By Harvey Cohen
She was born in 1924. Before there was frozen food. Before actors talked in movies. Before penicillin.
But a few times every week she gets up and sings before live audiences in clubs. Clubs right in her neighborhood on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, Midtown and even trendy downtown.
Jo Marchese not only doesn’t look her age, but she definitely doesn’t act it. When asked how it feels to be 94, Marchese’s answer is, “I wouldn’t know, I feel like 36.”
Her life has had its ups and for sure its downs.
She was born in Astoria, and her father died when she was just two-and-a-half years old. And as an Italian growing up way back then, she often had problems with the Irish immigrants who lived nearby. But she did learn to knit and crochet from the older Jewish women in the neighborhood.
Yet there were good times too, back in Astoria. Marchese loved listening to the radio, met Tony Bennett and dreamed about flying just like her idol Amelia Earhart.
During World War II, Marchese wanted to help the war effort. She moved to San Francisco and took a civilian job with the Marines, shipping guns and other war materials.
After the war she moved back to New York and worked as a customer service manager for American Airlines. She traveled around the world but her favorite location was Mexico, where she dated the pilot for the president of Mexico and then married a Mexican musician.
The Mexican musician was good-looking, maybe too good-looking, as she tells it. Because he was not very faithful.
But Marchese was pretty philosophical about the whole thing, telling him that if he wanted other women he should “just go for it.” She left with their two kids and never looked back.
Twelve years later she got married again, this time to a rich man who owned a supermarket and quite a bit of real estate. They lived in a big mansion in Manhasset that had formerly been owned by tennis player Bobby Riggs. It was a rocky marriage that lasted eight years. And Marchese was divorced again.
But the two divorces were not the greatest tragedies in Jo’s life. At the age of 36, her son took his own life, leaving a wife and two kids.
Marchese was devastated. And literally fed her depression, gaining 60 pounds. She was depressed and lost — not knowing who to turn to or what to do. She needed a change desperately.
So she moved to Arizona where she began painting and lost all the weight she had gained. In time, she was ready to come back to New York.
Marchese found an apartment on 73rd Street and Columbus Avenue — the apartment she still lives in today.
That’s when she says “my life took another detour, and detours can take you to great places.”
One day a friend asked Jo to go dancing. She really didn’t want to go but said yes anyway.
The moment she walked into the dance hall she fell in love, not with a man but with the music. It was a sixteen-piece orchestra and it spoke to her like nothing before.
At the urging of a man she met at that dance, she started taking singing lessons. She was doubtful of her decision but said, “what the hell, I’m 83, why not just do it.”
She began singing at open mics. At first nervous and insecure, later more confident, she won praise from band leaders and audiences.
Two times she was approached by audience members and offered professional singing jobs, one in Florida and the other in Paris.
Marchese turned them both down, preferring to stay on the Upper West Side and just appearing as an amateur in her favorite clubs and restaurants in New York City.
She has now recorded two CDs and usually sings two to three times a week. She performs solo as well as with a trio consisting of a piano and a bass player.
Her favorite singer is Frank Sinatra. She says she loves everything he has recorded. She notes the excellence of his phrasing and points out that her phrasing is pretty good too.
She’s also still quite a fan of Tony Bennett and loves his song about San Francisco as it takes her back to the time she worked there for the U.S. Marines.
One thing that gets her fired up is that so many people forget how valuable older folks can be.
She says “give older people a chance, they’re not all in rocking chairs.” (Though she will tell you that a lot of the men she knows really just want to go to bed at 7 o’clock.)
Marchese, on the other hand, usually goes to bed past midnight, even on nights she is not singing. She loves going to restaurants, museums and performances. And, of course, she still loves to dance. In fact, at 94, she still loves to do just about everything.