CJM Cartoonist Charley Krebs Passes Away at 59

By Mike Jeffers

On December 10, Chicago Jazz Magazine cartoonist Charley Krebs lost his two-year battle with cancer. During that time he never missed a deadline, was always optimistic and even when he felt terrible during his treatments he would stay creative and always look ahead.

            Over the years, Charley and I not only worked together on Chicago Jazz Magazine, but we also hosted a radio show on 950 AM, worked the Chicago Jazz Magazine booth at numerous festivals, went out to see live music, attended White Sox games, talked music, arts and sports at local Bridgeport haunts until late in the evening and shared a positive and optimistic outlook for things to come.

            I first remember meeting Charley back in 2003 when I was standing in the CJM booth at the Chicago Jazz Festival. It was the first year we sponsored the festival, and being on-site in Grant Park allowed us to introduce the magazine to jazz fans from all over the world. As I was standing in the booth, I remember Charley—along with his friend Deborah—coming up to the booth and introducing himself as a cartoonist. I still remember him telling me:

“This is a really good magazine, but you need a cartoon in it!” A cartoon? For a jazz magazine? That was something I never thought of and I really couldn’t envision how it would even work for a magazine like Chicago Jazz. He was persistent, and we talked for about an hour about jazz, blues, historic Chicago spots, etc.

 

The next week Charley called me and we talked about trying out a cartoon for one issue, and if it worked, we would keep it going. And if it, in his words “sucked,” then we would scrap it.

Well, of course it worked—actually better than I could have imagined.

 

The detail and artistry that Charley put into each cartoon was amazing. His love and knowledge of the local music scene no matter what genre was something that most couldn’t even come close to comprehending. It was because of that knowledge that I asked Charley to co-host a radio show with me in 2010, “This is Chicago Jazz.” The show aired on 950 AM every Tuesday night from 8 to 10 p.m. and was produced by Chicago Sessions founder Nick Eipers.

 

The concept of the show was simple: it was a talk show for jazz in Chicago. We would interview artists, club owners, people who ran organizations, community leaders and anyone else who had a connection to the jazz scene in Chicago. Having Charley as the co-host was the perfect complement to me because as I would joke and ask questions to the guests, he would interject deep knowledge of specific recordings, performances or venues that added depth and context to the conversation. Once again, his energy and optimism for being on the radio was over the top. He would call me the next day and talk about what went well and what could be done better. He would even review the podcast and take notes so that he could continue to improve the next week.

Charley Krebs on the air at Avenue 950am during the "This is Chicago Jazz" radio show.

After a "This is Chicago Jazz" show on Avenue 950am

From left to right: Nick Eipers, Craig Pilo, Tom Muellner, Charley, Roger DeVito, Bill Klewitz and Mike Jeffers

I thought he was doing just fine at first, but as the show progressed, we really got into a good flow. After about a year the show ended because the station was bought out and changed formats. However, if you would like to hear the shows, the podcasts are available at chicagojazz.com.

 

Following the radio show, Charley put most of his creative efforts into setting up art shows to display his work and to “promote his brand,” as he would say. Anytime he could help promote Chicago Jazz Magazine he would do it. Most of his art shows included “Cartoonist for Chicago Jazz Magazine” on the promo and, of course, Chicago Jazz Magazine cartoons were always heavily featured.

 

His last art show was this past summer at the Riverside Arts Center, a place that he had shown his work many times in the past. The show featured pieces from his year with Suburban Life Magazine, Chicago Jazz Magazine, Patch and other publications as well as some pieces he drew specifically for the show. He also worked with a few of his friends to create a soundtrack for the show that ran as you walked through the gallery. It started off with the voice of his mother Geraldine welcoming everyone to the show and inviting them to visit as often as they would like, and then went into some of his favorite music. He was very proud of this show and was planning on taking it to other galleries in 2017 so that people could experience it throughout the city.

The custom door that was featured at Charley's Riverside Arts Center show in the summer of 2016.

Charley and Mike Jeffers August of 2016

His health was declining, but he was still fighting and still optimistic. Just before our deadline for the November/December 2016 issue, Charley called and asked me if I could help him finish the cartoon for that issue. I could tell he wasn’t doing well because of how he sounded, but he was determined to get this cartoon in before the deadline. The premise of the cartoon was “Santa Clause on Auto Tune” so he wanted me to upload some tracks to chicagojazz.com so people could see the cartoon and then hear Santa Clause saying, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” in auto tune. Of course we got it done, and you can see the cartoon on HERE.

A couple of weeks later we talked for the final time. It was the night the Cubs won the World Series. I called him following the game to check in with him and see how things were going. Of course, he had his thoughts on the baseball game and how Joe Madden overused the bullpen. Charley was a White Sox fan, but loved baseball in general so he had a lot of thoughts that night. He quickly changed topics and talked about what we could do in 2017 to keep creating opportunities for people to see his artwork. That is what I loved about him and probably why we got along so well. He always pushed forward; he never dwelled on a problem. He just kept finding ways to solve them and move on.

Charley with his friend Deborah Muscato at his home in August 2016.

Charley, Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers and Mike Jeffers at the last White Sox game of the year in 2013. Note the Bears football helmet on Ronnie's head!

I am glad to be able to call Charley a friend and to have worked with him as much as I did. His death has left a void in the arts community that will never be filled because there will never be another person like him. In the next few months we will be planning different ways to honor him and his artwork so that his work and his spirit lives on and can inspire other artists for generations.

A special memorial concert will be held on January 15 at Outta Space Gallery in Berwyn. Details will be announced on chicagojazz.com.

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