The enduring jazz of Gerri DiMaggio

Singer now accompanied by her guitarist husband
The enduring jazz of Gerri DiMaggio
Photo by Bob Pesselman
Gerri DiMaggio

The enduring jazz of Gerri DiMaggio I’ve been going to the Sequoya branch of the Madison Public Library for 60 years, but never to hear live music. Well, not until earlier this month when I saw a flyer announcing Gerri DiMaggio would be performing as part of the library’s “Sunday Jazz” series.

First, a word about Sequoya. Ground was broken for the library in November 1959. My family moved into the neighborhood — two blocks away, on Woodside Terrace — the following summer.

Along with the library, the little shopping center had a Kroger grocery store, a hobby shop, and soon — a transcendent moment in my youth — a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. Only the library has endured, albeit in a new and much-improved building that opened in 2008.

On the subject of enduring, Gerri DiMaggio has been singing jazz standards in Madison ever since returning to the city from Colorado in the mid-1970s.

She currently performs with the Gerri DiMaggio Trio — with Bob Pesselman on guitar and John Mesoloras on bass — as well as with a larger group, Gerri DiMaggio and the World Jazz Unit, that adds pianist Paul Hastil and percussionist Rich Larson to the trio.

It was the trio performing at the Sequoya library on Dec. 8. The meeting room was filled with about 30 people seated on folding chairs. The first set started with DiMaggio offstage and a couple of instrumental tunes from Pesselman and Mesoloras.

Both are excellent, but Pesselman’s presence was particularly noteworthy. He is DiMaggio’s husband, though until two years ago — when Pesselman retired from a fulltime job at Covance — it had been more than two decades since they’d played alongside each other.

Music brought them together originally.

DiMaggio grew up in Madison. Music was important: Her mom played Tony Bennett albums and sang to herself. DiMaggio moved to Colorado in her late teens, and when she returned, learned that a Madison jazz/R&B group called Mills Street Foundation was looking for a vocalist.

At the audition, DiMaggio sang the jazz-pop standard “Since I Fell for You.”

The group’s guitar player — Pesselman — gave her the nod. They soon fell for each other and were married in 1983. Mills Street Foundation played for a few years, and then DiMaggio opened DiMaggio’s Euro Design, a home accessories store. While she kept performing, Pesselman, for the most part, did not. Gerri’s glad to have him back.

“Bob didn’t play a whole lot during that time,” she says, “and he certainly didn’t play out with me. But he’s sort of a maniac when it comes to playing. When he retired, he started playing guitar, practicing five hours a day, and he joined us.”

At Sequoya, the trio opened with “Day by Day,” followed by a Billie Holiday song, “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” The great jazz bassist Richard Davis said this about DiMaggio: “She caresses each syllable as if it is a song within itself.”

You could hear it at Sequoya when DiMaggio sang “No Moon at All,” which she introduced as “a song off a Julie London album. My mom loved her.”

A Christmas tune soon followed, “Cool Yule,” recorded by Louis Armstrong — and by DiMaggio, on her 2011 Christmas CD, “It’s Coming on Christmas.”

DiMaggio recently updated her website and has a new album in the works. “I hope to have it out in the spring,” she says. It will include both American standards and Latin music — one of her passions. “I love Brazilian music,” she said, introducing a song at Sequoya.

And the live shows will continue. The trio plays the first and third Thursday of every month at the Nutty Bar in the Bandung Indonesian Restaurant — you can catch them there on Dec. 19 at 7 p.m.

Summers they play festivals and on the patio deck of Otto’s Restaurant & Bar. Next summer will mark 20 years since DiMaggio started singing at Otto’s.

A day or so after her Sequoya gig, I mentioned to DiMaggio how I felt Madison was lucky to have had her performing here across the decades. She says it’s she who feels lucky.

“I’m grateful that I’ve been able to sustain this career in Madison as a musician,” she says, “and that people have supported me — a saloon singer who is part of this community.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.