Boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer has seen a lot of Chicago years

Twenty years ago, across the Lincoln Park street where Erwin Helfer has lived since 1968, new neighbors moved in and installed a grand piano in their front window — and rarely played it. “A lot of rich people buy grand pianos and use them as furniture,” says the 85-year-old jazz and blues musician who has taught lessons on his upright living-room piano for decades.

Helfer, who grew up in Glencoe and attended New Trier High School, spent his early days on North Magnolia Avenue, near DePaul University. To find the sources of the boogie-woogie music he loved, he lived in New Orleans for a while, then in Chicago, he met influential pianists like Little Brother Montgomery, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Detroit Junior at South Side clubs and collaborated with them.

I know about the grand piano on Helfer’s block — the city ceremoniously renamed it Erwin Helfer Way in 2006 — because I lived a few doors down from him for three years. My landlord had mentioned this short, unassuming man in a flat cap who rode his bicycle everywhere, and I gathered the courage to knock on his door and ask for piano lessons. Helfer, who recently put out a book, “Blues Piano and How to Play It,” taught me Avery Parrish’s “After Hours,” the standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and the structure of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” although I never mastered the improvisation. I play his licks and riffs in rock cover bands.

In a phone interview from his longtime home, Helfer describes how his neighborhood has gentrified and how the pandemic knocked him off his routine and sent him into depression. His friends took him to the hospital, where he received electroconvulsive therapy. “As depressed as he was last year, he has a good outlook on everything,” says Steven Dolins, founder of The Sirens, an independent record label that puts out Helfer’s albums, most recently “Celebrate the Journey,” with the Chicago Boogie Ensemble. “He’s playing really well.”

Our phone conversation has been edited for clarity.

Q: How’s the neighborhood?

A: The neighborhood is unrecognizable. All these new homes are put up. I’m one of two or three that are really older vintage. Some have been revamped and changed into condos, where they kept the outside and redid the insides. It’s a very expensive neighborhood now. And the taxes are really high. But I can afford to pay them and I’m not moving out of the house.

Q: How did you come to buy this house in the first place?

A: I was living in South Shore, about 55th Street, above the Woolworths. Then I went further south, in the University of Chicago neighborhood, and the rent went really high. So I moved to Old Town and the rents were going up there. I was riding my bike around this neighborhood where I live now, and there was a sign by Sky Realty. I saw this place and ended up buying it — for a song.

Q: How much?

A: $12,250. My payments were $100 a month, and that included everything — insurance, interest.

Q: It would sell for a lot more than that today!

Yes, it would. I’ve been offered $1 million, and the first thing they would do is mow down the house and build something else in place of it.

Q: You can’t move — the street is Erwin Helfer Way.

A: I think they put that up because I used to ride my bike — that’s how I used to get to my job on the North Side — and after a few drinks, I didn’t know where I lived. So they put that street sign up for me so I could find out where I was going. (Laughs.)

Q: Going to the beginning of your career, you were a young white guy from the suburbs, working with mostly older Black musicians in Chicago — did they immediately accept you as a like-minded artist?

A: It was beautiful. And considering all the (expletive) they had to go through, it was amazing they were like this. Brother Montgomery would come down to Andy’s Jazz Club and listen to me. I’d always say, “Brother Montgomery’s in the house, let’s hear a round of applause for him.” And I’d say, “And let’s hear an applause for Jan Montgomery” — she was a white Baptist lady who married him — “for putting up with him all those years.” And we became friendly. Sometimes he’d have too much to drink and she used to just leave him wherever he was and let him find his way home. ... Am I making sense?

Q: Of course.

A: That’s what five shots of whiskey do for me in the morning. I don’t take pills for my arthritis. I take aspirin once in a while when it’s really bad. But the whiskey helps.

Q: You really take five shots of whiskey every morning?

A: Sometimes two.

Q: Do you still ride your bike?

A: No, I really can’t. My balance is off. I don’t have the wind that I used to have. But I do walk inside. And I lift heavy weights. They’re about 26 pounds, and with a crossbar, it’s 36 pounds. So I stay in fairly good condition. But coming back and playing after my depression, and after I was in the hospital, playing and teaching has done more for me than anything could.

Q: Tell me how you came to be depressed. It was at the beginning of the pandemic, right?

A: At least two of the things I love most — playing music and teaching — were strictly unable for me to do. I had no digital skills and couldn’t manage my bank account at all, because I always just rode my bike down to the bank, put in my money, or took out my money, and mailed all my bills. This I couldn’t do. I started being dysfunctional. Some of my friends caught onto it quickly. They did research into what was the best hospital and got me into Rush University Medical Center. When I went there, I was really in bad shape.

Q: You had electroconvulsive therapy — is that as scary as it sounds?

A: It was the best therapy that I could’ve had. I don’t know how it works, but it wasn’t painful.

Q: Are you back to your full schedule of lessons?

A: Oh, no, I used to teach 30 to 40 lessons a week. Now I’m only teaching about seven. I know I’m taking a chance, but I insisted all of my students have been vaccinated and they all wear masks inside the house. Physically, I’m really in great condition, because I’ve had COVID and I’ve been vaccinated.

Q: I didn’t realize you had COVID. When?

A: (Singer and friend) Katherine Davis, when I moved back in the house, was staying here, taking care of me. But she was always outside the house, going to the South Side, where she lives. She got COVID, and I got it from her. During that period, I was sick, but she was a lot sicker. I ended up taking care of her — which was fine, because she offered right away to take care of me. She’s been a good friend for a long time. And we both have a lot of dirt on each other. (Laughs.)

(Davis recalls of the time, “There wasn’t anybody to help take care of him, so they were talking about putting him in a nursing home. And I said, ‘No. I can’t let that happen to him.’”)

Q: It sounds like you’ve recovered, from both COVID and depression.

A: I have. A friend asked me, “What was the best time in your life?” And I said, “Right now.”

Erwin Helfer performs at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Jan. 22, with friends including John Brumbach, Katherine Davis and Skinny Williams at Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $22 (the 7 p.m. show is sold out); 773-728-6000 or