As far as I can figure it, the history of the Blue Wisp is about half myth and half fact, but everyone seems to agree that it started as an improvisation of sorts.
The story goes that Paul Wisby, an early retiree from General Motors, bought the original O’Bryonville club in 1973, envisioning a typical tavern with pool tables, pinball machines and darts. A few years later he decided to remodel and add live music a few times a week. According to Pat Kelly, one of the first musicians to play at the Wisp, Wisby was thinking about Country and Western. Harry Garrison, who owned the Player Piano Shop next door, and musician Frank Powers told Wisby that he should add Jazz. “I think Paul’s reaction was something like, ‘Jazz?’ ” Kelly says.
But Wisby followed their advice, and the first weekend brought in a fusion group called Crosswind, which included Don Aren, who now plays with the Faux Frenchmen and the Bluebirds. Because of scheduling problems Crosswind had to bow out after that first appearance and Pat Kelly’s new trio stepped in, making it a quarter when Jimmy McGary joined. Kelly said that McGary, who had been in New York in the ’40s, “was the real deal. You know, the real swinging, traditional bebop Jazz player.” The quartet ended up with something almost unheard of at the time — a steady-paying Jazz gig.
Over time the club got rid of the pool tables and pinball machines. A PA system was installed and they started doing promotions on WNOP, the Jazz station in town.
“It just really took off,” Kelly says. “There was a Thursday night jam session where people were coming out of the woodwork just to go see Jazz. There were sometimes 30 people lined up outside trying to get in the door. It was a real happening thing.”
The next Blue Wisp period emerged when Schmidt came in as the house pianist. “I started gigging there in 1979 and was the house pianist until 1993,” Schmidt says.
His trio backed up the rotating roster of soloists. The club brought in national players like Thelonius Monk’s long-time sax player Charlie Rouse and Herb Ellis, who had played guitar with Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz greats.
In 1993 Phil DeGregg took over as house pianist, but Schmidt stayed on playing with the big band and drummer John Von Ohlen, who had played with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Word is that Kenton gave Von Ohlen his nickname: The Baron.
“He’s a great drummer,” Schmidt says. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I appreciate his enthusiasm about music and he’s always present in his playing. That’s one of the best things you can say about a musician.”
In addition to a lot of great music, the Wisp has seen many changes over the years. The first occured when Wisby died in 1984 and his wife Marjean took over. According to Kelly, Marjean trusted the musicians to do what they needed to do and she relied on them to make a lot of the performance decisions at the Wisp. When she died in 2006 her estate put the Wisp up for sale and Ed Felson and a couple of partners took over.
There were changes in location, too. When owners of the original O’Bryonville space wanted to do something else, the Wisp moved to Garfield Place. It eventually had to leave Garfield Place because the landlord there wanted to do something else with that space, too.
And so Jazz moved to Eighth Street for a considerable time, until that building recently was slated to be demolished to make parking for the incoming casino. The club recently reopened at the corner of Seventh and Race streets.
Schmidt says the most recent move seems like a good one: “The whole place seems to have a lot of potential.”
The club also seems to be seeing a lot more foot traffic than it did just a few blocks east. There was a full house the first night the big band played in the new back room. Cocktails were clinking, but all eyes and ears were on the band. The players were symbiotic with their instruments in vision as well as sound. Von Ohlen’s oyster pearl drum set matched his hair. Bassist Mike Sharfe wore a striped shirt that blended into the strings of his upright, and Schmidt’s black attire flowed into the shiny black of the keys under his fingertips.
The room was filled with people of all ages, from old-style Jazzers to a table of CCM students who had come to see one of their friends perform. The club has a long history with the faculty at CCM, Schmidt says, and good student players often sit in as subs when the band needs one.
The club also serves lunch and dinner as well as food during the evening when the bands are playing. Chef Tommy Malone describes the menu as upscale bar food. There are lots of salads and mini sandwiches from Meatloaf Minis with mashed potatoes, gravy and fried onions to Tofu Minis with grilled vegetables and roasted garlic mayonnaise. There also dinner options like the Blue Whisper — a New York strip steak with blueberry BBQ, whipped potatoes and grilled asparagus; Blackened Tuna served with wasabi sauce and seaweed salad and Short Rib Pasta tossed with crumbled bleu cheese and a Madeira demi glace.
The addition of food for snacks during performances, dinner and lunch make an already successful jazz club even more sustainable. In fact, Malone has plans to extend the music and food calendar by adding a Sunday jazz brunch.
The current calendar includes Pat Kelly’s PsychoAcoustic Orchestra, Eugene Goss, Billy Larkin, nights of big band dancing, tango and the Blue Wisp Club Young Lions High School Jazz Band. And, of course, Wednesdays with the 17-piece Blue Wisp Big Band.
Musicians who described the club during that first Wednesday made it obvious that to them The Blue Wisp is not just a club. It’s a home — one they hope will be around another 30 years, molding future generations of young players and continuing its long and storied tradition. ©