Johnny Case ends 28-year run at Sardines
Generations of Fort Worth jazz fans have gone to Sardines to hear Johnny dip into his extensive repertoire of standards, both solo and, on weekends, with small groups of musos who valued the opportunity to learn from him. Over the years, they've included bassists Charles Scott (R.I.P.), Byron Gordon, Kyp Green, Toby Guinn, Jeremy Hull, Drew Phelps, and Daniel Stone; drummers Eddie Dunlap, Duane Durrett, Don Sowell, Danny Tcheco, and Ron Thayer; guitarists Jerry Case (Johnny's brother), Clint Strong, Sam Walker, and Keith Wingate; multi-instrumentalist Chris White; percussionist Joshua Manchester; saxophonists Mario Cruz and Dave Williams; trombonist Pat Brown; trumpeters Leonard Belota and Leo Saenz; and vibist Joey Carter.
I asked a few of Johnny's familiars to weigh in with reminiscences.
Jon Castleberry (former Sardines manager): I feel bad that I have taken for granted that he would always be there. I started bussing tables there in '83, but really remember him and his music when I started bartending there in '87.
He had a tremendous impact on me -- many wise words. His wealth of knowledge for musicians and music is equal to none. I loved the way he knew my favorites "Back at the Chicken Shack" and "Besame Mucho," and played them when he knew I had time to listen. He introduced me to great stuff I never would have bought or even knew to listen to from old country to some obscure jazz.
A memory that I will always cherish is a day I met Johnny for lunch at Spiral Diner on Magnolia. He had a copy of An Epic Life, Willie Nelson's biography by Joe Nick Patoski. Johnny was a big contributor [to the book]. He had Joe Nick sign it for me, and gave it to me at lunch. I guess that memory is my favorite because he shows what a thoughtful and caring person he is.
Sam Walker (guitarist): In the early 90's, when I was just getting back into music after a long layoff, I was playing at a place called Guidi's on Camp Bowie every Friday and Saturday. My gig was over at 10pm and I would stop by the old Sardine's almost every night after the gig to sit in.
I was trying to get my playing together and Johnny was very supportive of me. I went to his house and took several lessons from him. He was always encouraging and exposed me to new players that I hadn't heard of. One of those players was Grant Green who became one of my biggest influences.
Johnny was always supportive of the young, aspiring jazz musicians. This is one of the main contributions to this type of music that he has made, along with his own playing and recording. He is keeping the music alive by helping the next generation to continue playing jazz.
Drew Phelps (bassist): I think the first time I played with Johnny might have been at Weatherford College with Duane Durrett, James Clay, and Dewey Redman. I paid my Sardines dues with Al Malacara and then Kelly Durbin when the joint was on Camp Bowie, so I didn't play with Johnny a lot until later, when I could take a night off to go play Sardines. It's a drag to think that place won't be there any more. I hope Johnny finds a place to land. The DFW area needs him to keep showing the young bass players how to play in the classic jazz piano trio setting. The number of good bass players he brought into the world is more than I care to count.
Leonard Belota (trumpeter): I cannot remember meeting Johnny, I have known him since the '80s. As a budding jazz player, I learned as much from him as I learned from anyone. Also, it has been a great privilege to listen to him change and grow; I think this is the only way to learn this art form completely. How to play every note with meaning, how to nuance a phrase, how to build a motif on a motif on a melody. How to put the music ahead of ego, how to be open and humble around other humans, especially fragile musicians. How to live a creative lifestyle and love your family and respect the sanctity of life. I met his wife Kitty much later. Not enough can be said about artists' wives; they are as special as their spouses and in this case maybe more so. Longevity with a creative body is trying and deserves its own praise. Johnny will go on to create and amaze, but places like the old Sardines are slow to make an appearance. Fort Worth is my home and I love it dearly; its creative artsy side is legendary. However, growing small group jazz formats here has been a struggle.
Joey Carter (drummer, vibist, and pianist): I had heard about Johnny and his brother from my dad for years. Before the Sardines gig, Johnny played a lot of "casual" dates in town, and my dad, who is a singer/bassist, knew and respected both of the Case brothers. I believe that Johnny had even subbed for my dad on bass. I don't believe they actually worked together much, but they certainly knew each other.
I had heard Johnny at J.R.'s once when I was still in high school, and heard the trio a couple of times at Sardines when I was in college, but I did not start going to Sardines on a regular basis until I was out of school. I think it was probably 1992 when I started going a lot. It took me a while to get up the guts to ask him if I could sit it -- on drums: that was all I did back then. He was always nice but quiet and maybe a little hard to read. I started sitting regularly on weekend nights; Don Sowell knew my dad well and he was always very gracious to me. I was working private clubs gigs at the time, which I hated, but going to Sardines after that was always a great release. I got to play jazz with great players. I loved music again when I did that, and it really kept me going.
I bought my vibraphone in 1994, and immediately asked Johnny if I could bring it down on a solo night. He said yes -- Johnny actually played vibes on a few Time Warp Top Hands [western swing group led by Tom Morrell] tunes -- and after the first night, I remember he said that I had a lot of work to do, but if I kept getting better, I could come back. I came back every week. He was (and still is) so inspiring to play with. In that period, he showed me tunes, made me play things I didn't really know, made me listen; he is the best teacher I ever had. He also gave me my first regular gig as a piano player in 1998. (The Sardines gig is also the longest regular gig I have ever had!) I was pretty bad, but he knew that I would get better and not offend anyone; I am eternally grateful for that.
I have had many great nights with Johnny, but the most memorable is one where I played one tune with Johnny and the great Charles Scott on bass. We played "Invitation" in a bossa style. Charles played half note roots and 5ths the whole tune and held the fort while Johnny swirled around the pulse like he was casting spells and weaving magic. I was playing, but really I was caught up in listening. I simply reacted to what I was hearing with the drums. I felt like I was listening from outside of myself and playing with my subconscious. I was in the zone. It was the first time I truly listened, and I grew more as musician that night than I could ever think possible. The feeling of it is still very clear, and I think I can credit that night with any of the skill I have now.
I know that I am not the only person in town who has been influenced this way. Almost every bass player in the area has played with Johnny at Sardines; it was school for a lot of us and that is thing I will miss. Johnny will still be around and I think he will be playing soon somewhere, but it is hard to imagine anyplace being quite like that. I hope I am wrong about that. Johnny's impact on the Fort Worth jazz scene is deeper that it seems on the surface. Every jazz player I know from Fort Worth has passed through those doors at some point and I think that the Sardines staff (at least the original staff) knew that and was supportive of the musicians.
Let us not forget that every gig has an end. Twenty-eight years is a great (and unheard of!) run. Johnny will be OK; maybe it will kick people like me in the butt enough to make gigs happen with him.
Caroline Collier (former Sardines bartender): I have learned that while others copy jazz, Johnny Case captures its real essence. I worked at Sardines off and on for about five years out of 10, and in all those nights of hearing his “daily devotional,” I don't think he ever missed a note. Literally, not one. At least, not that my untrained ears noticed.
Back when Sardines was on Camp Bowie, we used to say that Johnny was responsible for the flood of supernatural occurrences that happened in that rickety old building. Jazz, moreso than other genres, flirts with that mystical connection between music and the unknown, and Johnny seemed more like a sorcerer than piano player. To my more opportunistic friends like Byron Gordon and Arthur Castillo, Johnny was a great mentor. He would patiently allow them to sit in, sometimes while they were still waiting on tables. No customers seemed to mind, though, because Sardines was Johnny Case. The food was secondary.
In the new location, Johnny really pushed the boundaries of jazz as far into the future as they would bend. I appreciated seeing him blend his strong political convictions into his music with [his 2005 CD] Love's Bitter Rage. He introduced me to a lot of new players like Daymond Callahan and Daniel Tcheco. Johnny knows more than anyone else about the history of jazz in Fort Worth (and elsewhere, but especially here), and he would share stories with anyone who would listen. Many dined at Sardines just for this reason.
While Johnny will go on and make more great music, the fact that he won't be playing in public six nights a week is a big loss for Fort Worth.
Amy Matarese (Sardines owner's daughter/former manager): My first experience of Johnny Case was when I was just a wee girl of 11 years old. Johnny began gifting us with his great presence, wonderous soul and elite jazz at Sardines in 1983. By this time, I had been witness to the untamed style of life that Sardines tended to draw on from its employees, entertainers, and customers since 1977. I had had my fair share of absorbing the energy which seemed to exude from Sardines and these times, yet was not prepared for the powerful journey Johnny Case would provide us the opportunity to be part of.
Being very young and sensitive, I sensed a world unfold before me with uniqueness that would place us all within the Fort Worth Cultural District for decades to follow. It was a world for the iconoclast alone and I was fortunate to hear, see and feel the magic of jazz from the hearts of Johnny Case, the Johnny Case Trio and Friends for most of my life.
The impact & memories are numerous and profound. The experience is one of greatness and honor. The loss beyond measure.
We thank you Johnny for your dedication, loyalty, expertise and heart. We are lesser without you.
Joey Carter said that original Sardines owner Sal Matarese, who still owns the restaurant's grand piano, is gifting the instrument to Case in appreciation for his years with the establishment. Here's hoping that an enterprising restaurateur or club owner with an appreciation for the good stuff will step up and offer Johnny and his piano a new home.
If you've been meaning to get over to Sardines to check him out, better do it before Sunday.
ADDENDUM: Happy ending!