Chicagoan Alfonso Ponticelli, 50, is an accomplished master of a wide variety of music played on the acoustic guitar–Flamenco, Gypsy swing, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, Mexican love songs, folk music from Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, etc. This past weekend I played in his band, called “Swing Gitan,” at the Suncoast Classic Jazz festival at Clearwater Beach, FL.
Alfonso claims Italian and Lebanese extraction. He became interested in various European musical forms while attending an annual Gypsy jazz music festival held during the last week of June at Samois-sur-Seine, France. At this large, unique outdoor gathering devoted to the music and hosted by Gypsies, he jammed with “Manouche” players and enthusiasts from widely diverse regions of the world, from Chicago to Australia.
The Suncoast, in its 25th year, is one of the last surviving large multi-day festivals originally focused on pre-WWII “hot” jazz. For the last 30 years, the biggest yearly events were in Sacramento, Los Angeles (now defunct), Monterey CA, Elkhart IN, Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix), New Orleans, and a dwindling number of other smaller events, many in California. “Dixieland” was used in the festival titles at first, but due to the relentless aging and attrition of the attendees, during the last 20 years or so many had to drop this descriptor in order to broaden their appeal to a younger, more diverse mix of “nostalgia” and current musical tastes: 30s Swing Dancing, Cajun/Zydeco, New Orleans brass band “Bounce,” Big Band, Rockabilly, etc.
A kind of identity crisis ensued for these festivals. Some tried more modern forms of jazz or wound up featuring the (thankfully) now-declining “Smooth Jazz” format. Some promoters saw the contradiction and dropped “jazz” from the event title entirely, but one can still attend a “jazz festival” and have to search very diligently for any music even distantly related to any recognizable style of jazz. A very hopeful trend for fans of old jazz is the advent of the New York (City) Hot Jazz Festival, founded in 2013, which attracts a healthy cohort of 20-30-somethings and features, among many other styles, “Jazz Manouche,” otherwise known as “Gypsy Jazz” inspired by the 1930s-40s French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
The Suncoast has managed to keep a large cohort of bands playing in a variety of traditional New Orleans or Chicago styles from the ’20s and ’30s as well as the ’40s-’70s San Francisco revivalists Lu Watters and Turk Murphy. The audiences I played for were overwhelmingly white and over 70, not a surprising demographic for the Central Gulf Coast of Florida in November.
This year was the first appearance for Alfonso and his Chicago-based quintet consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, violin, drums and Cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer commonly found in the Eastern European region formerly known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and used in the traditional music of Gypsies, Slavs, Jews, Hungarians, Turks, etc. I’m pretty sure this was the first-ever appearance of a Cimbalom at the Suncoast.
As with the Chicago-Miami jazz legend Ira Sullivan, Alfonso’s performances evolve organically from one groove or song to another without any pre-determined program or tune list. He improvises not only the musical elements of the tunes but also the narrative of the medleys and the flow of the set itself. A D-minor vamp with an Eastern European rhythm feel would morph into a series of Gypsy folk songs, which would become “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin, which would be followed by “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt. After a masterful classic Flamenco guitar solo Alfonso launched the band into the familiar Brahms “Hungarian Dance No. 5.” He opened another medley with the standard “Lover Come Back to Me” in an Appalachian finger-picking style reminiscent of Chet Atkins, followed by the bop classic “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins.
The authenticity of all of the players’ stylistic diversity was very convincing. The Cimbalom player, Alex Udvari, a Chicagoan of Hungarian extraction who plays with the Chicago Symphony, is capable of blowing swinging choruses on American Songbook standards. The other band members, violinist Steve Gibons and drummer Bob Rummage, are similarly widely-diversified and masterful.
The band’s performances are remarkable amalgams of music from the Americas and Europe. The audiences were intrigued, as was I. There were standing ovations for all of the 6 sets we performed. A personal epiphany: since this was my first significant exposure to Gypsy music, I noticed how similar it is to the Klezmer/Yiddish forms and tonality I had grown up with, not surprising given the geographic proximity of the two cultures in Eastern Europe.
The arts often lead the general culture. One trend of the world’s music from the 20th century up to recent years has been toward ever greater inclusiveness in an ever shrinking globe. Jazz is often cited as an analog of America itself: polyglot, inclusive, amalgamated, an alloy of many ingredients forged into an instrument that teaches the the world a way toward a greater good.
Many of us who play for a living are well aware of the healing power of music for individuals. Formal music therapy is routinely used to treat stroke, dementia, etc. We know that a good groove can “tune up” an audience to a remarkable degree.
It occurred to me while performing with Alfonso that his healing gift goes one step beyond. He melds together all the music he’s absorbed. Each performance is a musical journey that leaps effortlessly over borders and continents. One could think of Alfonso and his band as planet-healers in the Age of Xenophobia, on the march in Europe for decades and at the present moment posing a clear and present threat to our most deeply foundational American idea–E pluribus unum, the melting pot.
The town where I live–Cape Coral, FL on the southwest coast near Ft. Myers–is not known as a hotbed of Real Jazz. At least not since I moved back here in 2010. I’ve got nothing against other kinds of music one can easily find here, especially downtown where the live music venues are–classic rock/top-40 covers, folksy singer-songwriters, country rock, amped-up urban blues, heavy metal, etc. Nor do I find fault with my neighbors who seek out these flavors. A person likes what he likes; you pays yer money and you gets yer choice. Or something.
In a nutshell, to me “Real Jazz” is the canon of the older, mostly acoustic jazz that swings. You can either dance to it with your feet or in your head. Oliver, Armstrong, Jelly, Bechet, Bix, Waller, Venuti & Lang, Teagarden, Basie, Django, Ellington, Goodman, Bob Cats, Nat Cole, Bird, Diz, Thelonius, Blakey, Trane, Newk, Miles, Thad and Mel, Cannonball, Zoot and Al, Getz, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, Wes, and many others. Since I make my living playing the double bass, the Gods of Jazz Bass Fiddle orbit the heavens: Pops Foster, Milt Hinton, Walter Page, Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Israel Crosby, Mingus, Ray Brown, NHOP, George Morrow, George Duvivier, Richard Davis, Buster Williams, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro, Chip Jackson, Steve Gilmore, John Clayton, Ben Wolfe, Paul Keller, Christian McBride, and so on–in short, anyone who gets a sound and lays down The Pocket. I’ve also always been into all things Latino: mambo, bolero, calypso, bossa nova, samba, Afro-Cuban polyrhythm, etc. Any questions? They’re all on YouTube.
I’ve always loved singers for whom swinging is always Job One. I seek out their versions of the Great American Songbook, Blues, Bebop, jazz standards, etc. Bessie, Billie, Sarah, Carmen, Ella, Anita, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Joe Williams, Frank, Sammy, Mel, Tony, Nat, etc. And, for me, performing the GAS is always a worthy artistic endeavor in itself–I am content to work in bands whose playlist on a given night leans heavily on Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Warren, and the vast number of “unsung” songwriters who had just a few hits. Newer members of this Pantheon–again as interpreted through the jazz lens–are Mancini, Johnny Mandel, Jobim, Bacharach, Legrand, etc. It’s a very rewarding pursuit to discover well-written songs that are new to me, or to become more adept at improvising on those I should know better.
Taken all together, the above is a wide spectrum within the world of jazz. To varying degrees, almost all my colleagues concentrate on smaller subsets of these elements. Since I was a small child, it’s all felt good to me–so occasionally I get into trouble with some who feel strongly for or against a given approach or groove.
If you want to call me “old school,” I take it as a compliment–and an indication of your refined taste. I’ve heard Real Jazz referred to as “music for consenting adults,” but I’m seeing plenty of twenty-somethings (“Millennials”), especially in and around college towns, who “get it.” Further, “Real Jazz” is now being used to designate a specific radio genre (on Sirius/XM, for example). A recently deceased late-night radio host–whose reruns are still nationally syndicated on public radio networks–called his show “Real Jazz With Bob Parlocha.”
This is welcome news to those of us who choose to spend our time on this earth learning and playing this music. Which brings me back to Cape Coral, mostly up till now apparently a jazz-free zone, with one exception: I played one season with the brilliant pianist Joe Delaney at a restaurant called Brew Babies on Lafayette St. (which no longer features jazz). Since then the great majority of my jazz music-making has been in Ft. Myers at the Roadhouse Cafe, or in Sarasota County at Allegro Bistro in Venice and the Starlite Room and the Blue Rooster in Sarasota. Once in a while I get a call to go as far as Orlando, Tampa, Clearwater, Gainesville, or the east coast towns north of Ft. Lauderdale. For a couple of glorious seasons I was privileged to play in a Real Jazz band at Chef Charles Mereday’s Alto Live Jazz Kitchen in Naples (now closed) co-led by trumpeter Dan Miller and saxophonist Lew Del Gatto.
So since 2011 or so my travels in search of The Groove have taken me to everywhere in Florida but the town in which I live. I don’t mind driving a long distance–say an hour or two depending on the gig–as long as there’s something groovy at my destination. Several of my Florida colleagues feel the same way. So far I’ve put on about 33K miles a year on two Priuses.
September is the month in which presenters and musicians line up their seasonal gigs, and this year in Lee County there are more restaurateurs willing to take a chance on Real Jazz. A new Real Jazz Thursday started up recently at a club in downtown Ft. Myers called the Barrel Room, featuring a quartet with Dan Miller, Lew Del Gatto, veteran Philly drummer Tony Vigilante and young bassist Brandon Robinson. There is a growing movement in the Cape Coral City Council to extend bar hours in the South Cape to 4 AM, aiming at attracting a younger late-night clientele. If finally passed, the measure would help establish more late-night venues for music in the South Cape area. A new venture, the Big Blue Brewing on SE 10th Pl. is set to open soon with craft beers, a creative menu and live jazz.
Chefs Allan and Nancy Cotter operated the renowned and award-winning Blue Moon Restaurant and Jazz Club on St Croix, USVI for 16 years. After relocating to Cape Coral in 2010 they opened Slate’s, located at 4820 Candia St. At Slate’s Allan presented Traditional Jazz with Pat O’Brien for his Sunday Brunch for about 3 seasons, and this year he acquired the space next door, opened a doorway, and created an intimate, cozy room with a tiny bandstand, bar, comfortable couches and art on the walls. He named the new space the “Side Door Jazz Club.” He intends for it to be a “home for jazz in Cape Coral” where people come to listen to the music. Accordingly, the hours are later than usual–7:30-10:30, Wednesday through Sunday.
At the Side Door I will be playing in a quartet on Saturday nights called “Swing to Bop.” The personnel are myself, guitarist/vocalist Bob Leary of Naples, trombonist Herb Bruce of North Port and clarinetist/saxophonist Jim Snyder of Winter Garden. Everyone in this group at one time or another paid dues working as staff musicians at Walt Disney World in Orlando, which is how we all met. In recent years we played a few jobs and concerts together as a band–which were too much fun! Each of us brought a lifetime of experience, chops and sick humor to a wide spectrum of jazz genres. It dawned on us that we should try to get ourselves a regular gig somewhere. Our debut at the Side Door Jazz Club was Saturday, September 10.
Now here’s the thing about this band: each member is an in-demand top player with prior commitments, so we have a unique opportunity to showcase other top players from the region and state to come to downtown Cape Coral to play a night of Real Jazz with us–however they like it. The idea is that you in the audience will catch some of the fun we’ll be having up on the bandstand.
For example, guitarist Bob Leary was out of town on the opening night, so we got the great guitarist Pete Bordonali to sub for him. Pete is another Disney alumnus we all worked with. He’s had an amazing career as a jazz guitarist backing up Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Short, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Ray Charles, Steve and Edie, Louie Prima, and others. He’s lived in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas (where he worked for years at the Sands hotel and is on many of the classic recordings made there). Pete also has an ongoing career as a recording producer in Nashville. He has worked there as musician and producer with Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell, Amy Grant, Joe Tex, Debbie Boone, Dolly Parton, Mickey Gilley, Tanya Tucker, George Jones, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Shania Twain, Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett. Pete currently lives in Naples, FL and will be appearing with us again on 9/24.
Other “special guest star” appearances with the Swing to Bop Quartet in September and October at the Side Door Jazz Club:
Trumpeter Mark Pettey 9/24
I’ll be telling you more about them and other guests in future posts. In the meantime, do try to come out on 9/10 if you can!
Thursday nights in Venice, FL come alive with swinging jazz at Valenti’s Allegro Bistro located at 1740 E Venice Ave.
Singer Deborah Opie has been entertaining the crowds at the popular Venice restaurant/night spot for over 3 years. She’s backed up by a swinging modern jazz trio featuring Billy Marcus, piano; Don Mopsick, bass; and Stephen Bucholtz on drums.The band plays from 6-9 PM. Click here for more information and reservations.
Pianist Billy Marcus, who now lives in St. Petersburg, FL is the son of the great “stride” pianist, Marie Marcus. Billy began his professional career in 1968 in the Boston/Cape Cod area where he worked with the iconic cornetist Bobby Hackett. In 1974, Marcus moved to Miami where he formed his own quartets and quintets. He did regularly-scheduled live radio broadcasts on television and performed at all of Miami and South Florida’s major festivals. In 1982, Marcus was named Miami’s Best Musician by Miami/South Florida Magazine. Recently, Marcus was inducted into the South Florida Music Hall of Fame.
Marcus has played “residency” engagements in New York, Boston, France, Switzerland, and recently at the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, China and 18 months at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai U.A.E. He’s appeared at dozens of jazz festivals including: North Sea Jazz Festival Netherlands, Bern Jazz Festival Switzerland, Toronto Jazz Festival Canada, Monterey Jazz Festival California, New Orleans Jazz Festival Louisiana, Miami Jazz Festival Florida, Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival Washington.
Leading his own house band, he backed up Scott Hamilton, Al Grey, James Moody, Jack Sheldon, Pepper Adams, Mark Murphy, Eddie “Clean-head” Vinson, Kai Winding, Terry Gibbs, Richie Cole, Buddy DeFranco and many more.
Bassist Don Mopsick began his musical career as a teenager in his hometown of Linden, NJ, performing on trumpet and bass guitar for local ethnic dances. After High School, he attended Rutgers University and Berklee College of Music. His first professional gigs were with Rosemary Clooney around Boston.
Mopsick’s musical interests have always been eclectic and far-ranging. He was graduated from The Manhattan School of Music in 1977 with a degree in Tuba Performance. While in New York, he performed on tuba and bass with The Smith Street Society, Lee Castle (with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra), Jim Chapin, John Carisi, Benny Ventura, the Paul Jefferey Octet and others.
After a move to Ft. Myers FL in 1977, Mopsick began private study on double bass with Lucas Drew at the University of Miami. He moved to Orlando in 1983 and began work at Walt Disney World, Circus World, Rosie O’Grady’s, and as a free- lance bassist state-wide. From 1983-86 he performed nightly at the Empress Lilly at Lake Buena Vista with the Riverboat Rascals.
He played concert dates for, among others, The Jazz Club of Sarasota, The Treasure Coast Jazz Society (Vero Beach), The Gainesville Friends of Jazz, the Central Florida Jazz Society, and taught clinics at Valdosta (Georgia) State University.
Mopsick played Florida concert dates with Howard Alden, Mousey Alexander, Mose Allison, Bill Allred, Dan Barrett, John Bunch, Pete Christleib, Al Cohn, Richie Cole, Ike and Fred Cole, Kenny Davern, Buddy DeFranco, Allen Eager, Terry Gibbs, Scott Hamilton, Buddy Morrow (with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra), Ken Peplowski, Flip Phillips, Red Rodney, Bob Rosengarden, Ira Sullivan, Clark Terry, Warren Vaché Jr., Joe Wilder and many others.
Don joined the 7-piece Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio TX in 1991, where he played nightly at The Landing jazz club and toured with the band (including a 17-day tour of Russia and Siberia in 2007), and recorded hundreds of hours for the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series with guests such as Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Bob Wilber, Dick Hyman, Topsy Chapman, Kenny Davern, Milt Hinton, Nicholas Payton, Ralph Sutton, “Sweets” Edison, Harry Allen, Dan Barrett, Joe Williams, Rebecca Kilgore, Stephanie Nakasian, Linda Hopkins, Bob Barnard, Bucky and John Pizzarelli and many others. He left the band in March 2009.
From 1993 to 2005 he was on the faculty of the Stanford Summer Jazz Camp, teaching classes and giving private lessons to students between the ages of 12-17.
These days Mopsick plays modern bop-oriented jazz in several weekly west Florida gigs with pianists Billy Marcus and Joe Delaney, drummers Stephen Bucholtz, Patricia Dean and Tony Vigilante, trumpeter Dan Miller and tenor saxophonist Lew DelGatto.
Since his 2010 move back to SW Florida he has shared concert stages with Dick Hyman, Peter Appleyard, Bucky Pizzarelli, Aaron Weinstein, Giacomo Gates, Stephanie Nakasian and Hod O’Brien, Russell Malone, Ira Sullivan, Lanie Cook, Ralph Peterson Jr., Tedd Firth, Peter Zak, Dave Bennett, Wycliff Gordon and many others.
Experienced in both classical and jazz, drummer Stephen Bucholtz has performed on drum set for a variety of groups, ranging from trios to big bands. These groups have performed in clubs, festivals, theaters, and private functions throughout the country. Stephen has performed with artists such as Chuck Redd, Ken Peplowski, Harry Allen, Jon-Erik Kellso, Roni Ben-Hur, Buster Cooper, and John Lamb. He can currently be heard performing around the Tampa Bay area with a variety of artists.
Stephen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of South Florida. After receiving his degree, he continued his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music as a graduate student. While living in Boston, Stephen served as Principle Percussionist with the Newton Symphony Orchestra. Prior to joining the Newton Symphony, Stephen served as Principle Percussionist for the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne, Florida. He has also performed with the Concord Orchestra, the Metropolitan Wind Symphony, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Florida Orchestra.
Third Season at Popular Ft. Myers Night Spot Kicks Off October 11
The Roadhouse Cafe in Ft. Myers FL presents the Dan Miller Quartet Tuesday nights at 7:00 beginning October 11, 2016. The Roadhouse, owned and operated by Marc and Sherri Neeley, features fine dining and entertainment 6 nights a week. The very popular Cafe features a well-stocked bar and wine list, dance floor and piano bar. The Roadhouse was named in the December 2015 issue of Gulf Coast Life magazine as having the “Best Live Music in Southwest Florida.”
The Dan Miller Quartet plays in a modern jazz style known as bebop or “hard bop,” featuring Great American Songbook and Jazz standard tunes in the styles of Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Horace Silver, etc. The members of the Quartet are all seasoned jazz professionals and have held down prestigious jobs around the US and abroad in previous years.
Jazz trumpeter Dan Miller is one of Southwest Florida’s most accomplished musicians. A native of Chicago, Miller began his illustrious career in the early 1990s, playing in bands led by Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., the latter association comprising of over a decade of touring and recording.
In 2004, Dan began to split his time between New York and Florida. He started performing at Ellington’s Jazz Bar and Restaurant on Sanibel Island, FL where he led his own groups as well others as a sideman featuring Jimmy McGriff, David “Fathead” Newman, Jimmy Norman, Lew DelGatto, Jon Weber, Davell Crawford and Danny Sinoff. From 2005-2009, Dan was a member of the Danny Sinoff Quartet, recording three CDs for E.S.P. (the third featured tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman).
Since 2010, Dan has been a member of the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra.
Dan continues to perform regularly in New York, appearing frequently at Smalls and Fat Cat as a leader or in bands led by Ned Goold or saxophonist Tim McCall. He often finds himself playing in NYC with musicians like his brother trombonist David Miller, bassist Ben Wolfe, Neal Caine, Anthony Pinciotti, Spike Wilner, Stephen Riley and Carlos DeRosa.
Through a life of playing, studying and listening, Miller’s knowledge of jazz is wide-ranging and comprehensive. He lists many musical influences including Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Curtis Fuller. In Florida and nationwide, Miller is very much in-demand as a jazz educator–in private instruction in brass technique, jazz improvisation as well as coaching school jazz bands at all levels.
Pianist Joe Delaney was born in Brockton, MA and grew up in Whitman, just south of Boston. Joe’s father Ed Delaney was also a pianist. Joe started playing at age 3, learning by ear from records, family parties and his father’s band rehearsals. Joe says, “I picked it up and still play about 90% by ear.”
Joe started formal instruction and began performing in pubic at the age of 5. Joe says, “Once we started little kid tunes, I’d hear the teacher play it and put about 15 minutes into my lesson and just mimic it back.” He was soon spending hours a day learning popular tunes and George Shearing hits he heard during the band rehearsals. Later, Joe studied briefly with Kurt Wenzel, Charlie Banocos, Kenny Barron and Berklee piano professor Paul Schmeling. During his formative years Joe absorbed the musical influences of George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans, Dave McKenna, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock.
Delaney worked in the Boston and Cape Cod areas until 1981, when he moved to the US Virgin Islands, where he worked for most of the ’80s. From 1989-2009 Joe returned to New England, based in Cape Cod, mostly in Hyannis. He had a long association with reedman Dick Johnson, who led the Artie Shaw Orchestra during this period. Joe traveled with the Shaw Orchestra for six years, sometimes playing alongside trumpet great Lou Colombo. While not touring with the Shaw band or his own groups (on 5 continents), Delaney played extended residencies in virtually every live music venue on Cape Cod. He spent 7 years leading the house trio at the Black Cat Tavern at Hyannis Harbor, now owned and operated by David Colombo.
Joe has recorded many jazz albums and CDs both as leader and sideman, as well as commercial jingles (for Pepsi, Beck’s Beer, among others), and movie soundtracks (Mrs. Worthington’s Party).
Bassist Don Mopsick hails from Linden, New Jersey. He attended the Manhattan School of Music, and upon graduation in 1977 relocated to Ft. Myers FL. After a move to Orlando in 1983 he found himself in demand statewide, playing jazz concerts in Orlando, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Sarasota, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Daytona and elsewhere. In 1991 he joined the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio, TX and appeared weekly on the Riverwalk Jazz series on the Public Radio International network. While with Cullum, Mopsick recorded radio shows with Dick Hyman, John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Clark Terry, Kenny Davern, Linda Hopkins, Benny Carter, Bob Wilber, Milt Hinton, Ralph Sutton, Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, Joe Williams, “Sweets” Edison, Shelly Berg, Stephanie Nakasian, Rebecca Kilgore and many other greats of jazz.
Since his 2010 return to the Sunshine State, Mopsick played local Southwest Florida concert dates with Dick Hyman, Peter Appleyard, Aaron Weinstein, Tedd Firth, Bucky Pizzarelli, Johnny Varro, Cynthia Sayer, Dave Bennett, Tad Weed, Ira Sullivan, Billy Marcus, Giacomo Gates, Russell Malone, Lainie Cook, Ralph Peterson, Jr., Peter Zak, Stephanie Nakasian and her husband pianist Hod O’Brien and daughter Veronica Swift, and others. He has appeared independently in nationwide concerts and festivals with Hyman, Ralph Sutton, John Bunch, Ira Sullivan, Red Rodney, Buddy DeFranco, Randy Sandke, Warren Vaché, Scott Hamilton, Bill Allred and many others.
Other than the Roadhouse, Mopsick appears on Thursday nights at Valenti’s Allegro Bistro in Venice with vocalist Deborah Opie, pianist Billy Marcus and drummer Stephen Bucholtz.
Jazz drummer Tony Vigilante is a native of Philadelphia. Since his move to Naples, FL he has become in demand throughout the Southwest Florida region for his wonderfully buoyant, driving swing feel and impeccable time.
During a long career, Tony has backed up many singers and entertainers such as Della Reese, Billy Eckstine, Maureen McGovern and Perry Como. He’s recorded with Buddy De Franco, the Al Raymond Orchestra and the Brian Pastor Big Band. Vigilante was a member of Ben Vereen’s touring band performing in Las Vegas, Reno and Tahoe casinos, as well as numerous theater performances on the East Coast. In television, Tony worked in live studio bands for shows such as Good Morning America, The Mike Douglas Show, The Phil Donahue Show and an HBO special, Ben Vereen Live from The Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.
By 1986 I had already been in Florida for 9 years. I was graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in May, 1977 and immediately moved down to Ft. Myers to take a steady 6-night-a -week music job there. By 1983 I made the move to the Orlando area and soon thereafter landed a staff job at Disney World.
In those days Orlando had a wealth of accomplished jazz players, a few of them holding down full-time positions at one of the Disney theme parks. The biggest jazz star in Orlando was the great drummer Mousey Alexander. A teeny bit of a guy, Mousey had toured and recorded with Benny Goodman for over 15 years, played a long New York residency at the Half Note with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and was often hired by such leaders as Clark Terry, Sauter/Finegan and Doc Severinsen to provide his happy, swinging propulsion to their big bands.
Mousey was a member of a very rarefied elite of top swinging jazz drummers, but in 1980 he suffered a stroke and heart attack that left him paralyzed on one side. He decided to slow down, rehabilitate and move to Longwood, FL near Olrando. He continued to play drums. He organized a Monday night jam session at a series of night clubs and restaurants in the area. Mousey’s Monday nights became the epicenter of the jazz scene in Orlando, where players could get known, network, and sit in with Mousey and the best players in town.
After I got to town Mousey invited me to play some of the Monday jams. I became a regular and got to play other gigs, concerts and jazz cruises with Mousey. Then one day in 1986 he invited me to go down to Sarasota to play a concert with him for the Jazz Club of Sarasota. Mousey’s friend Hal Davis had founded the club in 1980. Hal had been Benny Goodman’s publicist, and the two men had a long professional and personal association and friendship. Hal was then executing his plan of greatly expanding the club’s membership by presenting quality concerts featuring the great swinging players he had known in New York, among them many Goodman Band alumni.
Hal was a master of promotion–he had been the president of a major New York advertising and PR firm. Right on his concert program notes Hal would include a short paragraph introducing the featured artist for the next concert, along with a short explanation: “These artists are new (to you),” but nonetheless the member would be rewarded for discovering them. In this way Hal educated his membership and provided the artistic leadership that built the brand of the Jazz Club of Sarasota into what it eventually became by the time of his passing in 1990: one of the largest and most active jazz societies in the US.
After my first JCofS concert with Mousey, Hal hired me for many more. He was very encouraging to me. He told me, “All of the guys I’ve brought down from New York have told me how much they enjoyed your playing.” The feeling was mutual. Clearly I had found a home. Before my eventual move to San Antonio in 1991 I was privileged to appear at Sarasota Middle School and Van Wezel Hall, almost on a monthly basis, it seemed, with some of the true greats of swinging jazz: Don Lamond, Don Goldie, Spanky Davis, Dick Meldonian, Bob Rosengarden, Warren Vaché Jr., Scott Hamilton, Joe Wilder, John Bunch, Ira Sullivan, Ken Peplowski, and the late clarinetist Kenny Davern.
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band began auditioning bass fiddle players after the death in 1990 of Jack Wyatt, who had held the position for decades. For ideas on replacements, Cullum called his friend Kenny Davern, with whom I had by this time played at the JCofS. Davern recommended me for the job. On New Years Day 1991 my wife Rosie and I and our dog headed out for the long drive to San Antonio with all our possessions. For over 18 years I played nightly with Cullum’s band at the Landing Jazz Club on the Riverwalk in San Antonio and toured the US and abroad with them. I recorded many hours of radio shows with them and their guests, many of whom I already knew from the JCofS dates. I also got to work with and know Dick Hyman and Bob Haggart, both of whom settled in the Sarasota area.
Rosie and I made the return trip in 2010 to resettle in Cape Coral. Since then I have become reacquainted with the JCofS and some of its leaders who have taken over for Hal. One notable concert was in 2011 with the young swinging jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein at Holley Hall. Another memorable appearance for me was introducing to the JCofS (at a “Fridays at Two”) the quintet with which I work in Naples and Fort Myers during the season, co-led by trumpeter Dan Miller and saxophonist Lew DelGatto. Coming up next October 16 and 17 I will be representing the JCofS leading a group of my favorite players from North Port and St. Petersburg, comprised of pianist Billy Marcus, drummer/vocalist Patricia Dean and trombone champion Herb Bruce, for the Ringling International Arts Festival “Jazz Sunsets on the Bay.”
I’m sitting here playing “drop the needle” and listening to the new Riverwalk Jazz double stream.
Here’s the deal: somewhere north of 300 shows were created so far in the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series. The series is still on the air on about 200 nationwide public radio stations and Sirius/XM on Sundays. The Stanford Library of Recorded Sound acquired the collection and made it into two continuous streams of hour-long shows: one starting at show #1 and the other starting at show #150 or so. Each stream takes about 18 days to cycle through all the shows.
Stanford has committed to running this double loop for at least 25 years. We can’t exactly tell you which show is coming up next, but you can hear shows that haven’t been on the air in over a decade. It’s kind of a “drop the needle,” “box-‘o-chocolates” experience.
After a few initial hiccups, the website and stream seem to be functioning OK now. Right now on stream 1 I’m listening to the Gospel show with Evan Christopher doing his chart on “Over in the Gloryland.” On stream 2 I caught Rebecca Kilgore and Ron Hockett and the the rhythm section swinging Artie Shaw’s “Moon Ray.”
A few things occur to me. One is that the show covers a lot of ground in its variety of pre-war jazz topics. For example, I’m listening now to Dick Hyman and John Sheridan stomp their way through a 2-piano version a 1926 stride piano novelty rag by Rube Bloom, “Spring Fever.” Later in the same show I heard Becky Kilgore croon her way through “Suddenly It’s Spring” as only she can.
Another is the generally high level of musicianship for a “live” show. We typically had one run-through before recording with the audience, and very rarely resorted to the back-up, so most of what you hear was the live show, warts and all.
I wanted you to be aware of this new format and invite you to drop in sometime to check it out. It could be like having your own personal Riverwalk Jazz satellite channel for your home soundtrack (or maybe its more like Pandora). I know of no other series doing it like this, it’s the bleeding edge of this kind of media presentation.
The following are samples of actual comments made to the members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band at the Landing in San Antonio, TX or on the road. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. I was inspired to collect these by the very entertaining book, Jazz Anecdotes by jazz bassist Bill Crow.
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Drummer Kevin Dorn was approached one night by a man wanting to know which of our CDs he should buy that “has the most tunes featuring Neil Armstrong.”
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Guests would often make tune requests. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band specializes in jazz as it was played before WWII, but many people, unaware of this, requested tunes by modern jazz artists with which they are familiar. One such customer asked me, “Do you know anything by John Coltrane?” I explained that no, we don’t play any modern jazz. “You’re kidding, right?” was his incredulous reply.
One night, a young woman, after asking if it was OK to request a tune, said, “Um…let’s see, you’re jazz…” She turned to her companion for help. “What should I request?” He said, “Um…anything by Grover….” There was a brief pause while he searched his brain for the name. Finally, it came to him: “Cleveland!”
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One night, a large group of high school kids was seated in front of the bandstand. Jim announced the title of one of the Bix Beiderbecke tunes, “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down.” One of the girls in the group shouted out, “That bitch!”
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The single most frequently asked question by Landing patrons is “Do you guys have day jobs, or do you do this full-time?” This is actually a fair question, because the majority of musicians currently appearing at Traditional Jazz festivals indeed have some career other music. I usually replied quickly that we’re all life-long full-time musicians, some of us have advanced degrees from music conservatories, have held down other prestigious music jobs, etc.
But occasionally I encountered a doubter. “Nahh, that can’t be right. You must all be lawyers or doctors or something. You’re too well-dressed to be musicians.” Or, “You’re having too much fun up there to be professionals.”
So, to humor such a person, Jim would ask him to guess what he thought each band member’s “real job” might be based on his appearance. The interesting thing about the responses is that they tended to conform to what the person himself was engaged in. If there was a doctors’ convention in town, then we were all dermatologists, cardiologists, etc. If there was a convention of educators, then we turned into high school principals, college professors, etc.
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Old-school jazz, when played authentically, sometimes provokes some rather weird reactions. Every once in a while, we encountered a customer who, upon first hearing the band, had trouble dealing with long-entrenched musical and racial stereotypes.
One night, a rather tall, thin, well-dressed middle-aged white woman introduced herself to me as a member of the board of the Arts Council of a large state. “Let me ask you a question,” she began, “You guys are way too good to really be into this traditional jazz stuff. Come on, aren’t you all beboppers at heart just putting this on?”
I assured her that the members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band have made the study of historical jazz a life-long passion. “Well,” she continued, “do you have any minorities in the band?” “Yes,” I replied, “I’m Jewish.” “That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t have any minorities in the band, so it’s much harder for me to sell you to my Arts Council.”
I had no answer to this. I had the feeling there was nothing anyone could ever do to make that particular sale.
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On another occasion, after a spirited rendition of a Louis Armstrong Hot 5 tune, a fairly large, balding and inebriated white man of about 60 started walking toward the bandstand shouting “White men playing the black man’s music, this is bullshit!” To which Jim replied, “I think you must be a racist.” The man, on his way out the door, shouted “No, you’re the racist! Why don’t you play some Dizzy Gillespie or something?” Then he quickly ducked out the door.
There was a moment of bewildered silence while we all struggled to get our minds around what the man had said. We’re still trying to figure that one out.
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The Landing in San Antonio was designed by an acoustic engineer to enhance the natural sounds of the instruments so the band could play without the use of amplifiers and only one microphone for vocals and the guitar.
For road gigs, however, sound reinforcement becomes a necessary evil, and we were too often at the mercy of sound technicians. The degree of skill and experience among these folks varies from seasoned professional to rank amateur.
On one concert date, an eager young sound man had beforehand set up an impressive array of microphones, monitor speakers, amplifiers and other gear on stage. This happens quite often—the technicians are merely going with what they know as the requirements of a typical modern performing group.
Jim asked him to please remove everything except for one mic for the vocals and guitar, explaining that the group tried to get as close to an acoustic sound as possible. Not comprehending, the young man said, “Just tell me what I need to do to make it sound acoustic, and I’ll give it to you!”
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Pianist John Sheridan was with the band for 23 years. Toward the beginning of his tenure, John tipped the scales at over 300 lbs. He decided to do something about this, so he went on a diet and lost 115 lbs. in 4 months (and has managed to keep the weight off, in fact, to this day). Afterward, as is common with people who drastically change their size, he found it necessary to buy a completely new wardrobe.
A few years after he lost the weight, a customer came up to John on a break. “Say,” he said, “you really play great! In fact, I like your playing a whole lot better than that other piano player they had here before you. What was his name again, John Sheridan?”
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The Landing has an outdoor patio area on the San Antonio Riverwalk. It’s a very pleasant, shady outdoor café where patrons can sit under umbrellas, listen to a live jazz duo, and watch the people and boats passing by while sipping a tasty frozen Margarita.
For several years, I played some of the afternoon 4-hour duo shifts on the patio with pianist John Sheridan. One cloudy fall day, the Riverwalk was deserted and desolate. The sounds of our instruments bounced unheard off the buildings nearby. John and I decided that it was a good time to run through some of the tunes that we don’t normally play so we could get more familiar with them. We stumbled through a few of them, not caring about the occasional “clam” or missed note or chord change.
After about the third tune, we saw the familiar figure of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli bounding toward us. We knew Bucky well from many encounters at jazz parties and concerts but didn’t know he was in town.
“Hey, you guys,” he said, smiling, “I’m in town with [famed jazz violinist] Stéphane Grappelli. We’re sitting over there at the next restaurant having lunch and we heard every note you played!”
John and I were, of course, mortified. “We were just messing around….” John began. But Bucky was his usual nice self and said, “Nahh, you guys sounded great!”
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This one was told at Summit Jazz in Colorado by bassist Paul Keller and brought a smile to the face of everyone who heard it.
The revered jazz bassist Milt Hinton died in 2000 at the age of 90. In his later years, and on Riverwalk Jazz, he was fond of performing a song composed for him called “Mona, Take Me Home.” One line of the lyrics was “Now I’m the oldest bass player standing, I’ve got shoes as old as you.”
One year, a jazz festival featured Milt, Paul Keller, and another outstanding bassist–Jay Leonhart. Unfortunately, Jay’s bass fiddle had suffered a serious accident at the hands of one of the airline baggage handlers who dropped it from a baggage cart, breaking the neck of the instrument.
The three bassists were discussing this incident. Jay asked Milt, “Have you ever had your bass dropped from a baggage cart?”
“Baggage cart?” replied Milt, “Hell, they dropped mine from a stagecoach!”
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In the normal course of performing, instrument malfunctions occur: guitar or banjo strings break, drum heads are punctured, clarinet reeds go bad, etc. While waiting for the broken part to be replaced, Jim Cullum came up with an entertaining time-filler: he would auction off the broken part to the audience members. The bidding would usually start off at a dollar, and the winning bid would typically wind up at about $5, the guest would go home happy with an authentic Landing souvenir and everyone would be entertained, by which time the problem would be fixed and the performance could then resume.
One night, Jim was auctioning off a broken drum head. “What am I bid for this genuine drum head, played by our drummer Ed Torres?” Spirited bidding ensued. After about 3 minutes of escalating bids, a woman’s voice rang out, “A blow job, I’ll give a blow job!”
All eyes turned toward the door where a couple was standing. They both quickly ducked out the door and escaped to the anonymity of the crowded Riverwalk.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then wild laughter for a good 5 minutes. The auction was over.