Jazz, Italian Style - A Review in The Italic Way

In crafting Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica, Bill Dal Cerro and David Anthony Witter have rewritten the rule book of American jazz.

Not since Peter Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters has a volume captured the unheralded but unmistakable musical genius of a people.

And any Daddy-o within eyesight of this review will surely recognize the authors as real gone cats. Dal Cerro and Witter have turned out a tome that's 18-Karat. Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica is the bomb.

Unlike some other meditations on jazz, this one is prodigiously researched. Indeed, both writers spent years interviewing the likes of Sam Butera, Buddy DeFranco, Gap Mangione, and Bucky Pizzarelli. Talk about literary jamming. The result is a magisterial work that is informative, infectious, and historically spot-on.

Though Alma Mater Italia is widely known as the epicenter of music—from orchestras and instrumentals to lyrical opera and soaring operas to Neapolitan music and modern pop music--few would ever link the scions of Italy with jazz. Fewer still are aware that New Orleans, the home office of the blues, once boasted a population that was 80% Italian.

Joe Marsala
Joe Marsala (clarinet) employed African Americans
(photo by Chas. Peterson)
Plus, who would ever suspect that Italian jazz artists—yes, Italians—were in the vanguard of civil rights? According to the authors: "In 1936, Chicago-born clarinetist Joe Marsala assembled the first integrated jazz band, even before Benny Goodman. In the 1940s and 50s, Italian- American artists like Flip Phillips (born Filipelli) and Buddy DeFranco actively broke the color line between black and white bands."

Yet even such groundbreaking events pale before the epochal waves of Italian migrations that forever altered the destiny of the United States – and the world. This book provides more than a musical tour of America; it yields a mother lode of historical revelations and fresh perspectives. With great clarity and erudition, Messrs. Dal Cerro and Witter delineate the Four Great Waves of Italian migrations to the New World. The first wave was the Age of Exploration ushered in by Columbus, Cabot, da Verrazzano, Vespucci, Tonti, and Malaspina.

The second wave includes the artisans, sculptors, musicians and businessmen who enriched the early colonies. Filippo Mazzei, a friend of Jefferson and Washington, coined the notion that "all men are created equal" (in Italian). He remains emblematic of this period. (Moreover the Founders based our republic and constitution on the ancient Italian model of Rome that Mazzei invoked.)

The third wave arrived in the mid-19th century, populating the Midwest, California and the Southwest and launching extensive commercial and agricultural innovations. And the fourth wave—the mass migration with which we are all familiar—occurred from 1880 to 1920.

Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra are heavily represented in Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica – and with good reason. Both singers are purists blessed with pipes of gold. Moreover, in their pursuit of excellence, each of these musical stylists exemplified the Italian notion of effortless mastery, aka sprezzatura, and the Italian Renaissance ideal of humanism. Bel canto, jazz, and egalitarianism all played a part in their greatness.

However, another Italian musical giant—Dean Martin—deserved more ink here. Martin jammed with the Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. To their credit, though, Dal Cerro and Witter included a telling quote from Dino Crocetti regarding The Godfather: "I hated that movie, what it did to the Italian people. There was no call for that."

A profound pronouncement from the King of Cool.

Rosario A. Iaconis, Italic Institute of America