As a young man from Mississipp, Ed Dees learned to love jazz while serving in the military and stationed in Japan.
To paraphrase a standard from the Great American Songbook, what a wonderful world. So wonderful it could be, sometimes. In fact, Ed said he once met jazz legend Louis Armstrong, who, of course, recorded the definitive version of the aforementioned great American song.
That’s how life could be for Ed, who, after the Army, moved to Chicago where he met and fell in love with Judith McCluskey. Ed married Judy, becoming honorary Irish, with red-headed children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to follow.
He took a job with Delta Airlines, where he worked for more than three decades. Jobs used to have pensions and other great perqs. For Ed and his family, this meant his time at Delta provided them an opportunity to travel the world.
Ed and other family members have been to Paris and Prague and lots of other places I should visit. He even worked an assignment in Hawaii for a bit, a dream for anyone who lives through winters in Illinois.
Ed and Judy settled in northwest suburban Carpentersville. There they raised their two sons and three daughters in a modest home located at the end Hoover Drive, a street perhaps named after the president who led the US into a Depression. Maybe it’s named after the damn. Or the vacuum cleaner.
I prefer to think of the latter, as Carpentersville remains largely a blue collar town. Judy worked for a time at a local liquor store and then as a mail carrier for the USPS.
Ed one had an interesting side job, too, as a desk clerk/night auditor at The Chateau Louise, a strange resort and hotel, with a 22-acre campus.
The place operated from 1961 – 1984 and was pretty much of its era. Think shag carpeting, faux medieval European decor, Harvey Wallbangers, the smell of chlorine, cigars and cigarettes. Picture people trying to be groovy. Or not.
Chateau Louise even held a Second City troupe for a bit, and the likes of George Wendt, Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis Dreyfuss performed there, very early in their careers. Celebrities allegedly occasionally stayed at the Chateau too, out in West Dundee, which back then was pretty much the edge of the northwest suburbs.
Ed had Chateau stories. He claimed Jimmy the Greek Snyder frequented the inn and always reminded Ed to forward his calls. Because, you know, bookies back then got lots of calls. Or liked you to think so.
Anyway, my guess is Ed kept the best hotel tales to himself. He could be mischievous like that.
And I didn’t really enter the picture until either during or just after college. See, I had been friends with Ed and Judy’s son, Tony, since high school. Tony wound up moving to New Mexico, and around the same time, for some reason Ed and Judy took to inviting me to their home on Christmas Eve, which happens to be my birthday.
One story goes that they took a liking to me particularly after I waited in line one time to get free tickets a radio station was giving away to see Tom Petty in concert. In turn, I gave the tickets to Ed and Judy’s twin daughters, Jean and June, as either a high school graduation or birthday gift. Maybe both.
Either way, a stop on Christmas Eve at the Dees house became a personal tradition.
Over the years, as the family grew, there was barely any room for all the people and presents. I’d frequently wear short pants because the house would get that warm.
Bad influence I am, Mrs. Dees eventually took to donning shorts, too, for doing the hard work of the holiday. There was always very-last-minute-wrapping to do. Pizzas and french fries needed to be picked up from Village Pizza. You read that pairing right.
During these and other Dees doings, Ed would hold court from his recliner. Cliche or not, every man is king from La-Z-Boy. From this egalitarian-style throne Ed would also read spy novels, work crossword puzzles, watch TV, listen to music and run his realm.
On Christmas Eves, with the seeming cacophony around him, Ed remained calm and in charge from his comfortable chair. Jazz again. Band leaders and the best players know when to kick back and when to let others take the solos.
Jazz musicians at the top of their game are a family heading somewhere together, enjoying the ride. When you were with Ed, I’ve heard, he liked to take rides, to venture out with willing co-conspirators. Sometimes Santa might not approve, though Frank Sinatra probably would.
Past Christmas Eves, I have headed over to the Dees home for lunch, dinner, gatherings and mostly to catch up on things.
Over the years, Ed and Judy have been gracious enough to see my attempts at becoming a comic actor in Chicago; to subscribe to the paper where I worked for more than 20 years; to buy the book I wrote on Chicago’s Irish and their pubs; to bring the kids to see me as an elf and Tom as Kris Kringle at an Irish Breakfast, of all things.
Ed also loved the blues and sports, which usually go hand-in-hand in Chicago. I think he mentioned almost getting hit by a violently errant tire that whizzed past the stands where he sat at the Indianapolis 500.
Our adventures were much safer. I went to a couple Cubs games with him, Judy and maybe others. Once we sat in the bleachers. If memory serves me, this was way back in the mid-1990s, when ticket prices remained reasonable.
Another time we hit the sort-of since-closed Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square on the way home. I remember the relish tray from the old style meal. All I recall about the game is there were a lot of birds on the field, just flocking there among the Cubs and Diamondbacks.
Ed, Judy and I went to plays, concerts and music festivals together, to restaurants or just sat out on the back deck in summer, shooting the breeze.
The three of us saw Jim Croce’s son, AJ, perform at Elgin Community College. Ed waited in line to say hello and get an autograph. We hit that college and other places to hear jazz, too, most notably to catch silky-voiced Frank D’Rone.
As this review puts it, Frank “wasn’t trite, and never trusted worn out favorites to conquer an audience.” He had style, a certain grace about him.
Ed and Frank developed a fan-based friendship over the years. It was nice to be included in that bond for a night.
Then there was the time when Ed and Judy had a party. Maybe it was a birthday party. It was in the basement that had been set up as a home entertainment center. Ed put Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers into the CD player.
Suddenly, downstairs became a supper club, circa 1956, sans smoke, martinis or the swank clothes. Wearing sweatshirts and jeans, the folks all were in their 20s again, feeling young, like spring had sprung.
Spring in their steps or not, Ed and Judy enjoyed walking together, be it on vacation, at the mall or in the park near where I lived. They spotted me in that park this past summer on several occasions – much like I would spot them in pews at St. Monica’s at mass before COVID-19 changed Sunday mornings.
I spent this pandemic summer of social distancing babysitting Best Fest Buddy Tom’s three toddler grandchildren. Ed and Judy got a kick out of that, seeing me in teddy-bear-meets-Shrek mode. They took pictures. Those pictures wound up among the family photos that whir by as the screensaver on the couple’s home computer.
The photos tell stories. They are bookmarks for memories.
I wish more of us would take time to write down our own tales for safe keeping, to become our own recorders of deeds. Or Dees, in this case.
I guess that’s what I’m here on Earth to do, to offer encouragement, to borrow material, gaps be damned, and do what I can with it.
So this is my parting gift, of sorts, to Ed, my version of him that I hope he’d find amusing. I’ve been told he wanted me to write about him.
An avid reader, Ed passed away that same day as one of his favorite authors, the master spy novelist, John le Carré.
I’ll think of him when I look back on this troubled year, with a defiant smile in the face of awful. I’ll remember Ed when I hear Sinatra or Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things. Maybe I’ll hunt for a disc I have by the wry Mose Allison. Ed liked Mose in part because they both hailed from and successfully left Mississippi.
What is jazz, people still ask. The saying goes, you’ll know it when you hear it. Or when you see it. Or borrowing a phrase from here to end this piece:
“Jazz has the wrinkles of its lost heroes and displays the youthful smile of those who look the future right in the eye. “
To Ed. To a life informed by family, friends, the blues and all that jazz.