In 1987, Emilee Holt learned what a good cappuccino was. She learned it at EJ's Coffee & Tea Company, one of two places in town where you could find espresso. She also learned what it really means to have a social conscience and a thing or two about kindness.
These lessons were part of her teenage work experience under owner Jack Neilson, who opened the folksy coffeehouse, the only thing like it for miles around in the ’80s and all the way through the late ’90s. Neilson died Friday, July 21, at age 50.
Though she got from Neilson the kind of education you get working at a bohemian coffeehouse, she remembers him first as a songwriter, who welcomed fellow tradesmen with open arms. "He was a musician first, and he cared for musicians and songwriters and did a lot to support that in town. ... Nobody else was doing that back then."
Before opening what was for years the ace place to glimpse acoustic performances in Albuquerque, Neilson attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he was inspired by the folk scene. When EJ's shut down, he returned to his hometown of New Orleans, where he recorded and released his only album, Here I Go Again, in 2003.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he washed up here in the Duke City again briefly and wrote a letter to the Alibi. "I came here after a long story and was greeted by very generous ‘old’ friends as well as coincidences of seeing my customers from my coffeehouse of days gone by," he wrote. "I leave today, heading back to help friends and family in Louisiana who lost much more than I."
Neilson opened all the shows on Arlo Guthrie's Katrina fundraising tour, sharing the stage with folk legends in what his online bio calls the highlight of his musical career. Holt remembers well his spirited New Orleans attitude, "light-hearted and sensitive, but with a quick-wittedness about him."
Services for Neilson were held Thursday, July 27, in New Orleans. Though there was a call for it, nothing was planned in Albuquerque when this article went to press.
Friend and Producer, Michael Paz, wrote of Neilson's death on Joni Mitchell's website. According to Paz's post, Neilson died in his sleep of a heart attack or stroke after a few years of heart trouble. Paz also quoted lyrics from Neilson's song, "Hello My Old Friend."
I know you gotta get back to
Little ones waiting for you
Give ’em a hug for me
When they all have to go their own way
Hope they find a friend one day
Just like you and me
But it ain't no crying shame
You that were making the best go
We made the best go far