By Michael Jackson

Joe and the dragon

Michael Jackson reports from the centre of the universe
Jumping Joe Danno’s last voicemail contained four worrying words: “Retirement home” and “Las Vegas”. He sounded uncharacteristically anxious, and that seemed to have made the machine nervous. It chewed up most of the message, but spat out a mystifying question, “Can you handle the stuff?”What stuff? The machine garbled the next bit, then and coughed up the phrase, “pre-Prohibition bourbon”. Joe had left a phone number, but that had been gnawed senseless. I put my people in Chicago on to the case, but zilch. Half a year passed, then, the other day, I heard that Joe had been grounded, by The Man Upstairs. Worse than grounded: six feet under.Rest in peace? You couldn’t do that in Vegas, where the neons flash all night. Nor would rest accord with Joe’s pivotal belief: It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. They called him Jumping Joe because he had a radio programme on jazz called “The Jazz Philosopher”.We were listening to a tape of the programme the last time I had a drink with Joe. We were at his bar, The Bucket’o’Suds. I wish the Americans wouldn’t call beer “suds”, but I could forgive Joe anything. “Fancy a 1914 Stitzel Weller Old Mock?” he inquired. How could you get mad at a man who put questions like that? He asked me how I would like it. I hummed a few bars of Straight, no chaser. He turned down the tape and asked me to hum the whole song. I turned the tape up, louder.Not all the spirits at the Bucket’o’Suds were in the bottle. Charlie Parker, Plutarch and Old Oscar Pepper were with us that night. The place was so dark, dishevelled and dusty that you were never surprised to find yourself in conversation with a ghost. Joe himself had begun to be aware of mortality. He was approaching his 80th birthday, and he was reminiscing about his family.Plutarch referred to Acerra, where the Danno family had their roots. Joe appreciated the mention. “It’s near Naples,” he added, as if to shrug, “Plutarch used to drink with my ancestors, but it’s no big deal.” Despite his earlieroffer, he had actually poured me the Old Oscar Pepper, distilled in 1916, bottled in 1925. It was sweet and smelled of violets. You never knew what you were going to get from Joe.That night, he showed me something called Wing Le Wai. The last bottle had a dragon-like creature sitting in the booze. I pleaded with Joe to open it, but he deflected the notion by starting to make one of his ‘Original B.O.S. Cocktails’.He was very proud of his cocktails, with names like the ‘Happy Hooker’, ‘Chicago Loop’ or a ‘Polish Hi-ball’ (his spelling). Then there were his ‘world famous’ cocktail sauces, hot sauces and condiments. A great uncle of Joe was employed by the King of Italy. He was the official gardener, alchemist and liqueurist. Then there was the grandfather of Joe who had a rooming house and bar in Chicago. “He taught my dad how to make liqueurs.” Joe’s dad had a speakeasy on the edge of town during Prohibition. At the age of “five or six”, Joe was co-opted to help his father make moonshine. At nine, Joe started smoking. “My father said that, if I was going to smoke, I would need a little whisky to clear my throat.”Prohibition was repealed for beer and wine in April 1933. On December 5th of that year, Joe obtained a licence to serve hard liquor. Next day, prohibition of hard liquor was repealed. The Bucket’o’Suds was his second bar, and he ran it for more than 30 years. The alternative newspaper, The Reader, carried a strip in which Joe was a character. The Chicago Tribune once said that the B.O.S. was the centre of the universe. Odd that the universe should be centred on North Cicero, almost 10 miles from The Loop.I came late to the B.O.S., but was an intermittent regular for at least a dozen years. Joe knew a lot of people. I was flattered he called me about his pre- Prohibition bourbon. My people in Chicago are on the case, so to speak. Maybe, after all this time, we can open the Wing Le Wai and taste the spirit of the dragon.