Tony Monaco: Jazz Organ Crusader
If you happen to be in Columbus, Ohio on most Wednesdays, you'll be doing yourself a favor if you head up on High Street just north of the student slums of Ohio State University to an unpretentious joint known as the Ravari Room. It's your typical campus dive bar, complete with cheap drinks, an incongruously placed aquarium, and TV monitors that seem permanently tuned to ESPN 2. It's not the sort of place where you'd expect to be able to hear yourself think, let alone hear great jazz. But on Wednesdays around 10pm, the Ravari Room in Columbus, Ohio becomes the center of the jazz organ trio universe, because that is when Tony Monaco mounts the mighty Hammond B-3 for his weekly gig.
After a while, even the most aesthetically-challenged undergrad begins to understand that there is some pretty amazing music being performed on the bandstand. When you see the under 25-crowd listening attentively to standards, Miles Davis' "All Blues, or Hank Marr's "Greasy Spoon, you know that you're in the presence of not just great musicians, but great communicators. Assisting Monaco in his weekly gig is the rock-steady drummer Louis Tsamous and the very fine guitarist Robert Kraut. Speaking of incongruities, Kraut's day gig is as a professor in the Philosophy Department of Ohio State where he teaches metaphysics and aesthetics. (His recent article, "Why Does Jazz Matter to Aesthetic Theory?" in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, is not to be missed.)
Monaco was in an ebullient mood when he sat down recently for this interview. It's easy to see why he has been attracting so much notice in the last few years and why he has so many new fans. The same force of personality and passion that he exhibits on the bandstand is also present when he's not performing. When asked to give his thoughts about organ legend Jimmy Smith, who passed away last month, Monaco not only paid tribute to his mentor and idol, he gave what could be described as a doctoral level seminar on the history of the jazz organ and Smith's contribution to same.
"Jimmy Smith did more to influence my life than people know, said Monaco. As a young kid, Monaco played accordion, but was turned on to the organ when he heard Jimmy Smith's album The Sermon. He would send to Smith tapes of his accordion covers of the organist's tunes. But in a scene that has Hollywood written all over it, on his 16th birthday Monaco received a phone call from Smith, the same birthday that he received from his parents his first Hammond organ.
On that phone call, Smith told young Tony, "Don't worry about playing all them notes. First learn to play the right chords. That advice was, according to Monaco, the best music lesson he has ever had. Monaco then went on to play his original tune "I'll Remember Jimmy, a tribute that he wrote in honor of his mentor. It was a very touching coming-full-circle moment because he played the tune on the very same organ he received on his 16th birthday. (The mp3 of "I'll Remember Jimmy can be downloaded for free from Monaco's website.) Monaco also gives great credit to his first organ teacher, Jim Russell of Columbus, who helped him immensely when he made the switch from the accordion to the organ.
But while he pays great homage to the past masters of jazz, it is the future of the music that preoccupies Monaco's thinking today. Monaco has a business degree and currently runs his family's construction business. Previously, the organist was involved in the restaurant business. It is this business acumen that distinguishes him from so many other jazz artists who are struggling to be heard in the declining market for jazz.
Like many other artists, Monaco has begun to take more control over the production and distribution of his creative output. He has established his own state-of-the-art recording facility, the Columbus Sound Studio, that features a wide array of audio and video services. The video aspect of his facility is very innovative as a jazz business model because it allows Monaco to combine his passion for performing with another interest, namely, teaching. His series of jazz organ instructional videos have become extremely popular, and the organist receives dozens of emails daily from young, budding jazz organists with questions about all aspects of jazz organ. In essence, what Monaco has created is a one-man "university-without-walls for the jazz organ community. With the rapidly increasing advances in broadband capabilities, Monaco foresees in the not-too-distant future the nearly real-time exchange of videos, audio tracks, and pdf and midi files between student and teacher. It's almost like the jazz organ equivalent of the educational system in remote parts of Australia where students "attend school via two-way radio hookups with teachers who may be hundreds of miles away.