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“You know Joey Giambra, don’t ‘cha?” A reflection on a Buffalo Icon

Author: Jack Nossavage

I’ve got my bag of souvenirs, leftover thoughts of yesteryears.

-Joseph G. Giambra

Over the years, I have often found myself asking the question, “You know Joey Giambra, don’t ‘cha?” I have never received the same answer twice. Anyone I asked always said yes, but what followed was never certain.

“You know Joey Giambra, don’t ‘cha?” “Yeah, the musician!” “You know Joey Giambra, don’t ‘cha?“ “Oh yeah, the actor!” “The producer….”

“The playwright….”

“The cook….”
“The cop….”
“The guy that was in that one thing, so and so did….” “My friend….”

Nobody can deny Joey Giambra lived a life full enough for ten men. He was Buffalo’s answer to the epic poem “Orlando furioso”.

About five years ago, I was indoctrinated into a group of older Italian-American jazz trumpet players. I was doing some research (as part of my undergraduate degree) and “the guys” welcomed me with open arms and many, many stories. I took the time to become friends with each of them individually, and, in-exchange I was rewarded by their encouragement, advice, guidance, and love. “The guys” have become mentors, for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration. Amongst that cast of characters was Joey Giambra.

Joe could tell you names of every legendary performer in Buffalo, names who had been forgotten by most everyone sixty years ago.

I quickly realized that Joey’s role was that of the “record keeper”. Joe could tell you names of every legendary performer in Buffalo, names who had been forgotten by most everyone sixty years ago. He remembered details that even guys who were there had forgotten about and because of that, Joe was one of the definitive living histories of this city.

In the past week, Joe’s whole life has been celebrated and remembered by friends, relatives, compatriots, and colleagues. Joe’s career as a musician began in high school, later graduating to the position of band leader at the famous Chez Ami nite club on Delaware Avenue. Prior to Joe’s tenure at “the Chez,” he worked there as a bus boy.

One of my favorite stories about Joe involves a cold Buffalo winter night, a “mysterious” power outage, Ernestine Anderson, and Cole Porter’s classic prostitutes lament, “Love for Sale”. Long story short, a starstruck bus boy, Giambra, had snuck backstage to watch that night’s musical act, Ernestine Anderson. While backstage, Giambra leaned into what he thought was a wall, fell through a curtain, and lands on the light box, killing all the lights for the entire club. Years later, Giambra and Anderson met up in Los Angeles, where one of Giambra’s plays was being performed, and got to reminisce about that fateful wintery evening in Buffalo, New York.

The late 1970’s and 1980’s marked Joe’s rise as an actor and playwright.

In the 1960’s, Joe walked a beat in the former Cold Spring’s neighborhood, eventually becoming a detective for the Buffalo Police Department. The late 1970’s and 1980’s marked Joe’s rise as an actor and playwright. Meanwhile, Joe also owned and operated local restaurants. He would advertised his barbecue joint on East Chippewa Street as “a short run from the bus stop.” Shortly after that, Joe opened the Hard Times Café on Hertel Avenue, after a stint in the Allentown neighborhood.

There are so many stories and Joey-isms that come to mind when I reflect on the countless telephone calls, coffees, and lunches we shared. Joe would call me and we would talk about trumpets, mouthpieces, or recordings he wanted to “hip” me to. Joe had a great affinity for the cornet players of the late 1940’s, like Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff.

One of the last times I saw Joey, in-person, was last Fall. Joe had hired a smattering of brass musicians, and me, to play the Columbus Day Parade on Hertel Avenue. The day of the parade, I arrived to find the band perched atop a giant wooden ship on a trailer. Joe saw me in the crowd, stood up, gazed out across the bow, and like a Sicilian Odysseus, beckoned me aboard. The ship was so tall, we had to dodge street signals as we played. On the return trip, we disembarked and took a city bus back down Hertel Avenue, as the riders sang a raucous version of “‘O Sole Mio”.

Even before I met Joe, I was a fan.

Even before I met Joe, I was a fan. A disciple of “Bread and Onions”, Joe’s ode to Buffalo’s lower West Side, there is not a week that goes by that I do not find myself thinking of a line or phrase. Another favorite memory of mine occurred shortly after Joe’s album “Legacy: Up Close and Personal” was released. Former music educator and local drummer, Danny Hull, had booked Joe at the Anchor Bar Amherst. That night, after the gig, I helped carry some of Joe’s odds and ends to his car, horn, sheet music, and microphone. As Joe tossed his accoutrements into the car, he pulled a crisp, black fedora from the front seat and put it on his head. I exclaimed “Don TaTa, who goes nowhere without his Borsalino!” – a line from “Bread and Onions”. Joe was ecstatic, shouting back, like the true “hipster” he was, “I dig you, man, I dig you!”

On another occasion, I drove from Niagara Falls to Daily Planet Coffee, at night in a December blizzard, just to see Joe perform his spoken-word play, “Cold Springs I’m Home: A Jazz Story” for a nearly empty room. The weather may have kept people away that night, but nothing could shake Joe’s extreme professionalism and love for performing. Joe put on a performance worthy of an audience of thousands that night.

To me, the most remarkable thing about Joe was that, from a very young age, he was constantly recording, documenting, and cataloging what he saw and experienced in his beloved city. He would witness something, dissect it, and then decide how he should present it. Was it a scene in a play, a short story, or a song? Joe made it his life’s work to use every medium at his disposal to tell the stories that make Buffalo, Buffalo. At the core of Joe Giambra was this city, and an undying desire to share it with others.

At the core of Joe Giambra was this city, and an undying desire to share it with others.

The afternoon after Joe passed, I spoke with Richie Merlo, one of “the guys” and one of Joe’s oldest and closest friends. Richie offered sage advice and a some perspective on our departed friend. Richie said “Anyone who knew Joe, was his personal friend.” He just had that way about him, a natural mentor and friend. That was Joe’s charisma. He welcomed everyone honestly, just as they were, no masquerade.

I will always feel there was so much more that I should/could have asked him about, and I know, a lot more that he had to share. However, I take comfort in the fact that we shared some truly genuine times, memories that will last a lifetime. I will never forget the stories he imparted to me, the extreme honesty with which he approached his many crafts, or the deep love and respect he possessed for the city he called home.

The last time I spoke with Joe was the day he went into the hospital. In true Joe fashion, we did not dwell on the negative, instead we spent most of our brief telephone call talking about how glad he was that he was able to connect his longtime friend and founder of the Buffalo Black Drama Workshop, Ed Smith, and me. Joe ended the call by asking me to stay in touch. I did, and I will.

Lead image by Jack Hunter

Written by BRo Guest Authors

BRo Guest Authors

It’s not unusual for authors to come and go. Guest authors range from collegiate interns to writers who will be contributing for a short stint of time. Guest authors might also have a series in mind. Authors are encouraged to submit their ideas to BRO (Buffalo Rising Online), upon which time we will work with the writer towards a productive end.

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