Classics: January 2023

Jay Mitzner’s ’53 Gibson Les Paul.
Classics: January 2023
Jay Mitzner’s ’53 Les Paul.

Overhearing his 13-year-old son noodling on a beginner guitar in his bedroom one day in 1958, it occurred to Murray Mitzner that the boy was not only passionate about the instrument, he was good on it.

Looking to foster his skills, Murray put young Jay in lessons with local Brooklyn jazz guitarist Rector Bailey, who also recognized the seriousness – and told Murray to get the kid a better guitar!

The two were soon bound for their neighborhood Sam Ash, where they found a used Les Paul with a price tag reading “$110.”

Growing aptitude and “new” guitar in hand, it wasn’t long before Jay and close friend Arnie Ernst formed a band and started playing bar mitzvahs, weddings, golden-age clubs, parties, bars, and clubs throughout New York City. During the summer they’d play in the Catskill Mountains, backing famous jazz musicians (and comedians), Jay always on his trusty ’53 goldtop.

That same guitar helped Jay pay his way through undergrad studies at Pace College, followed by Cleveland-Marshall Law School (now Cleveland State University). In 1971, he moved to Lansing, Michigan, and started practicing law.

While establishing a career, work restricted his gigging – relatively speaking. He still played once per month with the 13-piece Jackson Jazz Ensemble, occasionally joined the orchestra pit for theater productions, and did low-key solo gigs for meetings and other events. And no matter the setting, he was always improving his chops.

One day in 1998, a young local phoned to say he was forming a New Orleans-style jazz band and that someone suggested he ask Jay to play banjo. Wanting to help – and unphased by the fact he had never actually played the instrument – Jay told him, “Sure!” then rushed out and bought a tenor banjo, tuned it like a guitar, and enjoyed the next four years playing in the Creole Kitchen Band.

Still, guitar remained his true love – he continually read about it, learned new styles of music, tended to a modest collection, and just before the pandemic, was taking lessons in classical-style playing.

Jay Mitzner’s modest guitar collection included this mid-’70s ES-335, Gibson Tal Farlow, Heritage Kenny Burrell, and a 1927 Vegaphone Artist tenor banjo.

In 2006, he closed his law practice to start Jay Mitzner Music, an agency where he wrangled a couple dozen musicians (including himself) in an array of groups that played every gig imaginable across Michigan – festivals, weddings, parks, parades, restaurants, clubs, and even a funeral or two. For five years, Mitzner bands played four to five nights per week on riverboats running the Detroit and Grand rivers; the four-deck Detroit Princess often had Jay’s bands on every one.

On a visit to his doctor’s office in mid March of ’22, they discovered his blood pressure was slightly elevated. Jay being 77, the doc didn’t give it much thought and put him on low-dose medicine. A few days later, Jay told his wife, Carole, that he’d experienced a “fuzzy” feeling in his head for about 10 minutes. He attributed it to the new meds, and after a four-mile walk later that day, he felt great.

Over the next couple weeks, though, the fuzziness recurred a handful of times. At the beginning of April, his eyes started playing tricks.

“When he looked down, his legs appeared fat, and his fingers looked elongated and funny,” Carole recalled. “An eye doctor found a macular pucker in his left eye, and we assumed it was the cause.”

From that fateful trip to Sam Ash Music, young Jay Mitzner’s music notebook, bought on the same day as the goldtop.

They made an appointment with an ophthalmologist for April 27, but on the drive, the fuzziness returned and they instead went straight to an emergency room.

“They determined he didn’t have a stroke, and ruled out anything to do with his heart or blood pressure,” Carole said. “They admitted him to the hospital, then saw a neuro-ophthalmologist because he wasn’t seeing well out of the right sides of either eye.”

They put Jay on anti-seizure meds and hooked him to an EEG for 24 hours, watching for signs of past or ongoing seizure activity. It revealed none. They also considered autoimmune encephalitis with an underlying cancer, but an CT scan of his entire body found nothing.

On April 30, the specialist suggested that a rare neuro-cognitive disorder known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease could be the cause, but told the Mitzners it’s an extremely rare condition and explained how it infected prions in the brain and impacted its function. At the time, Jay felt normal except for the vision issues.

“Hardly anyone outside of the medical community – and even many within it – has ever even heard of CJD,” Carole said. “It’s literally a one-in-a-million diagnosis.”

On May 1, Jay could no longer remember what year he was born. Two days later, he couldn’t recall the names of some of his grandchildren, though he did still respond correctly when asked the name of the President or who had started the war in Ukraine.

The Bayou River Band on the Michigan Princess riverboat in 2018. From left are Brandon Cooper (trumpet), Gary Allen (guitar), Jay Mitzner (banjo), and Debbie Fogell (guitar).

“The infected prions in his brain were picking at specific parts, creating holes,” said Carole. “Each day, he lost a little more cognition, followed by the ability to walk, eat, or do anything for himself.”

On May 14, tests of Jay’s spinal fluid came back 98 percent positive for CJD. He passed away May 22, seven weeks after first experiencing symptoms. A dedicated, diehard professional musician for more than 60 years, he never stopped wanting to learn.

“Jay was a kind, talented, brilliant, gentle soul who always had a story to tell and a pick in his pocket,” Carole said. “He was ready for whenever he’d ‘run into’ a guitar to grab and play. Music remained a constant for him, even in his last weeks; when I’d play albums by artists he loved – Tony Bennett, Barney Kessel, Billy Joel – Jay would bop his head to the beat and drift away with the melody. He was in his happy place.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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