Jazz great's remarkable heart skips a beat, proving no gig lasts forever
John L. Smith - Review Journal, February 5, 2006
I was holding down a bar stool at Pogo's Tavern one Friday night when Irv Kluger and his jazz band finished a swinging rendition of "Take the A Train" and went on break.
Bouncing from behind his drum set on the tiny bandstand of the working-class dive, Irv was a bundle of energy with a shock of white hair that caught the light through the smoky shadows.
He was pushing 80 then.
Eighty going on 25.
"This is a great gig," he said, grinning like a kid and ordering an orange juice from Mary the bartender. "You lose it when you die."
It was a line he'd repeated often in the many years we'd been friends, and I laughed every time. Like others in his circle of jazz devotees, I imagined Irv would work his Pogo's gig forever. Like a man who'd found the Fountain of Youth on Decatur Boulevard, he seemed to grow more energetic with time.
Irv's remarkable heart skipped a terrible beat last week. He's in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Sunrise Hospital. Late Friday morning I stood in the hallway outside the unit and thought of Irv lying still in his bed. The hands that launched infinite riffs were motionless, as if waiting for a cue to jump in and join the band.
I reminded myself that heart attacks and strokes happen to old men who have been fortunate enough to have birthday cakes with more than 80 candles.
If he could, I think he'd tell you about the wonderful ride he's had in this crazy life. He'd tell you about being a skinny Brooklyn boy whose parents pushed him into music. He played violin but dreamed of the drums.
He'd tell you about meeting Phyllis, his great "chick" and love of his life for almost 60 years. He'd tell you about his two daughters and his beautiful granddaughter. He'd tell you about his chick's great legs and singing voice and how lucky he was to have her with him on his ride.
And he'd tell you about the music, and you'd learn about his love of jazz history and realize his substantial place in the great American art form. You'd swing as he riffed on his pals Artie Shaw and Stan Kenton, then finger pop to tales of recording sessions with bebop greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Irv recorded a stack of albums and made a chunk of residual change for his work on the snappy classic "Salt Peanuts."
In the book "Drummin' Men," Burt Korall called Irv "an important transitional drummer from the swing era to bebop." He made the jump from one movement to another and never missed a beat.
The brilliant bandleader Shaw once said, "I loved Irv's playing. He added something important to the band. He made contributions to the music while staying out of the way and allowing things to naturally unfold."
That ability made him a regular with jazz giants and Vegas kings. From Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan, Art Pepper to Zoot Simms. If he were feeling right, he'd tell you great stories about them, and you'd learn more about jazz and life over one draft beer in a smoky bar than you'd get from any university.
Irv is an artist in jazz and in life, a hipster who got the joke about all the self-important people on the big planet in the middle of a vast universe. You take your philosophers where you find them. In my book Irv has been a syncopated Zen master.
But even I figured out his Pogo's gig couldn't last. So a couple years ago I sent him a few hundred to record the band for posterity. The cash infusion gave Irv a chance to get his gang into a studio, where they cut enough tracks for a good set at Pogo's.
Irv once said, "I can't tell you how important the connection is between playing and life. The rhythm section is just a small piece of the world. You have to know when to lay back, when to be boss, when to be loving and caring, when to bring all the guys in the section together at the same time. Technique and musicality are important.
"But bringing humanity to the act of playing is what it's all about."
That's my man, Irv Kluger, laying down the beat that drove his wonderful life.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.