Jazz legend 'Red' Balaban Dies at 84
Leonard J. ("Red") Balaban, former owner of the New York jazz club Eddie Condon's and a legendary musician who played a key role in revitalizing America's interest in Dixieland jazz in the 1970s, died at age 84 on December 29th at Milford Hospital in Connecticut after a brief illness.
Born in Chicago on December 22, 1929, Leonard was the first child of Tillie and Barney Balaban. (A half brother, Burt, predeceased him by several decades.)
His father and uncle A.J. Balaban founded the family's pioneering Chicago movie theatre company, Balaban & Katz (including the historic Chicago and Uptown Theatres) and his father later served as long-term president of Paramount Pictures from 1936-1964, moving the family to New York where Leonard completed his early education at the Ethical Culture School. After graduating from Milford Academy in Connecticut, he graduated from Brown University, where he met Maxine "Micki" Israel, his wife of 62 years, who survives him.
"My brother had an amazing adult life in three complete acts," notes his sister, actress-writer Judith Balaban, of Los Angeles. "First he raised breeding cattle on a farm in Bonifay, Florida. Next, as a musician, he was a sideman, band leader, and club owner, singing and playing bass, tuba, banjo, and guitar. Later, in his blog 'Fare and Fowl' he wrote for a growing audience that enjoyed his astute and often witty political commentary."
As a teenager, enamored of Dixieland music and its great instrumentalists, Balaban tried to hang out at Eddie Condon's club in Greenwich Village, but was bounced for being under age. When Condon himself met Balaban near the stage door, he invited him in, and by the time Balaban moved south after college, he had made friends with many of the musicians he had long admired.
In Florida, Balaban began to play ukulele and studied music at Chipola Junior College in Marianna. Eventually, he began performing, and by 1967, the farm was sold and the family moved to West Haven, Conn., so Balaban could play full-time. During this period, he became determined to revive the early 20th century music still being played by his older, illustrious friends. After Condon died, his wife Phyllis allowed Balaban to use Eddie's name for a new club that would have a 10-year run on W. 54 St. in Manhattan from 1975 to 1985, with "Red" and trumpeter Ed Polcer leading a rotating all-star group that would often include such veterans as Vic Dickinson, Warren Vache, Connie Kay and Wild Bill Davison.
Once the club closed in 1985, the band known as Balaban and Cats continued to play gigs and tour the northeast, including a steady run at Alfredo's. Balaban also recorded himself singing and playing several instruments on successive CDs called "Best of Home Cooking" and "Son of Home Cooking".
In more recent years, Balaban learned to use a computer and began to blog. A lifetime Democrat and political aficionado with an extensive U.S. history background, Balaban wrote for a steadily widening circle of family, friends, and others who sometimes shared and sometimes debated his political views.
In addition to wife, Micki, and sister, Judith, he is survived by his son Michael, of New York City; his son Steven and wife Kyle, of San Diego, and their children Max and Bret; and by his daughter Rachel and her husband, John Burnham, of Middletown, R.I., and their children, Isabel, Olivia and Sophia. He also leaves behind his beloved ginger Maine Coon cat, Rosie. (He was also first cousin of actor Bob Balaban.)
A service for family and close friends will be held at 2:30 pm, January 5th, at Shure Funeral Home in New Haven, CT. It will be followed by a larger, musical, memorial celebration of his life to be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Neighborhood Music School, 100 Audubon Street, New Haven, CT 06510.