BUT WILL THE SIGN BE HAND-SCRAWLED?

Jj_07By JOHN T. WARD

Red Bank officials are mulling a ceremonial renaming of a portion of Shrewsbury Avenue in honor of grocer Ralph ‘Johnny Jazz’ Gatta, who died last Saturday at age 74.

Gatta, a lifelong Red Banker, died at Barnabas Health Hospice at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch. He was buried Wednesday at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Middletown.

A butcher who infused bebop, played loud, into his every working hour over nearly five decades behind the counter at Johnny’s Jazz Market, Gatta served as a living encyclopedia of jazz arcana among the boxes of cereal and detergent in his store.

He was also, he was fond of telling visitors, a front-row witness to the West Side’s transition from a neighborhood dominated by African-Americans and immigrant Italians to one with a Spanish accent – changes he heartily embraced.

But it was the unmatched atmosphere at his store, and the missionary zeal of its sole employee, that would burn itself into the memories of visitors.

In the first of several articles featuring Gatta in its pixelated pages, redbankgreen called the store a “phantamagoria” of sound and sights, including hand-written signs that Gatta would dash off in magic marker on any and every available surface, including butcher paper, roughly torn cardboard, windows…

Well-worn album covers are stapled high on the walls and behind the top shelves lined with canned goods. Clippings from old newspapers, sometimes supplemented by handwritten ink scrawlings, are taped to other surfaces. There are blurry photographs, and still more clippings with still more scrawlings pieced together with electrical tape and suspended from the ceiling by time-yellowed twine; at one time, the clippings and pictures were framed, but that formality went out the window at some point. There’s a trumpet protruding from a pillar. And on what appears to be every square inch of wall space are more scrawlings. They announce the birthdays of jazz greats, or song titles, or cryptic quotations from lyrics.

Last time we checked in on Gatta, in May 2010, it was to rebut rumors that he was already dead. Gatta shrugged off the talk as though someone had said his shirt had mustard on it. He couldn’t speak, having had a tracheotomy as part of surgery to address throat cancer. But he wrote what he had to say, dashing off random riffs about jazz greats he’d known, and trivia about their lives, and things they’d said, or he’d like said about them.

At Wednesday night’s borough council meeting, Councilman Ed Zipprich suggested that Johnny Jazz get his due with a street sign, an idea endorsed by Councilwoman Juanita Lewis, who lives on Shrewsbury Avenue.

“He was an icon on the West Side,” she said afterward. “At his wake, families attested to his generosity. Many people said that without him, they wouldn’t have eaten.

“He was a very, very, very cool guy.”

[UPDATE, December 23, 2011: Below is the text of the eulogy given by Gatta’s niece, Mary Gatta, at his funeral.]

My first memories of my Uncle Ralph were, not surprisingly, in his market on Shrewsbury Avenue.  I remember going to the store with my father.  My Grandma Helen would be sitting in the window ledge sorting the newspapers.  My uncle would be in his butcher apron, darting back and forth behind the counter servicing a steady stream of customers.  And all the while his beloved jazz music would be blasting out of the speakers; even though my Grandmother would continually tell him to ‘lower that volume”—something he would rarely do!  Indeed it is that love and devotion to jazz that earned him his nickname—Johnny Jazz—a name he wore with great pride.

In fact, growing up all my memories of my uncle are in his store.  And for a long time I thought he never left that store—and for the most part, I was not that far off!  So many of us associate Ralph with his butcher market and jazz—those were his two great loves.  In fact he told everyone he never married 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?”

Looking back on his life highlights a genuine, kind hearted man who stayed true to his passions and community.  Born in 1937, Ralph was the eldest of three boys—all of whom, by the way, respond to the name “Jake”.  A nickname that came about because of my Uncle’s undying devoting to the boxer, Jake La Motta.  Ralph was a defensive end football player in high school and after graduation served in the United States Army for two years.

Even back then he was ahead of his time.  While on duty in Virginia—at a time when racial segregation was the norm—my Uncle stood up against such inequality.  He went onto a bus and sat in the back—because, as he said, “The back of the bus is where the cool cats sit”.  And he was one of the cool cats!  So when he went to the back of the bus, the bus driver came over to him and told him that he had to move the front of the bus.  When my Uncle asked him why, the driver said “because you are White.”  Well, Johnny Jazz refused to move to the front of the bus and instead stayed in the back with his friends and the cool cats.

After his military service Ralph came back to his beloved Red Bank to work as a butcher in Acme and spent his nights in New York City and Newark visiting jazz bars and clubs including his favorites—Birdland in New York City and Madonnas on Springwood Avenue in Asbury Park.  He hung with Miles Davis, Lou Donaldson and Max Roach.  He told me about the time he bought Miss Dinah Washington—as he called her— a drink at Hank’s Evergreen Club a Newark Jazz Club and spent the night talking with her about jazz.  This was one of his favorite nights of his life, and he would proudly say that Miss Dinah Washington could not believe that he did not play an instrument.

Then in 1963 life changed.  His father died suddenly of a heart attack.  He returned to his family’s store on Shrewsbury Avenue to work with his mother for 15 hours days, 7 days a week.  And he did so because he wanted his younger brothers to have the opportunities to go to college and graduate school; marry and raise families.  You see, my uncle was devoted to family and Italian traditions. He felts as the oldest son it was his responsibility to take care of his family—even though he would have to sacrifice what he loved most—his times listening to and frequenting jazz halls.  But he made this sacrifice and never looked back.

As he worked for 15 plus hours a day, he began to bring the jazz to his market—soon the music was slipping through the speakers and then newspaper clippings and quotations written on cardboard appeared everywhere in the store—hanging from the ceilings and in windows.  He brought the jazz to him and everyone who came to his store. He was able to marry his two great loves—his family and their market with the jazz music.  He made his world what he needed it to be—what a lesson for all of us to carry forward.

 And he did so by also serving his community in his role as a neighborhood butcher.  Yesterday at the viewings, so many of his customers came to pay their respects and many of them shared that when they came on financial hard times—a loss of a job or a family provider— my Uncle put them on ‘credit’…a credit that he would rarely call in.  One of the most touching stories yesterday was from a woman who told me that her mother had been unexpectedly laid off from her job and for 6 months, Ralph fed their entire family and never asked for a dime.

One of his favorite quotations was “to be hip is not a state of mind.  It is a fact of life”.  And that is how he lived—He was hip and authentic; he was one of those “top shelf cats” that he talked about constantly—he not only taught his family, friends and customers about jazz, but also about passion and devotion; about hard work, family and community; about kindness and understanding. He treated everyone equally and shared himself fully.  And in a documentary produced by Gilda Rodgers several years ago he prophetically told us “I don’t know how long I’m going to go. I am going to play it by ear like a jazz musician that’s how I’ve lived my life.” And that is just what he did.

Red Bank and Shrewsbury Avenue will not be the same now–  Johnny Jazz has left the building.  But he left us with love, compassion, community, and his jazz.  Although his raspy voice was taken by cancer over a year ago, he still had a message he wrote to all of us.  So I want to close with the words of Johnny Jazz in his final note for everyone here.  “Thank you all.  It’s been great.  Now I am going upstairs onto the Big Bandstand with Count Basie, Dizzy and all the jazz cats.”  So to my uncle Ralph—until we meet again–“Stay hip and enjoy the jazz”