Ginny O’Brien died one week after I was invited not to return to the Wisconsin State Journal in June 2015, so I never got to write a proper appreciation.
I thought about Ginny earlier this month when my wife and I walked from our hotel on Canal Street in New Orleans a few blocks to the Mississippi River, where a large riverboat was docked.
Having come for a few days rest and relaxation, we’d already sipped a Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, eaten red beans and rice at Gallier’s and paid homage to the statue on Canal of Ignatius J. Reilly, the antihero of the wonderful New Orleans novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
Walking the river from the Spanish Plaza to the Café du Monde was another must. Near Jackson Square we applauded a street musician whose dog would take bills from your hand and deposit them in his tip jar.
It was the riverboat that had me remembering Ginny O’Brien and a story she once told me about her first visit to New Orleans.
Ginny was a Madison native and 1944 graduate of Central High School. She had a lifelong love of music, especially Dixieland jazz as it was played by the legendary New Orleans band, the Dukes of Dixieland. Ginny sang jazz standards for decades around Madison, with musicians like Charlie Duncan on drums and Chuck Evans on piano. When she celebrated her 80th birthday in May 2006, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz declared it “Ginny O’Brien Day” in Madison.
Somehow, by the turn of the century, Ginny had never personally made it to New Orleans. In April 2000, two Madison friends, Bob and Martha Fischer, took her for a visit.
The Dukes were playing three sets a night on the top deck of a riverboat. Ginny was there one evening for the third set, and her jaw dropped when Richard Taylor, the drummer and band leader, announced this to the crowd: “We understand there is a jazz singer in the audience from Madison, Wisconsin. Would you like to come and sing with us?”
It had to be the Fischers who’d tipped him, though they pled ignorance.
“My heart stopped,” Ginny said.
Nevertheless, she climbed onstage.
“What would you like to do?” Taylor asked.
“Well,” Ginny said, “since this is where it all started, how about ‘Birth of the Blues?’”
Ginny paused. “All I need is a four-bar intro.”
Taylor laughed. “I love this lady already.”
Ginny did well enough that the Dukes’ cornet player invited her to sing with him later that night at the El Matador at the corner of Esplanade and Decatur in the French Quarter — which she did.
Ginny’s most enduring gig was in Madison with the Avenue Sizzlers. Local bass player Charlie Mears called her one night in 1994 and said, “I just talked to Skip Zach. Skip wants Dixieland and he wants you.” Zach owned the Avenue Bar, a terrific, still-mourned supper club on East Washington Avenue. The Sizzlers played Monday nights at the Avenue for 17 years.
Zach died in 2005. The restaurant eventually changed hands, reopening in 2015 as the Avenue Club. When it closed for good in 2021, I wrote a column recalling its distinguished history and liberally quoted Mike May, who had recently retired as Madison’s city attorney.
May dearly loved the Avenue; Steve Zach, son of Skip and his wife, Clare, was a close friend.
This past summer, May sent me an email noting that Clare Zach had died on Aug. 26.
“She was as instrumental as Skip in making the Avenue Bar the institution it was,” May wrote. He went on to relate his “favorite story” about her, which involved him ordering a New York Strip steak at the Avenue done medium, unwisely within earshot of Clare Zach.
“Michael,” she said, ending a conversation with someone else and confronting him, “why would you ruin such a nice cut of beef by having it burned?”
Then, shockingly, in early October, word arrived that May, too, had died, age 68, from complications of pancreatitis. Dean Mosiman wrote a good news obituary in the State Journal.
I don’t think I ever talked about New Orleans with May, who traveled the country to see big college football games and possessed a deep well of what in New Orleans they call joie de vivre — an enjoyment of life and exultation of spirit.
On our recent trip, Jeanan and I spent a fun part of a rainy day at the Sazerac House, a three-story cocktail museum filled with interesting exhibits and interactive displays. We watched a virtual bartender mix an exotic cocktail and later ordered one for real at the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone.
The next day, the sun again shining, we took the streetcar out past the Garden District to Uptown, where the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival was held Nov. 6 for the first time since the pandemic. What a gas! More than 40 vendors, every imaginable kind of po-boy, live music, people dressed like Halloween or Mardi Gras.
Before we left New Orleans, I went one more time to look at the Ignatius Reilly statue. There’s a bittersweet story behind it. John Kennedy Toole wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces” as a young man but couldn’t get it published. In despair, he died by suicide at age 31 in 1969.
Years later, Toole’s mother forced the typed manuscript on an esteemed Louisiana author, Walker Percy, who took it reluctantly, knowing it couldn’t be good.
Percy began to read, astonished, of Reilly’s madcap adventures — “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote,” Percy eventually wrote in a foreword — and arranged for the novel’s publication.
It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.
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