Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Requiem for Rusty's

Rusty's Jazz Cafe is no longer a jazz caf .

The change in musical formats at the South Toledo landmark, a jazz haven for four decades, will have repercussions that reach far beyond the city limits.

“It's going to affect more than the local scene; it's going to have an effect all around the country,” said Chris Buzzelli, guitarist and professor at Bowling Green State University.

For nearly 40 years, thanks to the deep devotion of owner Margaret “Rusty” Monroe, the cozy little club on Tedrow Road has featured live jazz seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year.

One of the few nightclubs in the United States that catered exclusively to jazz artists and fans, Rusty's has earned a reputation as a favorite tour stop for nationally known artists and a launching pad for talented young musicians.

“Anywhere you go, if you tell them you're from Toledo and if they're involved with jazz at all, they always ask about Rusty's,” said Buzzelli. “People all over the country know about that club. It's the end of an era.”

Rusty's, in fact, has a global reputation. When the Russian bluegrass-jazz band Kukuruza played the quaint venue some years back, the Moscow musicians stared wide-eyed at the photos and mementos decorating the walls and said that playing the Toledo venue had been a longtime dream.

But running a nightclub is strenuous work, especially for a single woman in her 80s, and Monroe, who turns 85 next month, decided it was time to slow down.

How many hours did she put into a typical work week?

“Let's put it this way,” Monroe said with a smile, “If I wasn't at the club, I took it home with me and slept with it. It was the last thing I did at night and the first thing in the morning.”

By the end of 2001, she had found a buyer who was interested in continuing the club's jazz tradition.

“At the end of the holiday season, which is always great with so many students back in town and the Christmas and New Year's parties, I was totally exhausted at my 84 years of age and close to 40 years in the business,” Monroe said.

“And I felt I couldn't really do justice to the jazz caf when I was too tired to take care of details. But I did not want it to go downhill. I wanted to leave it at the top. Which I did.”

She continued to stay on as a consultant, but things just didn't work out for her successor. The club was sold again several months ago and Monroe said the new owner is turning it into a sports bar and told her politely, but firmly: “I don't do jazz.”

“It's all bad news,” Monroe said wearily. “Evidently I made a bad choice.”

Monroe has been serving as a “guest greeter” on weekends at Murphy's Place, her club's longtime competition, at the invitation of co-owner Joan Russell. The new role allows Monroe to stay in touch with Toledo's jazz community.

While Murphy's continues to offer live jazz, the downtown club has its own house trio, The Murphys, and while it brings in many top national artists and special guests, the venue does not provide as many opportunities as Rusty's did for local artists to perform with their own groups.

Local musicians have been commiserating for weeks about the loss of Rusty's, a unique musical venue whose stage was open to earnest musicians of all ages, caliber, and interests.

“I think about all the people that learned to play there,” said Gene Parker, one of Toledo's leading jazz artists and educators. “Even Detroit musicians came down to Toledo to play here. Even if you don't count anything else, Rusty's turned out so many musicians who have spread all over the world.”

Monroe and Parker hesitate to name the players who began their careers at Rusty's, for fear of leaving someone out. But the list includes bassist and BGSU professor Jeff Halsey; pianist Larry Fuller, a longtime member of the Ray Brown Trio; pianist Ron Oswanski of Florida; bassist Tom Warrington, a longtime member of the Buddy Rich Orchestra; bassist Ray Parker, Gene's son and a rising star in New York; pianist Jacob Sacks, now living in New York City; saxophonist Tim Ries, a jazz ace who toured with the Rolling Stones; trumpeter Tim Hagans, a Blue Note recording artist; guitarist Dan Faehnle, who plays with Diana Krall, perhaps the top singer in jazz today, and Jim Riggs, a saxophonist who has been teaching at one of the nation's finest jazz institutions, North Texas State University.

“It's just incredible, the number of musicians who learned at Rusty's,” said Parker. “This club did what multimillion-dollar educational institutions couldn't do.”

Kevin Eikum, who plays bass with the Toledo Jazz Orchestra, called Rusty's “an invaluable resource.”

“It's certainly going to be missed, especially among musicians,” he said.

Monroe often booked national jazz stars at her club, and the intimate venue would be packed with scores of local jazz artists eager to enjoy and perhaps pick up a few tips from the masterful musicians.

“I remember seeing Ira Sullivan and Red Rodney there,” Eikum said. “And Johnny Griffin, the great tenor player. What was really great was the local kids could come up and play. Everyone was always welcome there.”

Scott Potter, a TJO trumpeter and former executive director of the Toledo Jazz Society, said he learned many business lessons from Monroe.

“She had a formula for when we put jazz concerts together,” Potter said, to calculate the concert budget and ticket prices.

“When I used her formula, we were able to bring people to town and at least break even or make a little profit so we could do more of them. She was a very valuable asset to me from the business side.”

He laughed about a lesson he learned from Monroe regarding contract riders, those clauses at the end of the contracts that specify various dressing-room details, from types of food and refreshments to the backstage furniture an artist prefers.

“I was new at promoting concerts and I got this contract with all these extra things that we had never negotiated,” Potter said. “Rusty just took her pen and put an X through all of it. It was great. She knows how to run a business.”

Monroe also knows her way around the kitchen, doing the cooking for her club's famous buffets.

“It was a need for the musicians to have their dinner and drinks, a nice home-style meal that was affordable,” Monroe said. “With musicians, you have to remember the word ‘affordable.' We started out with 50-cent spaghetti nights Then we had to go to a dollar and a half.”

She also kept the club's cover charges as low as possible, and until a few years ago maintained a free section at the back of the club. “It became necessary to charge about two or three years ago to pay the band a little better,” Monroe said.

Many high school students would sit in the back of the club, sipping soft drinks or playing chess, contributing just a few bucks to the cash register but building a future fan base for jazz. Many music teachers gave students extra credit if they went to a jazz show at Rusty's.

Wynton Marsalis noticed the youngsters when he performed at Rusty's in the late 1980s.

“We sat there and talked, later than we should,” Monroe said. “His comment was that he saw the young people and it was such a wonderful thing I was doing with the young students. He saw that I was reaching ahead, helping build the future of jazz.”

The late Eddie Abrams, who was Rusty's house pianist for 23 years, always encouraged young players.

“He was the man in charge,” trumpeter Jimmy Cook said. “No matter what you played or how you played, he'd give you a chance to play. He put up with some really bad stuff at times.”

Maynard Ferguson, the legendary trumpet star and band leader, was one of Rusty's biggest fans.

“The first time Maynard came in, he loved it so much he told everybody about it,” Cook said. “He really put us on the map. He told everybody, from Sweden to San Francisco, that he was never treated so well in his whole life. Every time he'd get on the bus to leave, Rusty would hand everybody in his band a box with a home-cooked meal.”

It was Ferguson's enthusiasm for Rusty's, Cook said, that led other prominent players to come to Toledo, including Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, Ira Sullivan, Phil Woods, and the Adderly brothers, Cannonball and Nat.

Alexander Zonjic, a smooth-jazz star from Windsor, Ont., said he was willing to bring his band to Toledo and play at Rusty's even if he lost money.

Jon Hendricks, the five-time Grammy winner who grew up in Toledo and now teaches at the University of Toledo, sang at the club when he came home to visit relatives.

“Rusty, to me, she's like one of the heroes of Stalingrad,” Hendricks said. “She's kept the heathen at bay for as long as she was in that club and she dispensed American culture every night. Who else can say that? I love Rusty - as do a lot of people."

Parker recalled talking about Rusty's with Rick Margitza, a Detroit-born saxophonist who moved to New York, toured with Miles Davis, and recorded for the Blue Note label.

“He said it was always great to be back in Rusty's and that he had to come back to Toledo to play real music,” Parker said. “In New York, the place may be packed but nobody's listening to the music. Tour buses would drop off tourists who went just because it was a hip place to be. But at Rusty's, people would sit and listen.”

While Monroe was devoted to jazz, she also encouraged other young Toledo musicians, giving a Sunday-night slot to one of the top local rock bands, the Sprags, and justified the musical stretch by saying, “I guess you could call it ‘jazz rock.'”

Jon Stainbrook, a fixture on the local rock scene for decades, said he brought many visiting rockers to Rusty's before or after they performed in Toledo.

“If they wanted to go someplace that wasn't a dance club or a Top 40 bar, we'd go to Rusty's,” Stainbrook said. “It was a cool place to see jazz, intimate and clubby. It was kind of a beatnik place. And they had that spaghetti buffet for 50 cents!”

Among the rockers whom Stainbrook brought to Rusty's were Dez Cadenna of the Los Angeles punk rock band Black Flag, heavy-metal singer Glen Danzig, and John Stabb of Government Issue.

Monroe received many honors for her support of the local music scene. In 1997, the city honored her by hoisting a yellow “Jazz Avenue” street sign on the corner of Tedrow and Byrne roads. That same year, Monroe became the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Lake Erie West People's Choice Awards. Last year, the national lifestyle magazine Men's Journal named Rusty's Jazz Cafe one of the “50 Best Bars in America.”

Of all the honors and awards, however, Monroe took the most pleasure in seeing local jazz artists make it big in New York or Los Angeles.

“That is absolutely a wonderful success for me and for the whole community,” Monroe said.

She will donate her extensive collection of jazz memorabilia to the Toledo-Lucas County Library, which will establish a jazz archive in the local history department. A public ceremony to mark the event is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the downtown library's McMaster Family Center for Lifelong Learning.

Parker, the first jazz artist to play the Tedrow Road venue when Monroe moved her club there in 1979, also was the last jazz musician to play at the club.

“Jazz-wise, this is the 9/11 of Toledo,” Parker said without flinching. “Nobody's going to be able to pick up the pieces. That's all there is to it.”

He said that losing Rusty's is comparable to the city losing its zoo or art museum.

“Size doesn't make any difference when it comes to art,” Parker said. “That was a little place, it looked like a hole in the wall, but the effects were felt all over the world. Toledo's going to feel the effects. There will be no place for young musicians to try out. Musically, jazz-wise, it's going to be just another town.”

Monroe said that promoting jazz has been a labor of love for her, but it was the musicians who made it possible.

“I had such wonderful cooperation from all the musicians,” she said. “That is what made Rusty's go. I merely provided the place for it to happen. They did all the rest.”

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