, and the club’s weekend trio of DeGreg, Bodley, and Gore was born.

Reminiscent of Helen Morr, investment counselor Dale Rabiner created his J Curve record label in the late 1990s after hearing New York guitarist Gene Bertoncini in a friendly duel on the Blue Wisp stage with the late Kenny Poole, a longtime local favorite on guitar. (Poole’s résumé included a stint in James Brown’s band.) The resulting J Curve release by the two guitarists, East Meets Midwest, was the first in a series of jazz CDs issued by Rabiner, with many featuring club regulars. He recorded the Blue Wisp Big Band for the label’s Cincinnati Jazz Collection Series.

In 2000, when Marjean’s Garfield Place lease expired, she moved the party again; this time to a former cellular telephone retail store at 318 East Eighth Street. Tarbell spearheaded city council’s move to secure Marjean the new downtown spot after she applied for a liquor license in Kentucky and publicly threatened to move across the Ohio River. Tarbell also arranged for a loan to cover $90,000 in renovations, including that elaborate smoke-removal system. The third Blue Wisp location is a • Continued on page 201
perfect jazz milieu: An impeccable sound system, large windows looking onto downtown at night, alleys along each side of the club, and the Art Deco Times-Star building on the corner of Broadway and Eighth looming overhead.

These days, there are fewer jazz players with name recognition touring. That’s where DeGreg’s university connections have come in handy. He has managed to attract great players, such as Chicago’s multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, by arranging for other engagements in town, such as lectures and concerts at CCM. “They need another reason to be here [in Cincinnati],” he says, “because we don’t pay enough.”

As the general economics of jazz have declined, most established players have limited touring and found financial refuge in the burgeoning university jazz programs. David Baker, a pioneering jazz studies professor at Indiana University, said it best in a recent article for the IU alumni magazine: “When people talk about jazz being moribund or even dead, they’re looking in the wrong place. It’s not in the clubs, but in the schools and in the concert halls.”

In other words, jazz is becoming America’s classical music. The Blue Wisp has reflected this transition, though without receiving any of the millions of dollars distributed each year to local performance institutions through the Fine Arts Fund. DeGreg has strengthened the ties between the club and CCM’s powerhouse jazz program, and on some nights, the Blue Wisp feels like a college campus, with enthusiastic young men and women playing on stage while their friends cheer from the tables.

DeGreg has hosted the full CCM Jazz Lab Band; various members as special soloists fronting a trio; and brought in the Northern Kentucky University Vocal Jazz Ensemble. DeGreg, Von Ohlen, and Paul Piller, longtime trombonist in the big band, all teach jazz at CCM, while other faculty members, such as Rusty Burge, Kim Pensyl, Rick VanMatre, Marc Fields, and Chris Berg frequently play at the club for peanuts.

During this evolution, Wisby maintained her routine of serving drinks, managing the books, and helping friends who were down on their luck. Scott recalls seeing people come into the club looking to Marjean for help more than once. “And Marjean would give them money,” he says. Adds DeGreg: “What I remember most about her was her big heart.” The club was always her Cheers, a bar where everyone knew her name.

But Wisby had a complex personality. She tended to stay behind the scenes, and while those close to her won’t publicly say a bad word about her, they acknowledge that she could be testy with musicians and certain patrons. She virtually lived at the club, and her service behind the bar in the final years was uneven. She had been at it a long, long time, and she didn’t take any bull. Many musicians privately say they had higher hopes for the club, and that it needed a fresher approach. But they’re quick to point out that Marjean succeeded where so many other local all-jazz clubs have failed. And she didn’t succumb to hiring rock, blues, or folk acts to attract more patrons. Thanks to Marjean, the Blue Wisp has remained an all-jazz club, a rare bird in the vast majority of American cities these days.

Great highs and lows marked her final months running the club. In February 2006, New York tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and his wife, singer Judi Silvano, came to town for a benefit concert to help defray Bob Bodley’s rising medical costs. Lovano and Bodley were old friends. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff recently called Lovano one of the greatest musicians in jazz history; certainly Lovano created arguably the club’s greatest night of this decade. Listeners squeezed into the room or peered through the windows from outside in the winter cold. Lovano burned on his tenor sax for three hours before a crowd that included nearly every established jazz player in the city.

Even then, Scott and the staff knew something was seriously wrong with their boss. “Marjean would fall asleep behind the bar with a cigarette in her hand,” Scott recalled. Everyone knew that the boss didn’t drink alcohol, which made her condition even more puzzling. “We used to worry about her driving home at night,” he recalls. “We figured that since she worked seven days a week, 20 hours a day, that crazy schedule was liable to make anybody tired, but we still worried.”

In May 2006, a friend found her slumped over while sitting on a chair at her kitchen table. She hadn’t moved for more than a day. Admitted to the hospital, Marjean was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, meaning that she was slowly suffocating. In her final weeks, a throat ventilator kept her from speaking. She gave Scott handwritten instructions so that he could handle the details of the club. Last August 23, at the age of 62, she passed away. Scott flinches when he talks about her decline. “It was a very terrible time,” he says.

Marjean’s life was rich in friends and in music, but she died in such financial straits that Scott, DeGreg, and others organized a fund-raiser for her funeral expenses. And worries over the club’s future have continued ever since. Her estate is still being settled in Clermont County Probate Court. The attorney for her estate, Lawrence Fisse, declined several requests to be interviewed for this article, but those close to the situation confirm that Marjean’s uncovered hospital bills will require a sale of the club. Considering that the most valuable asset seems to be the liquor license, there should be no shortage of potential purchasers. But the next owner won’t be bound by 30 years of memorable jazz history, and no potential suitor has stepped up and publicly promised to keep it going as an all-jazz club.

That hasn’t stopped the Blue Wisp from generating some of the hottest jazz in town. And DeGreg hopes the club’s future will stay closely aligned with CCM and other area universities. “I would like to see more student opportunities for performance there,” he said. “I would like to bring in more artists who are in residence at CCM and who perform at the Wisp as part of their residency.”
Despite having little money for advertising, Scott has promoted the club’s schedule with the downtown hotels, and there are clearly new, and younger, faces among the loyal crowd. “There’s a place in this town for a great jazz club like the Blue Wisp,” says Scott, who hasn’t ruled out trying to buy the club himself if he can pull together the financing. “It’s known all over the jazz world. Now, we’ve got to get through the transition and continue moving forward.”

For his part, Von Ohlen, who helped cement the Blue Wisp legend, was more blunt. “This has to stay a jazz club, period,” he said while adjusting his cymbals before another set. “If it isn’t exclusively a jazz club, it ain’t the Blue Wisp.”

Originally published in the August 2007 issue.

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