Play It Again, Joe  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

Normally, you're free to read or ignore any blog you like, and you'd likely skip a long one like this. However, I'll ask that you read this one entirely, just because it’s a way for me to pay tribute to an important figure in my life who just passed away. You didn't know him, but you missed out.

You wouldn't guess it to see the jazz scene in Orange County these days, but there used to be a hey-day for it that began back in the 1940's when the Woody Herman Band made history at the Balboa Pavilion. By the 1960's and 70's there were some truly amazing musicians who were filling the local club scene with great jazz. I was fortunate enough to get in on the tail end of it. In 1984, within a month after graduating high school, I was frequenting jazz clubs and found myself surrounded by these great musicians who had made their lives in OC. Some of them were celebrities to me before I met them, and to this day I haven't lost that sense of awe when I realize I got to play with them. Many of these older, seasoned musicians took me under their wings - a young kid with barely the talent to stand on stage with them. They let me play with them, taught me things about music and the business (and life!), challenged me, encouraged me. Jam sessions would happen nightly at various venues and you could play with great musicians until the wee hours of the morning.

By the late eighties and early nineties, this once vibrant OC jazz scene all but died away, and many of these great musicians retreated back into the empty lounges and wedding bands that helped pay their bills. There are good jazz clubs that have sprung up in the years since, but the "scene" that once was is long gone.

The center of the OC jazz scene in those years was the Café Lido in Newport Beach, and its owner was Joe Sperazza. Joe died on March 8, and I spent this afternoon at his memorial, seeing many from this old crowd. I saw some musicians I hadn't seen in 20 years, all looking much older (me too, I guess), some on canes, some with health problems, and many just looking tired from living, but just as enthusiastic about music as they were back in the day. We spent our time together reminiscing, and, even better - playing jazz.

So, after that long intro, this blog is about Joe.

Joe was the quintessential New Yorker - sweet as a teddy bear and tough as a mobster, and you never knew which one you’d get. He happened to grow up as a musician in Rochester, NY, pals with one of my early heroes, Chuck Mangione. He came west and opened the Café Lido in 1981. It immediately became the place to play jazz in Orange County. In 1984, when I was 17, I came by the club. My plan was to just sit outside and listen from the parking lot because I was too young to get in. After being introduced as a trumpet player to Joe by one of the other musicians, Joe snuck me in (at great risk to his liquor license), gave me a seat and fed me a great meal on the house, and let me listen all night. He gave me an open invitation, and I started going every single night I could. Eventually, I would start sitting in with the bands there, thrilled to be playing at the already legendary Café Lido. Finally, I started getting hired to play (I think once I turned 18 there was a law that I could perform but not 'partake', although maybe he just made that up to make me feel safe).

Café Lido started out as a tiny club, but by 1988 he moved up the street to a new, larger and swankier location. The club became a very elegant New York style Supper Club - the kind you imagine the Rat Pack at. And, to my great surprise, that year he invited me to have my band take the Friday and Saturday night slots. I had made it, as far as I was concerned. The couple years I held that spot were, perhaps, the most important in my development as a musician, performer and artist, as he gave me an audience for my music that few musicians ever get. In fact, I've never had the same kind of regular experience in all the years since.

While his generosity towards me could fill pages, I want to share two short stories about him that are among my favorites:

1. One of the all-time great jazz trumpeters was the legendary Shorty Rogers. Shorty became famous as one of the leaders of the "West Coast Jazz Sound" in the 1950's. He was a hero of mine and I learned he was coming to play a special concert at the Lido. Unfortunately, I had to be somewhere three hours away that day! I told Joe I was going to race back in time to hear him. Before I got there, Joe had told Shorty all about me. By the time I walked in to the club, 5 minutes before show time, Joe had Shorty waiting for me at the front door, and the moment I walked in, Shorty opened his arms and said, "Tony Guerrero, my friend!" We'd never met, but he embraced me and welcomed me as if we were lifelong pals, with Joe in the background smiling.

2. I learned a great lesson about show business and humility from Joe. One particular Friday night, the club was packed. I felt pretty proud of a full house for my band and leaned over to Joe on a break and said, "Hey Joe, pretty packed house tonight…" expecting some form of 'congratulations' or 'thanks for the business'.
"Kid," he said, "any a**hole can fill a club on a Friday night."
Not only was he right, but I realized later that his decision to give me Fridays and Saturdays was not because I was such a "star" that I deserved the prime spot, but because he wanted to help me develop as an artist and musician, and he could give me nights when he wouldn't have to worry about drawing a crowd - it'd always be full on Friday and Saturday nights with or without me. It was a gift to me that had profound effect on my development. In later years, I learned to appreciate this lesson, gauging success by full houses on off-nights like Mondays or Tuesdays, not Fridays and Saturdays when the house would be full anyways.

The Café Lido closed in 1994, and the last remnants of that great OC jazz era died with it.

Thank you, Joe, for your truly amazing encouragement to me and so many other musicians. You will be missed.

1.Joe & Shirley Sperazza
2. Cafe Lido 81-88
3. Cafe Lido 88-94
4. The night I met Shorty '92
5. w/Trumpeter Ron Stout at today's memorial

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 30, 2008 at Sunday, March 30, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Wow, yet another amazing story from your life. They just keep coming.

3/30/2008 4:24 PM

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