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A Fond Look at the Blue Wisp

Amy Culbertson
Posted: Jan 25, 2013 - 9:42:02 AM in commentary_2013

 I spent many a night -- not to mention the wee hours of many a morning -- at the various iterations of the Blue Wisp jazz club, especially at its first two homes, in O'Bryonville and on Garfield Place downtown. I was there as an avid jazz fan and as the Cincinnati Post's entertainment editor, and I met my husband, the late jazz drummer Ron McCurdy, there. I continued to return to the club after I left for Detroit to become entertainment editor for the Detroit Free Press, and even after I moved to Texas and the Wisp took up residence on east Eighth Street, but its glory days were really waning by then.

 To the best of my knowledge, jazz started at the Blue Wisp in 1978. Paul and Marjean Wisby had purchased a little dump of a club in O'Bryonville -- you didn't want to go there in the daytime, when you could actually see what the interior was like -- next door to Harry Garrison's player piano shop on Madison Road. The Wisbys were hardly jazz fans, but by some fluke they began hiring jazz groups, and by some fluke the club caught on as the hip place to go. I'm sure no one was more surprised than Paul and Marjean. The late saxist Jimmy McGary, who was one of the early performers in a group with Pat Kelly on piano, was one of the best-known jazz players in the region, and I expect he had a lot to do with the club's catching on. I remember there being lines to get in. Then -- I believe in 1979 -- Indiana drummer John Von Ohlen, who had played with the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton big bands, and crack lead trumpeter Don Johnson formed the Blue Wisp Big Band to play at the club on Wednesday nights, and that cemented the club's status as the city's premier jazz club. It was a democratic big band composed of leading local players, with the young Steve Schmidt on piano and Michael Sharfe on bass (the original rhythm section, along with many of the founding musicians, is still in place today).

 Schmidt, Sharfe and Von Ohlen became the house trio, and soon the club was booking an impressive roster of national acts -- I believe Schmidt was mostly responsible for those early bookings, until pianist Phil DeGreg later took over -- along with local stalwarts like McGary and the late guitarists Cal Collins and Kenny Poole. Especially on Wednesdays and on weekends, musicians would flock to the club to hang out and listen after their sidemen gigs at hotels and country clubs. It was the quintessential smoky jazz dive, and after the official 2:30 a.m. closing time, when the "civilians," as Von Ohlen termed them, had left, Paul and Marjean would regularly keep the booze flowing after hours for the musicians and their friends. It was an open secret -- I don't know how they got away with it -- but musicians could sometimes be seen stumbling out of the club at 5 or 6 a.m. after a night of drinking and swapping stories. (The truth was that Marjean took a perverse delight in watching musicians get staggering drunk and disgrace themselves; hardly anything amused her more.) There are a lot of myths about the original Wisp, but a lot of the stories are true, and there were a lot of memories embedded in those smoky, dingy walls.

 When the Wisp got ready to move to a new home on Garfield Place, dozens of musicians showed up to play on the last night in O'Bryonville. The club continued strong at its new basement location; it was exciting to descend the stairs and hear the music rush up to meet you. One of my favorite memories there was hearing the trio of bassist Ray Brown, guitarist Herb Ellis and pianist Monty Alexander. You could hardly wedge yourself into the place; even the stairs were lined with spectators. It was similarly crowded when Sun Ra brought his Arkestra's outlandish antics to the club. Paul Wisby had died in 1984, and Marjean was running the club as they always had, including the after-hours partying.

 The next move was to east Eighth Street, and Marjean died in 2006, leaving the club in limbo until it was bought by a partnership with lawyer and sometime bassist Ed Felson as the club's manager. The club struggled along there, with the big band still as an anchor, but the frequency and stature of the national bookings declined.

 A little more than a year ago, when Felson announced he was planning to move to the former Redfish restaurant and club space at Seventh and Race downtown -- and to add food service -- the handwriting was on the wall for anyone who cared to look. Here's my Facebook post on the reports of the closing:

 "The news of the closing of Cincinnati's longtime jazz club the Blue Wisp is sad, of course, but hardly unexpected. Anyone could have predicted the club's demise as soon as the most recent move and the plans to add food were announced. The interior space was totally inappropriate for a jazz club, parking was problematic, the sound was bad and the owner inexperienced in the highly competitive business of running a restaurant. A lackluster booking policy left too few reasons to patronize the club outside of the Blue Wisp Big Band's weekly gig. The first time I visited the new location, hungry to hear jazz after months of deprivation in Texas, I left so depressed I knew it was the last time I'd be there. I have uncountable memories from the Wisp's first two locations, and a few from the third spot, but the truth is that the Wisp has been a sad shadow of its former self for some time now. Let's raise a glass to what the Blue Wisp once meant to the city, to jazz musicians and to jazz lovers -- and then let's move on by vowing to support the musicians who still struggle to keep jazz alive, against discouraging odds and for little reward, wherever they may be playing around town. The Blue Wisp Big Band is the musicians who play in it, not the club they play in, and they should be able to find another home. Go hear them when they do."