One for the Ages

With son Bob at his side, multi-instrumentalist Bill Row continues a lifetime of making music for the people.

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.

Driving 55 mph on a local highway, he was struck from behind by a drunken driver in a truck. His car was pushed off the road, flipping several times in the process, and Row was thrown from the car. "It was awful," he says. "I had a broken neck and had to wear a halo. My collarbone was shattered. My knee was really bad. A bad, bad accident." It would take a year for all the surgeries to run their course. First came work on his neck. Then his shoulder. Then his knee.

"I couldn't lay down," he says. "I had to sleep in a chair. During the bad times, you just look at the wall. I knew every lawyer on television, every soap opera. A terrible year. It's one of those things that happens. He was drunk. It's just the way life goes.

"I had to get back to playing music. I could play the organ, playing with a sling, just enough to tickle on the keys. That's how you do it. As a musician, unless you're dead, you play. Everybody else can just take the day off if you're not well. Musicians can't do that -- you gotta play. That's why we're considered a little eccentric."

That word almost doesn't do justice to the scene that once greeted Dean "Dino" Gable, the late owner of Dino's Bungalow. He was in for a surprise when his old friend Bill Row showed up at the pair's weekly gig."I had a halo on," Row remembers. "It took me 10 minutes to get out of the car. Dino looked at me and his face just fell. I looked like something from Mars. He said, 'Why are you here?' I said, 'I'm going to play.' He said, 'Oh, no.' I played two numbers and couldn't handle it. I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' He said, 'I could've told you that before.' He had the Professor there, and he finished out the night for me. He finished out a lot of nights for me at Dino's."

Dino's was a magical little place, with Gable behind the drums and Row or the Professor (also now deceased) behind the keys, with a rotating cast of characters on horns, vocals and other assorted instruments. Best of all, maybe, was the dance floor, always packed with folks cutting loose like people half their age.

"When Dino finally folded it, it was the end of an era," Row says. "We get younger people in now. There's an excitement about old-time swing music. Most of the time they'll stay all night. Like at the Bungalow, the younger people would go in and just watch them dance -- old people dancing, making a fool of themselves. To young people, it blows their minds. We add a heavy beat and it's exciting. When the young people are tapping their feet, then you've bridged the generation gap."

No one exemplifies that better than Bob Row. At age 18, he graduated from high school and immediately began gigging with the Bob Kuban Orchestra. Now 29, he had already been cutting his teeth with musicians two and three times his age at clubs like Dino's and Frederick's Music Lounge, soaking up the atmosphere, the chops and, more than anything, the tunes.

Two nights after playing at Gitto's, the Bob Row Celebrity Jam East is taking place at Top O' the Green, a small tavern in Riverview. The group this night includes the two Rows, drummer Don Shepard and trombonist Jack Mueller, who added keys and vocals. Wedged into a small corner of the seating area -- between an Atari racing machine, a jukebox and the TV on this night -- they crank out the requests, from Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones to Nat King Cole, for an enthusiastic happy-hour bunch.

Though some folks under 40 drift in through the evening -- especially after work, when local steel- and office-workers drop by -- the crowd is again edging toward an average of 50, 55. It's interesting when owner Michaelia Riley tosses out a request for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Row begins "Jump, Jive and Wail." He doesn't just play it, though. He's testifyin'.

"See, the kids don't realize that this song wasn't written a year ago," Bob Row starts. "This song goes back to the 1930s. Louis Armstrong did it. Louis Prima did it, too. Am I right? Now all the kids are listening to it, but they don't realize that you were as hip as they are when you were their age, dancing listening to the same things."

The crowd nods and smiles. Some dance. They toss out more requests, for boogie-woogie, for country, for rock & roll. The band shifts and slides through different feels and moods, never losing sight of their intent, a very basic intent.

As Bill Row says, "You ask me about the big-time stuff, but I play music to satisfy people. It's so easy because we can polka, we can swing, we can play anything you want us to. If the crowd is enthusiastic, it's a big night for me. I've played in East St. Louis, in the first rock & roll band, just when 'Rockin' Robin' came out. We were a mess, but they thought we were great. Then we went to the Casa Loma when they quit hiring the bigger bands and started hiring the local groups. That was big-time, but nothing holds a candle to seeing the looks on people's faces when they're clapping and they loved the song you just got done playing. That's the only, only, only thing. Nothing else matters."

Bill Row can tell a good story. About the days when he played at a shady strip bar in Centralia, quitting the month before the whole place came down under a hail of police raids. About after-hours joints in East St. Louis. About playing with the "best group I ever played with, the Now & Thens, at the Western Bowl.

"I've done it all my life. I started out on trumpet. As a teenager, I bought a $10 piano. I knew nothing about piano. I learned by trial and error. At 19, I bought a drum set for $25 and learned to play. I got out of the service and went to Sparwasser's in Belleville. They didn't need a trumpet player but did need a drummer. That's how I started on drums. I went to a bowling alley in Fairview Heights, and they didn't need a trumpet but needed an organist. I started playing the Hammond."

To this day, his list of gigs is both surprising and amusing. As noted, on Sunday nights he's at Gitto's, with Tuesdays at the Top O' the Green. On Saturday afternoons, they play at Meyer's in North County. He fills in for Bob on some Fridays at the White House and plays occasionally at the Crestwood Elks Club. (Bob also plays with Big Bamou on Tuesdays, but Bill doesn't play rock, so that gig isn't on his agenda.)

Several times, Bill Row will deflect attention to Bob, that it's his band now and he's along for the ride. Bob subtly suggests the same but notes, "He's been playing St. Louis for 40 years. There's no more versatile, better person to play with than Pop."

Says Bill Row, "Without his singing and playing, it'd be a zero. I've had men -- and it seemed like they'd been around the world, you know what I mean? -- say to me, 'I wish I had the relationship that you have with your son.' We're really close friends, and we've been that way for a long time. It keeps going and going. We fight, too, but the friendship is just awesome."

Adds Boettcher, "Bill is one of the old-time, respected musicians around town. One of his proudest things is that Bobby followed him and passed him by in talent, years ago. Bill says so himself. He's very proud of his son. Not often do you see a father and son that are so close and work in the same field."

That feeling comes across, in a room like Top O' the Green, where Shepard swings easy, as Bill Row lays an odd but effective riff over "Mustang Sally." Or at Gitto's, where a three-man horn section gathers in front of the fireplace, punching out a catchy tune that chases away the blues.

Bob Row peers out from behind the keys, chats with a crowd that's absolutely eating up the group's populist playlist. As their teenage drummer, Kyle O'Dell, sits behind the kit, Bill encourages him to play faster and faster, until he's reached the exact beat, then the band jumps in and takes off.

They've played this song before. They'll play it again.
But lost in the moment, in the unheralded world of the lounge player, they may have never played it as well. And that's the challenge.

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