By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 13, 2007 at 5:23 AM

The pantheon of jazz -- America's classical music -- is awash in brilliance, from Armstrong to Ellington to Coltrane and beyond. But don't let the musical constellations obscure the fainter lights, especially those shooting stars that burned brightly, but briefly. They often provide some of the music's most shining moments.

One such fireball was organist Baby Face Willette, who recorded a pair of Blue Note discs as a leader in the early 1960s (he also performed on a few sessions, too, accompanying sax man Lou Donaldson and guitarist Grant Green) and two more for Chicago-based Argo.

Willette had a Milwaukee connection. Correction, Willette still has a Milwaukee connection. Forty-odd years after he was based here, the organist's son, Steve, still calls the North Side home.

Willette, who died in 1971, is shrouded in mystery and while some sources say he was born in 1933 in Little Rock, others say New Orleans.

"I thought he was from Chicago," living Brew City jazz legend Berkeley Fudge tells OnMilwaukee.com.

Roosevelt Willette likely learned the piano from his mother, a missionary who played in church or from his uncle Fred Freeman, who also played. Church  -- his father was reportedly a minister -- was also likely where Baby Face (so called because of his youthful visage) was introduced to the organ. He accompanied gospel groups put together by his sisters Dorothy and Georgia before finding his way into R&B and touring North America with the likes of Johnny Otis, Guitar Slim, Big Jay McNeely, Joe Liggins and others.

“(Touring) was always a hassle,” Willette is quoted as saying in the liner notes to his “Face to Face” disc. “I would just go where there was work.”

Sometime in the 1950s he began centering on Chicago, doing stints in the city -- the last known of which was from 1966 to 1971. There, he turned his attention to jazz.

Fudge remembers the self-taught Willette, who couldn't read music; but just barely, it seems. He takes a while to answer, carefully considering his responses, and appears to really be scanning his memory bank.

"It wasn't a long time (that Willette was in Milwaukee)," recalls Fudge, noting that he shared the stage with the organist at the Wilson Club on 12th and Center Streets. Also treading the boards was tenor saxophonist John "Wild Man" Gilmore famous for his work with Sun Ra.

"At that time the organ was coming back out (in jazz)," he adds.

Few who wrote about Willette at the time fail to mention his stature and his dapper good looks. Those must have been formidable traits in Willette because Fudge conjures those details up too.

"He was a nice guy. He was a little guy; a little, small guy and he dressed real nice all the time."

Willette's four Blue Note appearances (two mentioned above plus his own "Stop and Listen" and Grant Green's "Grant's First Stand") were all recorded in January 1961 (except "Stop and Listen" which was committed to tape in April of that year). His two Argo sets -- "Mo-Roc" and "Behind the 8 Ball" -- were recorded in May and November 1964, respectively.

From there, Willette seems to disappear from recorded jazz. Organ jazz enthusiast and scholar Pete Fallico notes on his doodlinlounge.com Web site that five tracks recorded in '65 remain unreleased.

While even casual jazz fans won't recognize his name, Baby Face charmed the conoscenti. New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff is a Willette devotee.

"'Face to Face' transcends the cliches of organ jazz records," he told an interviewer. "There is a drive and a gut feeling on the record -- and really excellent playing -- that makes you feel that you are not listening to just another organ record."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.