Thursday, March 20, 2003

Shirley Jester

Struggling to define her magic


Shirley Jester was a lot more than her music, but it's kind of hard to talk about her without it.

Frank Shue, who worked for Columbia Records, said she was the best piano accompanist he ever heard. "She'd lay music under the singer, totally absorbed in what they needed." Which pretty much describes Shirley. Totally absorbed in everybody else.

Once a young woman came to listen to Shirley on the way to meet a boyfriend in New York. "I wish," she told Shirley, "I could have found a dress like yours." Shirley went home that night in a raincoat and the dress went to New York.

People scramble to tell Shirley stories. When my husband - who looks hatefully young - and I went to hear Shirley, she'd always break into "Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson." Then she'd laugh. Very close to a cackle, a little hoarse, and absolutely impossible not to celebrate. And join.

Not your typical mom

She was just so funny. Friends struggle to repeat her best lines, but a lot of it was Shirley's delivery, as magical as what she was doing with the keyboard. The life of the party. No, giving life to the party. Talking and playing and drawing "the room" together, letting us all in on the joke.

Mostly, the joke was on her. "I couldn't boil water when I got married," she'd say, "and by the time I learned, he didn't like water anymore."

She'd mix together cans of chicken noodle and cream of mushroom soup. "A family recipe," she'd explain. "She sure was not your typical mom," says her daughter, Haven Fletcher. "She was out playing the clubs at dinnertime." Shirley used to threaten to turn her kitchen into a breezeway.

So maybe Haven never had a homemade birthday cake. But she always had a cake. Plus, she had a mom who played all the Christmas programs at her grade school and who was famous, at least around here.

Shirley described her one appearance on The Garry Moore Show in New York City. "I was sitting in the dressing room in about 85 petticoats, and some stagehand walked in. I screamed. I thought I was naked."

For nearly 25 years she played six nights a week until 1 a.m. at the Coal Hole in the old Sinton Hotel, at the Top of the Crown, at the Vernon Manor, at the Iron Horse Inn. Those were the paying gigs. And, when she was finished, sometimes she'd slip off to play for free. Some charity thing or a retirement home. And she just did not prioritize. She played her heart out, no matter where she was.

Shirley died March 8 after wrestling with breast cancer, heart disease and a series of strokes. A celebration of her life is planned March 30 from 2 until 6 p.m. at the Mike Fink in Covington. Open, very open to the public. People from all over the city will be there. The musical and the tin-eared. The old and the young. West siders and east.

Many of them won't know each other. In a nice turnaround, they'll be totally absorbed in Shirley, repeating stories of her goodness and wit, against the backdrop of her extraordinary music.

And one last time, she'll bring the room together.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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