Gwen Parker had heard the story. It was one of hundreds her favorite uncle, musician Art Mineo, had told her over the years.
Then, in 2003, The News Tribune ran a photo in its “Looking Back” feature, and there it was in 1951 black and white. Mineo was delighted by the evidence of a remarkable November night in Tacoma music history, and he again told his niece the story behind it.
This time Parker wrote it all down as if she’d been there, though she wasn’t even born until 1953. But Art and Toni Mineo were at the heart of her family, and Parker wanted her grandchildren — eight of them now — to have it all down on paper.
“That photo was what brought it all back to him,” Parker said. “He loved talking about that night at Mike DeVoto’s New Yorker on Sixth Avenue.”
And she loved writing about it, as her 85-year-old uncle told his story.
“Uncle Artie’s lifelong friend from Brooklyn, Joe ‘Flip’ Phillips called on the eve of the New Yorker’s opening night, explaining that he was in Seattle with the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, had a night off and wanted to come down to Tacoma with some of the guys for a visit and a plate of Aunt Toni’s spaghetti and meatballs.
“Uncle Artie let them know he had a gig after dinner, but they came anyway — and tagged along with him afterward.”
And what a crew it was.
Start with Oscar Peterson, who’d just been named best pianist in a readers poll by the jazz magazine DownBeat. Add Bill Harris, who’d been named best trombonist in the same poll. And Phillips, who’d been named best tenor saxophonist.
Mineo and a friend, Tacoma drummer Dick Moorehead, took the stage and jammed. It was, perhaps, the best jazz group to ever play in the city.
“One twist to the story,” Parker wrote, “the public opening of the New Yorker was the following night. The opening was by invitation only … as such, no admission was charged. But while the band was playing, (owner) DeVoto was approached by a city official who told him he needed to collect a certain amount of money to pay the liquor tax.
“So, during a break, Uncle Artie, Oscar, Flip and Bill walked among the crowd, hats in hand, collecting coin.”
It was the kind of story Art Mineo loved to tell. And whether you wanted to believe every word, that picture proved the group was there, onstage, playing.
No one who knew Mineo doubted him.
“Here was a man who knew Jacqueline Kennedy, Al Capone, Frank Sinatra, Babe Ruth, not to mention all the musical greats of the 20th century,” local opera singer Barry Johnson said of Mineo after his death in 2010. “He was like a walking musical encyclopedia.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1918 to a Sicilian family, Mineo was raised by a mother who ran a boardinghouse for fellow immigrants. She loved opera, and took Mineo as a boy.
In his 70s, he would begin writing opera. His first was about his mother and that boarding house: Little Mary’s Lambs.
Mineo toured with his own bands for decades, and arranged music for the U.S. Army Band. Stationed at Fort Lewis in World War II, he met and married Toni, and the two wrote and arranged music together the rest of their lives.
A recording of music that Mineo wrote in the ’50s was used at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair in one of its signature attractions, the Bubbleator.
In 2010, five months before his death, a group of friends and fellow Northwest musicians staged an evening of Mineo’s opera arias.
“It was a tribute, and someone played my uncle that evening, telling his stories,” Parker said.
A few of them, anyway.