On Aug. 23, the Jazz flag fell to half mast in Cincinnati. Marjean Wisby, long-time owner of the Blue Wisp, died of respiratory failure that morning at the age of 62.
Her death was a double blow to the Jazz community, signifying not only the loss of one of the greatest music supporters in the city but also the possibility that the Blue Wisp, one of the area's top Jazz venues, would have to close. Wisby, lacking health insurance, had run up sizable debts during months in the hospital; she left the books deep in the red.
She also, however, left behind a legacy: the internationally recognized Blue Wisp Jazz Club. Scores of musicians murmur her name with fondness and a touch of reverence.
"The club meant more to Marjean than anything in her life," says Phil DeGreg, who has been the house band's pianist for over a decade.
He tells how, when she entered the intensive care unit in late spring, the hospital induced a coma. "When she was first coming out of it, she still had a breathing tube down her throat, couldn't talk. She was trying to write things on paper to communicate."
After a while, DeGreg finally figured out what she wanted to say. "The very first thing she was trying to talk about was, 'Did the bills get paid?' The (Blue Wisp) was all she ever wanted to talk about."
Though the club was her baby, Wisby had a "hands-off" approach to running the business that musicians loved. Rusty Burge, a vibes player who has been gigging at the Wisp for 15 years, says, "I think the beauty of what Marjean did is she just let the musicians play. She was committed and let the musicians do what they wanted. I know a lot of the musicians around here feel really lucky to be able to do that."
John Von Ohlen, a drummer who'd played with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton and later helped initiate the 26-year-old Blue Wisp Big Band, adds, "I have nothing but the best to say about Marjean. Not only was she great for Jazz and pure about it — they didn't have any Country or Rock & Roll — she never stiffed us, even if there was no audience."
With Marjean's openness to experimentation and respect for performers, the Blue Wisp was/is a Jazz musician's dream venue. The name became synonymous with quality, and the club grew into a launching point for many successful artists, as well as stomping grounds for the best of local talent.
Burge notes that many Jazz venues seem to be shutting down. "In general, I think appreciation of music is not especially high," he says. "People just don't go out to hear music anymore. But the Blue Wisp has basically outlasted everything."
Musicians are hoping that the venue stays open. "The Blue Wisp is kind of a cultural institution," DeGreg says. "Not many other Jazz clubs are like that anymore. Marjean's a big part of that. All those years, she never said, 'Play this, don't play that.' The place is all about music, not about trying to sell something. It's not like in some corner next to the bathroom, but there's a stage, lights and a 7-foot grand piano. It's a very special place, and I hope it can continue."
The Blue Wisp has seen its share of changes. It wasn't originally designed as a Jazz bar. Wisby and her husband Paul opened it in 1973 in O'Bryonville. Eventually a few musicians talked them into letting them play there, and the scene grew.
In '84, Paul died of a heart attack, and in '89 Wisby lost her lease and had to decide whether to close or move. She moved the business to Garfield Place downtown, where it remained until 2002. With financial help from the city, she moved the Blue Wisp to its current location on Eighth Street.
Councilman Jim Tarbell, who was instrumental in encouraging city council to support the club, continues to speak on its behalf: "I think (the Blue Wisp) is real important to the city. It's been the standard-bearer for Jazz in Cincinnati for a couple of decades."
If the Blue Wisp were to close, it would be as if Jazz had lost its local home. Despite rumors, however, the prognosis looks good. As a Jazz club, it's fitting that the Wisp would be good at improvising.
Douglas Scott, who has for 17 years been the Blue Wisp's server, manager and (he jokes) "goodwill ambassador," says that the legal matters are being dealt with and that the business is being run from the estate. When asked about the club's future, he responds firmly, "It's not up for grabs. It's going to be downtown for a while. It's not for sale at this point."
In response to a mention of the diminishing business trend downtown, Scott says, "We're taking a negative and making a positive out of it. Everyone's closing downtown, but we're staying alive because we have a venue that's different from everyone else."
When asked if there's any way for people to help or contribute, Scott answers simply, "People can come down and support the place."
There will be opportunities to do just that during the MidPoint Music Festival this weekend. In addition, a tribute to Wisby featuring the Blue Wisp Big Band is planned for Sept. 26. The show will celebrate her life and raise funds to help cover the cost of her funeral.
THE BLUE WISP JAZZ CLUB is a MidPoint Music Festival venue Thursday-Saturday. See page 25 for the lineup.