A 66-year-old Chicago man who died March 10 after his car crashed into a tree on Harlem Avenue just south of Shenstone Road was a musician who as a teenager played on the stage of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa.
Thomas J. Blecka, of the 2900 block of North McVicker Avenue in Chicago, was southbound on Harlem Avenue at about 3 p.m. when his white 1993 Buick Roadmaster left the roadway and crashed head-on into a tree on the parkway.
Fire Chief Matthew Buckley said firefighters freed Blecka from the vehicle and that he was conscious and talking to paramedics all the way to Loyola University Medical Center.
Blecka continued to speak with emergency personnel for some time after the crash, and police indicated they expected him to be released back into their custody when they received a phone call from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office later that night, informing them that Blecka had died during surgery.
Police Chief Weitzel said the circumstances of the crash are still being investigated by the Illinois State Police. Weitzel said it appears that Blecka’s vehicle blew two tires when it hit the curb in the 2900 block of Harlem Avenue.
Witnesses told police that the vehicle, which has two flat tires, was weaving while southbound on Harlem Avenue and bounced off the curb several times before leaving the roadway.
The police chief also stated that alcohol played a role in the incident. According to the police report, Blecka admitted to police that he’d been drinking that day. His blood-alcohol content reportedly was more than twice the legal limit of .08.
Blecka was a musician — a bass player — whose musical history stretched back to the late 1960s. While he hadn’t played much recently due to health reasons, according to his fiancée, Sandee Houlihan, Blecka looked forward to playing again and loved talking about jazz and blues.
He recently was despondent over the deaths of other musicians, Houlihan said in an email. On Facebook just two days before his death, Blecka mourned the March 3 passing of R&B singer/songwriter Gavin Christopher.
“The week before his death, he would call me every two hours just to hear my voice and talk,” said Houlihan, who had known Blecka since 1968.
At the age of 19, Blecka was tapped to play bass in a band formed by renowned Chicago blues harmonica player Corky Siegel, and which played a concert at the New York Philharmonic in October of 1969.
Siegel, on hiatus from the Siegel/Schwall Band, formed what would be known as the Corky Siegel Blues Band in August 1969, according to the program notes for the Philharmonic performances for Oct. 9-13.
The band, which included Blecka, rehearsed at the decal factory that Siegel’s dad owned in the West Loop area.
In a phone interview last week, Siegel said he was approached about the concert by conductor Seiji Ozawa, who would go on to be the legendary conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In the mid-1960s, when he was the music director of the Ravinia Festival, Ozawa was an ardent fan of the Siegel/Schwall Band and approached Siegel with the idea of the blues band playing alongside a symphony orchestra.
Bill Russo, the famous jazz arranger and symphonic music composer, wrote “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra, Opus 50” for the New York Philharmonic concert featuring the reconstituted Siegel Blues Band.
“We showed up on stage with jeans and work boots,” Siegel recalled. “Thom [Blecka] was wearing a vest, with no shirt on, and had that long, blond hair.”
The crowd was none too pleased, according to Siegel.
“The audience booed and hissed,” said Siegel, who quoted a music critic as saying that the generation gap that day “was wider than the Grand Canyon.”
But when the music ended, the band received a standing ovation that was, according to the president of the Philharmonic Symphony Association, said Siegel, “the longest and most intense he’d ever seen.”
“It was a moment in history, and we were just young kids,” Siegel said. “We saw how music made anger disappear into thin air.
“He was a very dear and close friend, and we had that incredible experience together,” Siegel added. “It’d be a memory of my life.”
Blecka went on to play with other blues legends, like Albert King, Sam Lay and Jimmie Johnson. In the mid-1970s he was a member of Flock 3, a jazz-rock power trio that once opened for Cheap Trick.
“He was always really sweet and kind,” said Siegel about Blecka, with whom he stayed in touch via social media.
Visitation for Blecka will be on Thursday, March 17 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by a funeral service, at Peterson-Ryberg Mortuary, 435 N. York Road in Elmhurst.