Book Excerpts . . .

Louis Prima, From Little Palermo to Las Vegas Rocco Scott LaFaro: The James Dean of Jazz
Johnny Frigo, The Birdman of Chicago Pat Martino, The Mystical Master of the Guitar
Frank Sinatra, Bigger Than All of It, But Still Jazz Al Di Meola, Another Great Jersey Guitarist
Johnny Costa, The White Art Tatum Jazz in Italy, A Historical Perspective

Louis Prima, From Little Palermo to Las Vegas

At the crescendo of Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo”, the standard jazz 2/4 beat erupts into a Gene Krupa-like volcano of crashing symbols and bass. The following onslaught of Dixieland horns incorporates a wide variety of styles: the contrapuntal exchanges of marching bands; the three-part harmony of choral groups; Prima's jazzy scat singing; call-and-response using Italian phrases; echoes of Louis Armstrong's trumpet; and Sam Butera's honking swing saxophone. Taken together, this 45 second burst of music has enough energy to stop the Hoover Dam. It also expresses the style and talent of Louis Prima, a man whose skills synthesize nearly every popular musical form of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Because of his birthplace, race, ethnicity, personality and musical gifts, few if any performers could boast the musical and social repertoire of Louis Prima.

To begin with, Prima came into the world in 1910, three years after the demise of Buddy Bolden and shortly before the rise of Nick La Rocca, King Oliver, and John Robichaux in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz. Prima was born at 1812 St. Peter Street in the section of the French Quarter known as Little Palermo. He was the son of Anthony Prima and Angelina Caravella, both second generation Sicilians who had arrived in New Orleans in the 1870's. Anthony Prima was a large and imposing man who at times weighed over 300 pounds. His job was delivering soda pop and other beverages via a horse-drawn carriage.

Prima’s house was also located not far from the infamous Storyville District. It was here, between the years of 1910 and l917, where prostitution reached a point that was perhaps unprecedented in the history of the United States. Growing up near this environment not only influenced Prima’s personal life, which included five wives and a legendary appetite for the opposite sex, but also his musical upbringing. There is no doubt that as a young boy Prima heard the strains of pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and Fess Manetta mixed with the festa bands of the saints’ days and the popular tunes of the Sicilian and Neapolitan music played in his own home.

But the house matriarch, Prima’s greatest influence, and the inspiration for his, and the nation’s, first Italian-American song hit, was his mother, Angelina. In his struggle to leave a ghetto that was still smarting from the prejudice and vendetta riots of 1891, the young Prima channeled his early vigor as a semi-professional prizefighter. But as he watched artists like La Rocca and Armstrong, and, especially, his older brother, trumpeter Leon, who had his own band in his late teens, Prima soon re-directed his vast dynamism to the area of music. This was seconded when his mother reasoned that she would rather have her son out at night with his older brother than in a boxing ring ruining his “pretty face.”

Johnny Frigo, The Birdman of Chicago

"I grew up in the Roseland neighborhood, in what was then an Italian area on Chicago's far South Side," says Frigo, whose ancestors hail from Venice. "I remember every day there were two things that I did after school because even though everybody was poor, we topped them all.” He then puts down his violin and continues to talk in the surroundings of a posh nightclub on Chicago's Gold Coast. "One was scouring the alleys looking for junk to sell to the junkman, hoping that by Saturday maybe I would collect enough to get maybe a quarter. The other, which I am not particularly proud of, was taking a slingshot and hunting through the garbage heaps, rooftops and alleys for birds like sparrows, larks, and blue jays so that the family could eat."

Even though it did provide food for the family, Frigo later expressed his sadness towards being forced to kill so many young birds. Recalling these events in a poem/song entitled "A Confession and Catharsis For My Misspent Youth". Frigo was often reduced to near tears as he would read lines like " I spot my prey and take good aim/ And stretch my rubber long/ And fling a stone that finds its mark/ And silences a song."

Fortunately, the junkman of Frigo's youth also began to give young John violin lessons. Sometimes he would charge Frigo the 25 cents that he had earned. Other times he would charge nothing. But those hours of playing gave Frigo the escape he needed from the responsibility of helping to support his family, as the singing strings of the violin seemed to release the joy that was pent up inside him.

"I would spend hours and hours studying the violin as a young boy," Frigo says. “Then, after my father died, I began to get jobs either playing violin, or later the bass with bands at the Riverview Ballroom or the Club Citro, on Taylor and Halsted."

Frank Sinatra, Bigger Than All of It, But Still Jazz

While most singers are also trained musicians, Sinatra differed from his pop/crooner peers in that he paid special attention to his band. Throughout his career, he not only worked with jazz arrangers and composers, but populated his band with strong soloists. Although short and controlled, the trombone solos on the Sinatra/Riddle classic, “I’ve Got You, Under My Skin,” explode with a sense of sheer power that combines the swing of Dixieland and big band with the intensity of be-bop.

Bill Miller, who played piano behind Sinatra from 1951 until the singer’s death, stated, “ He had a good time himself, and when we got the rhythm section he wanted, it was instilled in his mind that he had to have the whole band swing together. That’s why, after Nelson Riddle, he wanted arrangers who could swing, like Billy May, Neal Hefti, and Don Costa.

Although he could not fluently read or compose music, Sinatra is said to have developed one of the greatest ears for music of any singer. Legends abound of Sinatra leaving a rehearsal complaining that, in an orchestra of seventy, the “third violin in the second row was flat.” Upon reviewing tapes, arrangers like Costa would often learn that he was right.

Johnny Costa, The White Art Tatum

Known as the “white Art Tatum,” Costa’s ear-popping ease on the piano was actually heard on a regular basis by the general public: For over 30 years, Costa was the musical director for Fred Rogers on his immensely popular PBS children’s show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Originally encouraged in his musical abilities by his father, a coal-miner who didn’t want Johnny to work in such a dangerous job, Costa earned a BA Degree in Music Composition and Education at the Carnegie Institute of Technology after serving in World War II. Although hired as full-time music director for Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV in the early 50s, a job he would keep for 16 years, Costa occasionally played gigs with other musicians, including fellow Pittsburgh pianist Eddie Costa (no relation). Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cannonball Adderly all knew of Costa’s prodigious talent but the troubadour life of a jazzman wasn’t for him.

A gentle, low-key human being, Costa remained committed to his friends, family and his new full-time job with Fred Rogers. Initially Costa was perplexed when Rogers asked him to be his musical director in 1965: “At first, I thought, ‘A children’s show’? But I started to realize the worth of this man and his program.” It was a perfect match: Costa approached music with a child’s sense of wonder. According to Len Meledandri, Costa’s assistant and the voice of “Prince Tuesday” on the Fred Rogers show, Costa would often look surprised after an improvisational riff, remarking, “Where did that come from? Wasn’t that wonderful?” Costa also made sure that jazz musicians such as Mary Lou Williams and Wynton Marsalis made appearances on the show, adding that “children understand good music.”

Rocco Scott LaFaro: The James Dean of Jazz

“I don’t like to look back, because the whole point of jazz is doing it now.”
Rocco Scott LaFaro

Jazz fans who do look back at Rocco Scott LaFaro’s career wax nostalgic over “what might have been.” Born in Irvington, a suburb of Newark, New Jersey, in 1936, but raised in Geneva, New York, LaFaro’s untimely death at age 25 deprived the world of a bass player already destined for greatness.

Comparisons to film legend James Dean were made even at the time of LaFaro’s passing. Like Dean, Scott was young, energetic, and photogenic; his prodigious inventiveness via his craft earned him respect among much older peers.

“If you say my brother’s name—Scott LaFaro---people stop what they’re doing,” says LaFaro’s sister, Helene LaFaro-Fernandez. “A quick example: My son was working with Yamaha Music in Japan a few years ago, and when he told his clients that Scott LaFaro was his uncle, the men immediately started bowing. Everyone from classical musicians to rock-and-rollers know him. Today, if you say ‘Scotty’ to jazz musicians, they know immediately who you’re talking about.”

LaFaro’s legend has grown so much over the past 50 years that, in 2001, the International Society of Bassists named their first prize jazz award The Scott LaFaro Prize. It is awarded every other year at their convention competitions.

“Scotty has become an icon,” his sister explains. “He took bass playing to a whole new level. People thought that after he died, someone else would come along ten or twenty years later and add a new concept in the approach to the instrument, which hasn’t really happened. And as a player, he was considered a virtuoso.”

Pat Martino, The Mystical Master of the Guitar

Like Louie Bellson, Flip Phillips, Buddy De Franco, Jackie Paris and so many others before him Pat Martino (then only sixteen) was an Italian-American who broke racial lines by accepting a position with a largely “black” band.

“I was the young white kid in the band,” Martino says. “They found me interesting and the watched over me. They were my elders.”

But at times the young Martino was called upon to “lead” the band, especially in white areas of the segregated South.

“In the areas of the South I would have to get out of the bus and get the food. They would give me a list and I would come back with thirty six sandwiches. If there was a flat tire, they would park the bus a block away and I would roll the tire up the street and take it to the gas station.”

After his stint with Lloyd Price, Martino moved to 3rd and Lexington. Here he began playing at a club called the Small Paradise on 135th Street.

“The place was owned by Wilt Chamberlain,” Martino said. “I gave him a few guitar lessons at his request but his hands were so huge--- ”

At that time Harlem was full of jazz and entertainment greats, and Martino got to see entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra on a regular basis. At the age of twenty one he was also a bandleader.

“For me it was an easy and somewhat selfish decision to start a band,” Martino says. “When you are playing with somebody else, the band and material will usually emphasize their interests and strengths. When I had a band of my own I could emphasize my strengths.”

Although he appeared as a sideman on almost a dozen records by the likes of Willis Jackson and Jack Mc Duff, Martino’s big break came with the 1967 release of "El Hombre." At that time groups like Weather Report and artists like Al Di Meola were combining the sounds of be-bop jazz with avant garde sounds and sending them to new audiences via the amplification and sound altering devices that were becoming the vogue in rock.

Al Di Meola, Another Great Jersey Guitarist

The state of New Jersey has its share of history (Thomas Edison perfected motion pictures there) as well as beauty (it boasts the largest grove of cherry blossoms in the nation). But it’s also a nurturer of top-notch musical guitarists of Italian heritage, among them rockers Bruce Springsteen and Richie Sambora and jazzmen like Tommy Mottola, Al Caiola, Joe Pass and Bucky Pizzarelli. And, certainly, an entertainer named Francis Albert Sinatra knew how to play his voice like an instrument.

Al Di Meola, born in Bergenfield, New Jersey to Neapolitan parents Charles (Carlo) and Teresa, both with roots in the Campania region, continues that tradition. Often rated by Guitar Magazine as one of the best guitarists on the planet, Di Meola is recognized as the master of fusion, a man who has blended the sounds of Latin music (salsa and tango, to name just a few) into his own unique instrumental style.

“I am a true fusion player,” Di Meola says. “I definitely play a combination of a lot of different musical styles. I like to hear different instruments coming together, making them cook.”

Any musican can’t march out confidently on his own, of course, unless he or she can play the basics. No one disputes Di Meola’s finger-snapping mastery, particularly on his specialty, the electric guitar.

Says guitar historian Robert Lynch: “In the history of the electric guitar, no one figure has done more to advance the instrument in a purely technical manner than Mr. Di Meola. His total command of the various styles and scales is simply mind-boggling.”

DiMeola’s penchant for the electric guitar came early, at about 8 years old.

“My sister Clare, who is seven years older than me, had a party at the house once and a fellow came over, I guess they hired him, and he played some songs on an electric guitar. I just really took to the sound.”

Growing up in a musical family, where he heard everything “from opera to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra songs,” Di Meola was already taking jazz guitar lessons from teacher Bob Aslainian.

“I definitely became obsessed (with playing),” he says. “There wasn’t anything else in life. I got some of the best lessons any kid could get, especially for a jazz background. My parents supported me because I was so strong-willed. I felt very proud.”

When he got to Bergenfield High School, Di Meola’s guitar prowess was supplemented by an ever-expanding knowledge of music in general.

“I did anything that had to do with music,” he notes. “I played bass, I played electric guitar in the band, I even joined the choir. I spent a majority of my time there learning anything and everything I could about music.”

Jazz in Italy, A Historical Perspective

“No other European country has produced such a significant number of American jazz musicians as Italy.” Writer-musician Joachim Ernst-Berendt.

It is one of the more head-scratching ironies in the jazz world: Considering that Italy’s jazz scene didn’t really coalesce until after the post World War II period, how did it produce, decades earlier, so many turn-of-the-century Italians immigrants who eventually mastered the music in America?

To many scholars, this irony is easily explained. Says Francesco Martinelli, one of Italy’s top jazz educators: “Given Italy’s great musical history, this is not a fluke. Both Italians, and Italian Americans, come from a culture where music was deeply revered: classical, folk and opera.”

Martinelli’s comment is borne out time and again when you look at the childhood histories of first and second-generation Italian American jazz musicians. Many of them grew up in households where music was an integral part of their nurturing environment, whether it was singing folk songs, listening to opera records or playing in symphonic or festa bands.

The early New Orleans players, for example, had parents who played in the French Opera House as well as in local street bands. During the Great Depression, Italian families routinely visited each others’ homes after Church services on Sunday, bringing their instruments along with their pasta. As they became more Americanized, these sons and daughters of first and second generation immigrants blended elements of both musical cultures: For example, sax player Joe Lovano, growing up in Ohio, shuffled between Enrico Caruso records and those of Charlie Parker.