Jeff Kazee will always remember his first New Year’s Eve show as a member of Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes — in 1998, at the now-defunct Tradewinds nightclub in Sea Bright. But not just because of the music.
“It was fantastic,” says the keyboardist, singer and songwriter. “I was new in the band, and I was playing with this New Jersey icon, down on the Shore, literally. And I had a baby coming: She was eventually born a few weeks later in January. But Johnny had told the audience that my wife was in labor already — she wasn’t — and he got the audience to boo me. The usual heart-of-gold stuff by Johnny!
“People, to this day, come up and say, ‘I was at that New Year’s Eve show when your wife was in labor.’ ”
Kazee has played at every one of the Jukes’ New Jersey New Year’s Eve shows since then — mostly at the Count Basie Theatre — and will be at the Red Bank venue, again, this New Year’s Eve, when the band performs at 9 p.m., with Des and the Swagmatics opening. (For information, visit thebasie.org.)
Southside has always had a second-in-command in the Jukes. At first, it was Steven Van Zandt, who helped shape the band’s sound and wrote many of its early songs. Then it was guitarist Billy Rush. Then guitarist Bobby Bandiera.
And now, Kazee has become the first keyboard player to step into that role, serving as the band’s musical director and occasional lead vocalist, and co-writing songs for the band’s recent albums Pills and Ammo (2010) and Soultime! (2015).
Southside “always had good keyboard players,” says Kazee. “Kevin (Kavanaugh), was great, and Rusty did it for 17, 18 years. Then I got it. And Bob (Bandiera) is obviously a great Jersey cat and was a strong bandleader, and a strong presence. He could do a song: When Johnny gets tired, or wants to shake it up, he has to have somebody who, when he looks over there, he knows can a) sing and b) ‘go over.’
“So, I think he recognized that I could probably go over, and had enough of a competitive spirit that I wouldn’t drop the energy level.”
Kazee — who grew up in Lima, Ohio, and now lives in Queens, N.Y. — worked with other artists in the New York area before becoming a Juke.
“I kind of had this thing where I could play New Orleans boogie-woogie piano but I knew soul music really well, and I could sing. So I started getting in with a bunch of piano players that needed subs and stuff, just like you usually do to start working around town. And this guy, Rusty Cloud, who was in the Jukes, had me sit in with his band. He said, ‘Hey man, I’m starting to sub out (of the Jukes). I don’t know how long I want to do this gig. And you’d be perfect for it.’ ”
Kazee was aware of the band, going back to his days in Ohio.
“I was a rock ‘n’ roll junkie,” he says. “They were famous up in Cleveland, but not where I was from, in Lima. But I knew them because I read Rolling Stone and The Village Voice and all that stuff. I knew they were kind of like local heroes, and had done okay. I knew them, not on a deep level, but on a real basic level. I knew a couple of their songs, and a bit of their history, with the Asbury Park/Bruce connection, and I had friends who really liked them. So I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’d love to do it.’ ”
He met Johnny for the first time at the soundcheck when he subbed for Cloud at a Tradewinds show — the same year of that first New Year’s Eve concert, but during the summer.
“I was the first guy there, because I didn’t want to be late,” he says. “I got there, and slowly the soundcheck filled up with the guys, and Johnny came in and looked at me and says, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m me, and I’m subbing.’ He goes, ‘What songs do you know?’ I said, ‘Here’s my list.’ I had about 20 or 25 songs.
“And he says, ‘Play the intro to “Fever.” ‘ I played it. ‘Play the intro to “Love on the Wrong Side of Town.” ‘ I played it. He goes, ‘All right, that’s cool.’ So that was it. That was our soundcheck. We did it with the band.
“And then later on … this is my first gig ever (with the Jukes), and Jon Bon Jovi played the whole gig with us. And then later on, Little Steven showed up. So, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I guess this is what happens. That legendary Jersey thing where they all show up to everybody’s gig.’ ”
Over the next few months, Cloud played with the Jukes less and less frequently, and Kazee got the gig.
“Johnny seemed to like me, and we made a nice fit,” says Kazee. “I was confident, as Johnny would say. But I really respected Johnny — I still do. And it’s become a partnership in a lot of ways, writing and producing and I’m the bandleader now, for him. It’s been great: I really love him.”
Even after more than 18 years in the band, says Kazee, Southside is still surprising him, onstage.
“I never know what’s going to happen with Southside. There’s, literally, a surprise or two a night. He’s like an encyclopedia (of music) and he assumes that you’ve read the same encyclopedia!”
Other current band members include guitarist Glenn Alexander, bassist John Conte, trumpeter Chris Anderson, saxophonist John Isley, trombonist Neal Pawley and drummer Tom Seguso.
“This particular band, this aggregation of guys, is really a strong band, and Johnny feels he can do anything with it,” says Kazee, adding that he and Johnny also realize that there are some core Jukes songs that need to be played at shows to keep people happy. Especially on New Year’s Eve.
“I think we’re finally starting to learn that!” he says. “If we just play what we do, throughout the year, with a little more intensity, that seems to be the best show. I don’t want to educate the public on Dec. 31.
“That’s always been a challenge for Johnny, and me, and the band: ‘How deep should we go?’ But we’ve got to make sure that we stay true to being the Jukes, and that means making people happy with our music.”