Ralph Gatta, a butcher and grocer known as ‘Johnny Jazz’ to generations of Red Bank’s West Siders, has hung up his cleaver after 47 years of enveloping his customers in a cocoon of jazz sounds, imagery and anecdotes.
The owner of Johnny’s Jazz Market posted a handwritten notice closing the Shrewsbury Avenue store on its front door nine days ago, one day before he was hospitalized with complications of throat cancer. Because of his illness, he won’t be back, he tells redbankgreen.
The closing marks the end of one of the oldest mom-and-pop groceries operating in Red Bank. Even more, though, it is the fade-out for a grubby museum of sorts curated by a jazz lover whose brother says is “from Mars” with his fanaticism.
“I can’t bend, won’t bend, don’t know how to bend,” Gatta told redbankgreen on a visit to his room at Riverview Medical Center yesterday, explaining why jazz played non-stop on his store’s stereo and jazz memorabilia hung from every available surface.
Because of his condition, and the placement of a tracheotomy tube in his neck, Gatta is unable to speak, and communicates via notes scrawled in a hand familiar to his customers.
In 1963, after his father’s sudden death, Gatta an Army veteran then working as a supermarket butcher rejoined the business started in 1944 or 1945 by his parents. Working side-by-side with his mother 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, Gatta was largely deprived of his fix of live jazz, which he had previously indulged weekly at smoky clubs in Newark and New York, where he befriended numerous jazz greats.
When his mother died in 1985, he became the store’s sole employee, and his exile from the clubs became permanent. He never married, he was fond of saying, because what woman in her right mind would want to be Mrs. Johnny Jazz, committing herself to incredibly long days in a business whose profit was measured in coins?
But the flow of customers Italians, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and central Americans sustained him through decades without a day off, he said. That, of course, and the music.
“I like to work and meet all people, and listen to jazz while I work,” he wrote. Being self-employed, “I’ve been lucky to have a chance to promote the jazz music,” something he did to newcomers to his store, visiting classes of schoolchildren and in classrooms where he’d been invited to share his knowledge.
Gatta, 72, was scheduled to be transferred to a rehabilitation center last night, where family members say he’s expected to spend several months for treatment and recuperation. But he’s not expected to regain the use of his voice, a husky rasp well-suited to converting customers over to his religion of jazz.
Gatta himself, though sees his condition as the beginning of his final march toward jazz heaven, and suggests he’s more than ready.
“Now I’m going upstairs on the big bandstand with Count Basie & Dizzy and all the jazz cats,” he writes in a thank-you note to his customers.