Remembering Gilly’s owner Jerry Gillotti, ‘Dayton’s Godfather of Jazz’

Many of music’s biggest names took the stage at Gilly’s in Dayton during its long history. For owner and operator Jerry Gillotti, the downtown club was a way to share his lifelong passion for jazz with other music lovers.

Gillotti once told the Dayton Daily News that he was proud to have brought “every jazz artist in the world” to Dayton.

Some of the biggest names in jazz performed at the club, including the Bill Evans Trio, Richard (Groove) Holmes, Tony Bennett, BB King, Wynton Marsalis, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Diane Schuur, Donald Byrd, Charles Mingus, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, Chuck Mangione, Herbie Hancock, Buddy Rich, George Benson, Cannonball Adderly and more.

In recognition of the 50 years since Gilly’s opened and about five years since it closed, we look more into the history of the club.

How it started

Gillotti attended Dayton’s Chaminade High School and later graduated from the University of Dayton with a business degree in 1962. After a stint in the military, he sold real estate and auto advertising.

He had been a jazz buff since his Army days in the 1950s, frequenting jazz clubs while stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. He wasn’t a musician, but he knew what he liked.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Gillotti started in the club and music business when he bought the Wedgewood Inn on Patterson Road. But preferring to be downtown, Gillotti sold the Wedgewood and started Gilly’s.

The first Gilly’s

At age 35, Gillotti, described as “an improbable dreamer,” opened Gilly’s in 1972 at 810 N. Main St. in the space that was formerly the Green Derby night club. Jerry co-founded the business with his brother, Tom.

Gilly’s was known to have excellent acoustics. Gillotti used cinder blocks to cover many of the windows, added carpeting to the floor and installed a drapery-like burlap along the walls.

Gillotti called the club, “A miniature concert hall ... a jazz theater.” It was a rectangular room, 140 seats, with everything facing the bandstand.

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

The first show at Gilly’s was The Roy Meriwether Trio on July 7, 1972.

Gillotti sold the Main Street spot in 1976 when the city offered him a bigger space downtown.

Gilly’s second home

For a short time while the new Gilly’s was under construction, Gillotti booked shows at the Dayton Inn.

With 220 seats, the new Gilly’s opened on June 16, 1977 with Maynard Ferguson’s band performing.

When it first opened, Gilly’s did jazz six nights a week, three sets per night.

“Some avid jazz and blues fans will drive 100 or more miles to see a show here,” said Gillotti. “They do that because of the quality of the show and the fairness to the customers.”

The club was remodeled in 1987. In 2004, Gilly’s was among the first venues in the area to go smoke-free.

How it ended

In later years, Gilly’s was only open three days a week. No longer purely a jazz club, Gilly’s started to showcase acts from all genres.

Gillotti, a champion of jazz for nearly 50 years, died on Thanksgiving Day, 2017, He was 80 years old.

After his death, one last “Jam for Jerry” was held on Dec. 27, 2017. It was a free event featuring local jazz artists.

The club closed permanently on Dec. 31, 2017. Many items from the venue were put up for auction.

Credit: Photo: Amelia Robinson

Credit: Photo: Amelia Robinson

Gillotti was added to the Dayton Walk of Fame in 2013.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

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