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Our intrepid automotive writer plays chauffeur to local music legend

Driving Jackie Jocko

“Are you going to interview me, Jim?”

“You know, why don’t we just chat,” I replied to the man seated next to me in my rented car.

It was the fates that put one of Buffalo’s most talented and beloved entertainers into the passenger seat of that red Kia Soul on a recent chilly evening. I’ll bet dollars-to-doughnuts that local legend and lounge pianist Jackie Jocko is the first person to get in it wearing a tuxedo, making me feel underdressed even though I was wearing a tie and it wasn’t even the weekend! But I knew how to dress for the occasion. I’ve heard the “Some people these days are slobs” speech from Jocko enough to know that appearance counts.

A recent car accident left me in temporary possession of the Soul, an appropriately-named ride for the man who is quite possibly the soul of the downtown entertainment district. And then came the Facebook invitation to chauffeur him home one Thursday night from his regular gig (Wednesday through Saturday evenings at E.B. Green’s Steak House, located inside the Hyatt Regency hotel downtown).

If you’re not familiar with Jocko... good God, where have you been for the past 50 years or so? A native of Buffalo, as a teenage (mostly jazz) piano player Jocko and drummer Joe Peters hitched their carts to each others’ wagons and left town looking to make it big back in the 1950s. New York. Chicago. Las Vegas. Reno. Los Angeles. Hawaii. Aruba. Cleveland...Cleveland? Well, Cleveland was actually their first stop and the city where they signed a record contract. From there the only way was up, with the duo eventually ending up at the legendary Birdland jazz club in The Big Apple, home to such greats as Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan... the list goes on and on. “I knew ‘em all,” he says with that twinkle in his eye.

When I walked into E.B. Green’s that night, Jocko quickly motioned for me to come sit at the small table next to his grand piano. Already seated there was one of his good friends. “Sit here with Paul,” he told me, “he knows everything about music!” Jocko is often gesturing with one hand and playing with the other, all while still singing. You may know the song, but you might occasionally be surprised by the lyrics as every night is improv night with Jocko. He greets everyone who walks in the joint with a hearty “Enjoy!” and no one leaves without a “Thank you!” from the man at the keyboard. They all get the Jocko Treatment, whether a regular, a sheep rancher visiting from Australia, or a former Buff State student back on a visit from his home in Queens.

As I sat down Jocko asked “Have I ever showed you my Birdland book?” As I shook my head “no” he began rummaging in the bag next to his piano bench and pulled out a copy of The Birdland Story — A Complete Picture Story of Modern Jazz. “I’m in there somewhere around the middle,” he said, “look, go on, look!” All this while still playing and getting updates on the Bills-Dolphins game, which was playing on the lone screen next to the bar, from Paul. You don’t need a wall of televisions for entertainment when Jocko’s in the house.

As a cup of coffee arrived I went to hand him the book. “I don’t want to spill anything on it,” I said. “No no, that’s yours!” Jocko beamed. Nice. This will definitely earn a place of honor on the ol’ bookshelf at home.

Eventually though, it was time for him to pack up the ever-present container of Jocko Beans (not to mention the tip plate) and we headed out the door.

“Where’s your car?” he asked. The valets had let me park right up near the door when I told them of my mission for the evening. “What is that thing?” he said, pointing to the boxy little red car. But once he was in and buckled up, he gave it his seal of approval: “This is a solid car, isn’t it!”

“Well yeah, it’s a nice car, but it’s also new,” I told him, “I drive a lot of new cars over the course of a year for my auto column, and after getting out of my 16-year-old crappy little car, they all seem pretty solid.” Seeing that he and I are both veterans of driving older, small Japanese sedans, we both looked at each other and laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re so right!”

So there we were, me not interviewing him, waiting to see what he wants to talk about. And his first question?

“When’s your birthday?” he blurted out. Suddenly, in typical Jocko fashion, it was about me.

Jackie Jocko is an astute student of astrology. When he found out that I’m a Libra, he told me that I have a strong mind (news to me!), that my Leo wife is the perfect match for me, and that my Aquarius son will go far.

I eventually asked him why, after traveling all over the world, did he decide to come back to Buffalo. “I got a job playing at The Cloister,” he told me, “and after The Cloister closed, eventually I ended up at E.B. Green’s. They’re very good to me there, and the clientele is wonderful.” I saw firsthand how the staff treats Jocko with—yes—adoration.

More chat about how we’ve both been places that people dream of living in, but here we both are in Buffalo. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” he said, “so it gets cold. Put a jacket on! It’ll get warm again!”

Before I knew it we were pulling into the driveway of a modest ranch house. And that was it. I saw him in, and as I was walking out the back door I heard a “Love ya!” from the man waving good-bye from the kitchen.

It made my night. “Love ya too, Jocko!”

Don’t we all.

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