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So long, Joe.

NotL Rants column, The Niagara Advance

The Niagara music scene lost one of its bright lights three weeks ago, when monster keyboard player Joe Ingrao passed away suddenly. Despite his tough-guy act, Joe’s commitment, kindness and humour deeply touched the lives of everyone he met, played with or played for, including mine. 

When you talk about Joe, you always wind up ‘doing’ him: Hunched over, voice all smokey and rich with a conspiratorial tone: “What’s goin’ on?” Joey knew what was going on. A glimmer of a joke in his eye, he was always ready to laugh. 

Why is it the best people leave the party first? Joe Ingrao, a great man and a musical epitome, died suddenly on March 19th, exactly one week before his 50th birthday. The gaping hole he left behind will never be filled, no matter how many impersonations we do, no matter how many stories we tell. But we try to keep him around us by recounting his tales and hearing his music.

Those narratives. Never a quiet man (not even while playing the keyboard: like Glenn Gould or Oscar Peterson, Joey’s droning moans are familiar to anyone who played with him), once he started telling his stories you might as well sit down, have a drink, and give up on wanting to do anything other than listen for the next few hours. 

The stories could be about his kids, his wife, his folks, his years on the road with so many bands, or his colleagues at the Casino (where he’d had a regular piano-bar gig). They were invariably funny, absurd, observant and kind. Joe’s film noir exterior hid a big sweetie; his every subject was treated with humour and without judgement. We laughed, we laughed. Okay, we did cry too, but only because we were laughing so hard.

Joe’s keenly observant eye always amazed me. He would remember every item of clothing, hairstyles, accessories. For such an undeniably masculine person, he’d come at you all girly-girl and say, “Lauren, I like you in the black, but the red shirt you had on last week, that was really you. A little blonder now, eh? Nice. Dory, that jacket is beautiful. And you trimmed your bangs? Your eyes look beautiful.’ He was smooth, sure, but he meant it, and we all felt special around him.

Like the Pope, Joe just loved people. He never tired of talking, always had time for everyone. Remembered the details, paid attention, cared. Okay, he didn’t unite the Eastern Bloc or bring millions of people together, but he did connect. He linked musicians and regular folk alike. Says close friend and band-mate Garth Vogan, “We’d be at a gig, and Joe would be talking to the people at every table. He had time for everybody, but there was no small talk. It was all about people’s lives, their families. I’d have to say, ‘Hey Joe, maybe we should play...?’”

In a band, he was the core, the one everyone watched. Penner MacKay, who has been in half a dozen bands with Joe over the years, says, “You could always learn something about music and playing from Joe. You’d try whatever he recommended and you knew if you’d nailed it, because he’d say, ‘Yeah, brother, that’s it.’” He gave music his all. Says Penner, “It didn’t matter what we were playing, or how many people were watching, he’d always get right into it. I loved him and admired him, because he came to play every night, no matter what. There were weeks when he was playing two gigs a day, and he still wouldn’t say no if you needed him.” A musician loyal to musicians, and devoted to music itself.  

We watched him from off-stage too. His character was so rich, it was like being at the movies, but better: being in the movies, because he’d include you, connect you, bring you close. He was bigger than life, so colourful, so himself. Ultimately defined by his sincerity. Says Garth, “You play the way you are as a person. Joe was sincere and engaged. He gave his all to the music, to the band, to the moment. He told stories when he played; he was always talking. And his talk, whether it was through the piano or person to person, made everyone feel like a million bucks.”

In most situations there is a galvanising force, a person unanimously liked and looked up to. That was Joe, dammit, with his smile like a blessing and his voice like a dirt road, and we’ll miss him.

Missing him most of all, of course, will be his wife Micheline, and his young-adult children Joelle and Isaac. True to counter-type, Joe the professional musician was a great family man. Says Garth, “Joe was always,‘Miche thinks this, Miche says that,’ and those were the rules. She was always right too: her instincts were perfect.”

Let’s all honour Joe, and so many of those early departers, by being sincere and passionate, and living each day like it might be our last. And, like Joe, pay attention. Really, really pay attention to each other.

Here’s the rant: Joe experienced chest pains on the night of Wednesday, March 16th. An ambulance ride to a  St. Catharines hospital, some tests, and Joe’s back in his home. No need for observation or immediate further tests, just a ‘Come back next week and we’ll look into it some more.’ Next week, of course, never came. The message to the rest of us? Hassle that health system until it bloody well works properly.

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