By Drew Ailes
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On a Sunday night just a few days after Thanksgiving, a small crowd gathers in one of the many rooms that make up Johnny Gitto's, a restaurant on Chippewa sitting directly on the east bank of the River Des Peres. The sign out front promises a few nights a week of karaoke, some live blues and jazz. That's the sound they've come to hear on this evening. Not obscure tunes from Monk or Coltrane, seated out by college profs, but the pop stuff, the vocal classics that people sing along to, even after all these years, played by a crack band of working pros.
The median age of the people in the room is about 50, and they methodically work their way through courses of Italian salads and pastas as the band slowly sets up in a corner of the room. A tiny, jazz-style drum kit is in place, with a small PA tower beside it. A keyboard is in the middle of the bandstand area, and cases dot the floor. The Bob Row Trio is an efficient traveling operation, light and tight.
By 7 p.m., regulars are mostly in place, on an evening that, because of the holiday, is slower than most. Some Sundays, they add, the place is jammed -- you can't get a seat without a reservation and the line spills into the lobby. They're a consistent crowd, and that's why the restaurant's namesake loves 'em.
"First of all, they're all good people," says Gitto, who notes that he learned to appreciate jazz at his father's place, Charlie Gitto's, where Jim Bolen, the late TV broadcaster and jazz fan, introduced him to swing and Dixieland. "They're consistent. You don't have to worry about anything. They're older and set in their ways, but we accommodate them and they accommodate us. I really like these people."
After a failed attempt by another small combo, Gitto was pondering closing the evening, but the tides turned as soon as the Row group started playing. The first night of the new arrangement they drew 40, and even after a holiday they're good for 65, most of them taking in the show in the old-fashioned, dinner-show style.
When the band starts, it's the leader, Bob Row, who sets the pace. He's behind the keys and singing, plugging the karaoke nights between numbers. His father, multi-instrumentalist Bill Row -- a four-decade veteran of playing live -- starts the night behind the kit, and horn player Tommy Tucker is the night's featured player, his space directly in front of the trophy-adorned fireplace. They begin their evening with a set of standards: "Fly Me to the Moon," "Sunny Side of the Street," "Sweet Georgia Brown."
The crowd loves it and reacts as such, even though they've heard the tunes hundreds of times. A good number of the folks belong to the local jazz club, but just as many are simply followers of the group. Though never the same band twice, with a policy of rotating members, the Bob Row Trio seldom takes a day off, the group playing in some form or another most evenings at bars and clubs scattered throughout the metro area.
"This place has a look where it could be a first-class Italian restaurant by day and the best jazz club in St. Louis by night," says Bob Row. "What's unique is that we have players that span the entire age group, from 19-69. And they're all here for the same reason: traditional jazz."
Though he insists, several times, that it's his son's gig, Bill Row is equally at the center of the show. After starting on drums, he'll switch to trombone and cornet during the evening, even singing the occasional tune. It's a life and role that he's certainly grown accustomed to over the years. "You gotta understand, there are two different kinds of musicians," Bill Row says. "I'll give you a lecture. One thinks the world is on fire because he took a great solo. The other kind -- and you don't find many -- are entertainers. They say, 'This crowd out here is who I'm here to please.' They'll do anything to make them come around. If they're not coming around, you work on them until they do come around to your side. The excitement is in getting them to pay attention to you.
"When it works, it just mushrooms out. You go home, and you can't go to sleep because it's been a great night. Some guys go out and find another gig to sit in on, because they can't sleep. It's hard to believe, but it's the truth. A lot of the time they go home but could've played all night. When that happens, it's beautiful."
This night would be a good night, even with a light crowd. A few folks dance. Crooner Frederick Boettcher, the ice-cream baron of the South Side, smoothly delivers a pair of chestnuts. A teenaged drummer lights up the room with his quick and dazzling strokes. People smile, tap their silverware and order drinks. A good night for the bar, the band, the fans.
Bill Row, a few years back, was the more-or-less bandleader at Dino's Bungalow, a fantastic little bar in deep South St. Louis. He was also gigging at Baldo's and some other places around town -- at least until an accident occurred, one that would, briefly, rob him of the ability to do what he's doing today.