Monday, March 10, 2003

Jazz favorite Shirley Jester dies

Pianist performed for four decades

By Nicole Hamilton
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jazz pianist Shirley Jester didn't just play to the room, she played to each and every person in the room. She chose tunes from her mile-long repertoire - and custom-fitted them to her listeners.

And her talent to rally the crowd with her quick wit and jokes matched her prowess on the keyboard.

"She had people laughing before they heard the punch line," said her friend and fellow musician, Dewey Huff of Glendale, who played drums with her trio - The Shirley Jester Trio - at the Vernon Manor Hotel in Mount Auburn.

Shirley Jester died Saturday at Hospice of Blue Ash of cancer. The College Hill native was 70.

"Keys didn't mean anything to her. She was fantastic. Her repertoire was phenomenal," said drummer Norm Ridge, who played with Ms. Jester at Dee Felice Cafe in Covington.

Raised in a musical family - her father played in Arnold's Jazz Band downtown - she was playing the piano by the time she was 5. She had the ability to play anything by ear - almost instantly.

While in high school at Our Lady of Angels in North College Hill, she began working part time as a staff pianist for WKRC-TV, going full time after her 1951 graduation.

There, she played music for locally produced television shows. She also met George Palmer, who was then working at the station as a news anchor. The two were married in September 1962.

At 25 she started playing in nightclubs, starting at the Coal Hole, a popular club located in the now-defunct Sinton Hotel.

"Shirley did her homework. She made the Coal Hole a legitimate room," said Leo Underhill, former jazz disc jockey for WNOP.

Over the next 40 years, Ms. Jester performed solo and with jazz groups all over Cincinnati and nationally. She had gigs at The Top of the Crown, in the former Clarion Hotel; the Iron Horse Inn in Glendale and at Kenwood Country Club.

"It was Shirley who made the Vernon Manor bloom in the 1970s, and when she was hired to play on the top floor of the Clarion, she turned it into a mecca for sophisticated music lovers. ... You could look out the expanse of glass at the lights of the city and feel like you were in a big city for a while," said bluegrass and jazz vocalist Katie Laur of Over-the-Rhine

"I think she worked more than any of us," said jazz vocalist Mary Ellen Tanner.

Tanner was a shy, young singer when she started sitting-in with Ms. Jester, who "brought me out of my shell," she said.

Jazz vocalist Anne Chamberlain of Hyde Park never knew what to expect when she showed up to sing with Ms. Jester at their Wednesday night shows (as the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky All Girl Orchestra) at the former diJohn restaurant in Covington.

"She was constantly forcing me to do new things, and the result was wonderful music," Chamberlain said. "And she was the only person who could carry on an entire conversation while playing the piano."

Four years ago, Ms. Jester suffered a stroke that affected her speech. Unable to sing, she still performed piano on a regular basis at Sunday brunches at Kenwood Country Club.

"She was such a loving person - not just to me, but to the whole Cincinnati area," said her daughter, Haven Fletcher of Mason, who was named for a line in a Cole Porter song.

"What a remarkable woman," said jazz pianist Billy Larkin. "So personable. Such a sweetheart. You know, for women in jazz, it's still a struggle. But not for Shirley. She was a trend-setter."

Her husband died in 1982.

Besides her daughter, she is also survived by a sister, Jean Peters of Mount Lookout; and a grandson.

A memorial gathering will be held at a later date. Memorials: American Cancer Society, 11117 Kenwood Road, Cincinnati, OH 45242.

Enquirer reporter Jim Knippenberg contributed. E-mail

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