Jazz vocalist Mandy Gaines performed at the end of the evening. Joe Simon
Melvin Broach, drums; Rusty Burge, vibes; Mike Sharfe, bass Joe Simon
It was sort of a jazz funeral, but it felt more like a celebration.
The night before New Year’s Eve, about two dozen jazz musicians gathered, along with a full house, at Washington Platform, some to play, others to simply be there on the closing night of a spot that’s held down a prominent place in the city’s jazz scene for 10 years.
Five days before Christmas, owner Jon Diebold posted a note on Facebook announcing that the restaurant, whose heritage dates to the 19th century, would close. “It is time for a new chapter, and we want to go out on a high note,” Diebold wrote.
Mike Sharfe, a Cincinnati bass player who has worked with most of the jazz musicians in town, as well as many beyond, decided to organize a musical sendoff. Washington Platform was better known for dining, especially its annual oyster festival. But its Canal Room, next to the main dining room, was a place where nearly every jazz musician in town, and many from out-of-town, had played.
“You can walk away from this like nothing ever happened,” Sharfe says. “But as I get older, I like to celebrate things that I love. It seemed arrogant not to give it some respect.”
With Diebold’s assent, Sharfe emailed local musicians from his voluminous contact list and heard back from about 25 who said they’d try to make one last gig at The Platform.
Sharfe had been instrumental in turning the place into a venue for Cincinnati jazz. He’s a founding member of the Blue Wisp Big Band, a 16-piece outfit that came together in 1980. They played at its namesake bar, a place that has attained semi-legendary status in Cincinnati.
The Wisp was the kind of place you’d love to escape to for an evening of jazz. In its best years, it was a hole in the wall where you could find great music.
The Wisby’s, Paul and Marjean, opened it in 1973 in O’Bryonville as a jazz-only club, booking musicians such as local legends Jimmy McGary and Cal Collins. The eponymous big band took up residence in 1980, and soon gained a following.
But the club struggled. Paul Wisby died suddenly in 1984. Marjean continued on, but lost her lease a few years later. That’s when she moved the club to a subterranean room on Garfield Place downtown. Walking down the steps into that basement room felt like entering a secret jazz hideaway.
That place had a great run of 10 years or more, but eventually had to move. It re-opened on East Eighth Street, in a spot that had all the ambiance of a used car dealership, as the Enquirer noted. That’s because it had really been a used car dealership in a previous life. Marjean passed away in 2006. New owners tried keep the magic going, moving it to the site of a former Redfish restaurant on Seventh Street. But it wasn’t working.
By 2012, it was clear the Blue Wisp Jazz Club’s days as the town’s top club were over. “The place was going down,” Sharfe says. “There were three bands playing in there at the same time. It wasn’t good. Even musicians who loved the place at the end were saying this has got to die.”
Sharfe was playing bass in a cocktail hour duo at The Platform at the time. Next to the main dining room is the Canal Room, a long room with soft lighting, tables, and few booths. Good ambiance. “I said, ‘Wow, no TVs in there, it’s beautiful; it's intimate.”
He approached Diebold about using the room to book jazz combos and the owner was game to try it. It was an experiment that lasted 10 years, until closing night Dec. 30.
Sharfe, whom Diebold had entrusted the club’s booking to all those years, put together a house trio for the last night – he was on the upright bass, Brian Cashwell on piano and Melvin Broach on drums. They opened with “Lullaby of the Leaves,” a lilting jazz standard from the ‘30s.
They were joined by Tim McCord, on sax and flute for two numbers, and by Jim Leslie, the drummer for the Blue Wisp Big Band.
From there, a steady stream of players made their way to the front to sit in for a couple of numbers. With Rusty Burge on the vibes, they picked up the tempo with Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’,” then slowed it down with “Peace,” a 1959 Horace Silver ballad that featured John Zappa, another Blue Wisp Big Band member, on trumpet.
Sharfe called to the stage Mandy Gaines, one of Cincinnati’s top jazz vocalists, for the Cole Porter tune “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” ending it with some scat singing, and the bossa nova standard “Meditation.”
Rob Allgeyer took a turn on piano for “You’re My Everything,” and Hal Melia, a sax player from Dayton, Ohio, joined the trio for “There will Never Be Another You.” Josh Kline, a 28-year-old saxophonist and CCM grad, led the trio on “Beatrice.”
And that was it. This wasn’t going to be a night where the music went on into the wee hours. Employees had to go home; the place had to be cleaned up and shut down. Washington Platform, which had helped fill a void for live jazz for a decade, was out of business.
Some musicians had brought their instruments and were waiting in the wings for a chance to play; others had just showed up to be there say good-bye. Drummer Art Gore; pianist Pat Kelly of the Psycho Acoustic Orchestra; trombonist Marc Fields; drummer Marc Wolfley — who arrived after performing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — another drummer, John Taylor, who drove down from Dayton; and 10 or so others gathered in the back.
“Nobody got paid anything,” Sharfe says. “It was just to say goodbye to a venue that had been so good to us.”
David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.