URBANA — A cool vibe left downtown Urbana last week.
Paul Wirth, 65, owner of the Iron Post, a bar that was home to jazz musicians for two decades, died Wednesday after a brief illness, said his friend, Charles “Chip” McNeill, professor and chair of jazz performance at the University of Illinois.
“The passing of Paul is the passing of the Iron Post,” Jeff Machota said of the corner bar at 120 S. Race St., a building that could almost be seen jumping from the beat created by the vibrant music inside.
That stood in contrast to the quiet man who ran the business for a little more than 20 years.
“Paul deeply cared about the music and the arts and theater,” said Machota, who for years booked jazz groups to play at Nature’s Table, Zorba’s and Blind Pig and has been a jazz DJ on WEFT Radio for 30 years.
“His legacy … is a commitment to supporting jazz. It was a bona fide jazz club,” said McNeill, a tenor saxophonist who joined the UI music faculty in 2002.
He helped develop degrees in jazz at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, and used Mr. Wirth’s business as a community outlet for the department’s jazz musicians.
McNeill said Mr. Wirth had “eclectic” taste in music when they first met and McNeill pitched the idea of regular jazz sessions at the bar.
“Paul and I hit it off from the beginning. We were able to keep it going,” he said. “It benefited and grew his business and at the same time helped our students and the local jazz community. Having jazz there on a more regular basis than any of the other forms of music ... really made a difference for the jazz and music community.”
McNeill and Machota said Mr. Wirth was not known for being a warm, fuzzy person.
“His social-interaction skills were not always the highest, but he created a space for people to interact, perform and display artwork on the walls. He created a community space,” said Machota, crediting Wirth for hosting fundraisers for WEFT, the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and Champaign County Healthcare Consumers, where Machota works by day.
“He was the quiet and sometimes grumpy guy in the back,” he added. “I remember those moments during jazz gigs when Paul would leave the ‘kitchen,’ where he was apparently cooking each french fry individually, and he would stop and look at the band, listen for a few moments, nod his head with approval because he knew what was happening and that it was good, and then go back to the kitchen. His way of interacting was not going around and shaking everyone’s hand.”
The bar’s kitchen was quite small, and the service was often slow, but the sandwiches and fries were usually hot, if not exactly healthful.
Mr. Wirth had been in downtown Urbana for quite a while before he opened The Iron Post around 2000. He was a co-owner of the popular Embassy bar, just a couple of doors north of The Iron Post on Race Street.
The Embassy had delectable cheeseburgers and was a fun bar that catered to an interesting clientele, including laborers, lawyers and courthouse clerks. Machota recalled that Mr. Wirth booked music for that venue as well.
“Around 1995 roughly is when The Jazz Cafe created what is the footprint for the Iron Post. Paul essentially did not change it,” when he bought the business, Machota said.
An avid gardener, Mr. Wirth used flowers to make the patio on the south side of his club a welcoming spot. Often, in the afternoons, when business was slow, he could be seen sitting at a table outside.
“He was big into flowers. All the flowers on the patio he cultivated,” said Machota of his friend, who was also active in the Urbana Business Association.
But Mr. Wirth also cultivated young talent by giving performers a place to practice their craft, evidenced by an outpouring of love on Facebook.
“Paul gave me my first jazz gig when I got back from Europe,” said local actor Lisa Gaye Dixon. “He was a fan of theater as well and supported all the theater students as well as local music. He was … an amiable grump.”
From Melissa Merli, a retired News-Gazette reporter who covered entertainment and the arts for many years:
“I remember the night a Clark Gibson group was playing and the music was so hot and things were buzzing and an older lawyer, a friend of the Post, fell through the glass door to the patio. I don’t remember whether he was injured or if glass broke, but the ambulance came and they asked him whether there was anyone they should call, and he responded, ‘Don’t call my wife.’
“So many nights of hot music. When it was on, it could have beat most big-city bars for the quality of the music and the atmosphere.”
From saxophonist Carlos Vega: “August 2005 at 2 a.m. on a foggy night after a 21-hour drive, I rolled into a dinky little town I barely knew existed. The next night, I walked three blocks with Ari Brown to the Iron Post and the place was packed with a great jazz crowd. I knew then I had made the right move. Thank you, Paul, for creating a great place to hang and connect with great people and giving me a place to do my thing.”
McNeill said when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Mr. Wirth kept the bar open by having live music outside for as long as the weather permitted. McNeill believes he was one of the final musicians to perform there in November and talked to Mr. Wirth for the last time around the end of January.
He seemed fine, albeit pandemic-weary, and had set up a successful GoFundMe account to pay the bar bills through the winter. He was looking forward to a March reopening.
Later in the spring, McNeill said, he learned from Mr. Wirth’s son and daughter that his friend needed ongoing professional care and was not going to get better.
“I miss Paul and his friendship. We are going to miss the Post,” he said. “It was a unique place. In the last 20 years, Paul was that place.
“Paul loved life and music and being around people and hanging out. He was very eclectic in his taste of music, a very intelligent guy.”