By Jason Keil   Published Aug 22, 2003 at 5:23 AM

{image1}Meeting local jazz pianist Claude Dorsey, it's hard not to feel a little intimidated. The 89-year-old legend has lived a full and quiet life in the presence of extraordinary people, playing with musicians like Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Liberace and Count Basie. Dorsey even accompanied the great Billie Holiday during a private party.

Many of Dorsey's legions of fans experienced one of his gigs when he started playing at the legendary Clock Bar in downtown Milwaukee, a job he started in the early 1940s. He played six nights a week for nearly 40 years. His work on piano drew such famous admirers as Lou Rawls, Tony Bennett and Bob Hope. Dorsey has also played at Café LeBoheme, The Wheelhouse, The Estate and Caroline's Jazz Club, where he continues to play monthly gigs.

Dorsey, the son of a Baptist minister, moved to Milwaukee from Georgia in 1928 at the age of 14. Attending Lincoln High School, he became infatuated and enraptured with the world of jazz. He began his early musical years playing in church, and formed several bands of his own, as well as playing with Burt Bailey's Brown Buddies.

It wasn't until the 1940s when Dorsey began to find more steady work playing at the Clock. While he received offers to play at other clubs, Dorsey claims there was only one reason why he stayed at the Clock Bar for so long: "Money! I knew it was steady work."

It was at the Clock Bar and other "after-hours" clubs where Dorsey played in the presence of some of the finest and the most legendary jazz musicians.

"You could find these 'after-hours' clubs in all the cities I guess," Dorsey recalls, "Musicians would find them anyhow.

"There were a lot of great musicians back in those days and a lot of them today too. There is a lot of reading (music) musicians nowadays. It's a big deal. When I was playing, we didn't have music. Improvising we would call it. We would kick it back in those days and do it our way."

Dorsey always seemed to always find inspiration for his music everywhere. "Sometimes certain people inspire me," he explains, "I can take the simplest thing and make you like it."

Dorsey found his muse in his wife Mary while playing at the Clock Bar. She recalls the story of how they met: "I went out on a first date and we went to see Claude at the Clock Bar. I broke up with that date and then went on another first date with another gentlemen and it was to see Claude. It took me about three years to go out with him and we've been married for about 20 years."

Dorsey considers marrying Mary the greatest accomplishment of his life. He says fondly, "She is my greatest inspiration to me." Dorsey usually includes in his monthly show his own special tribute to Mary.

The last few years have given Dorsey cause to brag a little bit. In 2001, he humbly and gratefully accepted the Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) Hall of Fame Award. In July, Dorsey released his first-ever studio recording titled "Claude Dorsey: What a Wonderful World" ( editor Bobby Tanzilo designed the cover). The album, which was recorded and mixed at Walls Have Ears Recording Studio, contains 11 jazz standards, including the title track, "Take the 'A' Train," and a Dorsey fan favorite written in 1946 titled "Summer is Over."

The idea for the album was conceived by Dorsey's longtime friend Barbara Wagner, who also produced the album, bringing bassist Gary Christensen and soprano saxophonist Scott Van Domelen along to accompany Dorsey.

"I never thought about making an album," he says, explaining why it took so long to record. But the disc isn't a career closer for Dorsey, who says he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.

"I was in poor health, but I'm feeling better," he says. "I've met so many people who have encouraged me to stay in the business. A lot of young guys listen to me.

"People I've met 40 years ago come up to me and say 'Claude, I still remember what you told me. I'm still around and I'm happy. Thanks for inspiring me to do the best I can.'"

"I'm a very truthful man. I tell it like it is. I tell them to do the best you can and to stay on that straight and narrow line."

Claude Dorsey truly is one of a kind.

Claude Dorsey will perform at Caroline's Jazz Club on Fri., Aug. 22 from 5:30 to 8 pm. Cover is free.