Tony Monaco: Master Chops T

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I think that people got over-stimulated with all this digital stuff. And I don't think there's anything more fascinating than the sound of a Hammond B3.
Listen to Tony Monaco play the celebrated Hammond B3 organ. He swings like mad, solos like hell, and locks into soulful, vibrant grooves. The instrument has had a great resurgence in recent years. Listen to either of his two CDs and you can see that Monaco, while unheralded, is one of those few who can really make it talk. The real deal, who’s impressed even acknowledged master Joey DeFrancesco, among others. Monaco is a monster. Master Chops T his new CD on Summit records, released in February, is aptly named.

It’s hard enough to be living in Columbus, Ohio, or any other smaller city, and have your talent get noticed enough to make some noise in the big-time music world, which all to often is not particularly related to talent. Listen again to his music. Realize that you’re listening to a man who, after being struck by a nerve disease — neuralgic amyotrophy — had to train himself to play all over again, using different muscles to make his hands work the keyboard. Once his fingers nimbly caressed the keys effortlessly. It was an arduous road back. It’s still hard for him to walk too far without a cane.

Listen to his crooning on “Luck Be a Lady.” Won’t make you forget Tony Bennett, but he’s got a nice swinging feel and a warm style. Now appreciate that at the age of 35 his voice, in a second attack of the disease, stopped working. In mid-speech. It took an operation to get his speaking voice back and it was a grueling task to re-learning how to sing. His vocal chords wouldn’t hit notes like he was used to, like you and I can (for better or worse) without thinking about it. But he worked his way back.

Tony Monaco has it. More than just the “it” that allows him to play music on a par with other greats on his instrument. He’s got life’s “it.” Determination. Concentration. Courage. If Tony Monaco never played another note, he’s heroic. He won’t tell you that, though. That’s another charming thing about him.

The disease, he says matter-of-factly “gave me a lot of gratitude, that’s what it did for me, is bring a lot of gratitude and a lot of thanks to God. Cause I’ve seen first hand —twice — once when I was 16 and then 35, that everything that you have can be stripped away in the matter of a few hours. Sometimes in the matter of a moment.”

But he was blessed with special musical talent before trouble struck and he’s still got it. Though his grit and his fortitude he’s bringing it out even more and his talent demands to be heard. His first CD released last September, Burnin’ Grooves is also a stalwart session — produced by DeFrancesco — and following the unveiling of the second, Monaco hopes to be out touring more and doing what he loves with the “screamin' Hammond B3.”

He spent a lot of his years working in family businesses, raising his own children, looking after his father in his last years, all the while staying in Columbus. He played music all that time, but not always jazz, his real love, and not on the big-time circuit. But he has no regrets. Monaco is upbeat, straightforward and good-natured. And focused.

How focused? As a youngster — an accordion player — he felt the pull and feel of Jimmy Smith’s music so much that he worked and worked until he could imitate him on the hand-held instrument. So much so he even impressed Smith himself. After his disease forced him to switch to organ (his arms couldn’t hold the accordion up any longer) he mastered it to the extent that he blew away DeFrancesco with his playing, which led him to the two Summit CDs. Chuck Mangione was also knocked out by the unknown organ master from Columbus and helped advance Monaco along his musical journey.

“I really love organ. I live and breathe it,” he said, and he hopes to share that love on a much broader stage. If the CDs are any indication, we’re only seeing the beginning of the resilient Senor Monaco.

“I try to treat people right and I try to always examine my motives for everything I do,” he says. “As long as I have a clean heart and a clean slate, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. There’s a reason why I met Joey [DeFrancesco] two years ago and not 12 years ago. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I had to be there for my dad when he died. Maybe I had to be there for my kids when they got on the school bus. Who knows why things happen the way they do, you know?”

You can go crazy asking why. Sometimes it can be counter productive. Suffice to say Monaco is here, and he’s stepping out into the major jazz scene. He should be welcomed with open arms. He’s modest about it, but his story is an inspiration. Let him tell it.

All About Jazz (AAJ): How long have you been playing?

Monaco: I’m 42. I started playing accordion when I was 8, so, about 34 years.

AAJ: Did you come from a musical family?

Monaco:My parents are from Italy. They come from a small village. The village they come from is a very musical town. There is a lot of musical talent in this small village of about 800 people. They have a history of a lot of great musicians that came out of that town, Introdacqua.

There was a lot of music around. My father came over from the Old Country after the war. He was just a kid during World War II. When he came to the United States, he started playing drums so he didn’t have to carry a field pack when he was in the Army. That’s how he got started. He really liked jazz. He recognized early on that I had the talent. He would take me out to hear different players. Because he knew I had the personality that when I heard someone who was good, I’d get inspired, and practice really hard to try to aspire to what I heard.

AAJ: You came up in an era when rock n roll was the popular music.

Monaco: Something happened to me when I was 12. My dad never really got a chance to develop his musical talents, because he came over here after the war with nothing, just to try to make enough money to survive. He spent his whole time trying to earn a living and then raise a family, which he did very well. But he had the talent. He saw I had the talent. He was playing in a little wedding band kind of thing, and they had an organ player and he gave me, when I was 12 years old, a Jimmy Smith record. He didn’t like it, but he said, “Here, listen to this.” It was Jimmy Smith’s Greatest Hits. I knew then what I was going to do. I spent from about 12 to 16, before I got sick, I spent that time learning how to emulate Jimmy Smith by playing it on the accordion.

AAJ: That’s very different, and also very difficult.

Monaco:It was difficult because I had to simulate bass lines by figuring out how to play the buttons, because the buttons aren’t ordered like notes. They’re in fifths or fourths, depending on which way you’re going, up or down. They had an instrument out, back then, it was called a chord-o-vox. It was the guts of a Lowery organ, inside of an accordion box. And I played it through a Leslie. And it had all the stops, very similar to a Hammond organ. I could make it sound almost like a Hammond B3 organ, playing bass with the buttons on my left hand and leading with my right hand. You didn’t even have to squeeze the bellows, because it was all electronic.

That’s how I met Jimmy Smith. I was so into Jimmy Smith. Once I started getting some of these things down, I would start sending Jimmy Smith cassette tapes of me trying to emulate him on the accordion. That’s how I got a call back from Jimmy Smith, because he was honored that an accordion player, a little kid, was trying to sound like him.

AAJ: Were you getting music education in school?

Monaco:No. I took a little bit of private instruction with the accordion. I don’t know if it’s an asset or not, but I have a really good ear. So when I hear something, I can play it. So, I took a little bit of instruction from a couple private teachers that showed me chord structures and how to build chords and kind of how to play tunes. So I had some instruction growing up. But mostly I learned from listening to Jimmy Smith and Groove Holmes and Jimmy McGriff records and trying to recreate what I heard.

AAJ: How did you switch to organ?

Monaco:I got sick. I had some polio-like disease when I was 15 and it destroyed a bunch of nerves and muscles in my shoulders. So I couldn’t lift my arms any more or put the accordion strap over. And my dad knew how much I loved Jimmy Smith. I went into the hospital to get a bunch of tests run, and when I came home the B3 was in my mom and dad’s living room. That was the switch.

It was very serious. I got it again when I was 35 and that time it did a lot more damage. I had to kind of learn to play all over again. Especially switching from accordion to organ. But the fact that I was having muscle difficulties and control difficulties, I had to learn how to play over again. Because as it effected those nerves in my shoulders and forearms, it also affected my ability to play. It took a lot of discipline and trying to really get it back down. I’ve been blessed by god to keep going, you know?

AAJ: Jazz not being that prominent when you were growing up, were there clubs around Columbus?

Monaco: Yeah. I’m really glad you asked that question. Because Columbus is a really great jazz town. We’ve had a lot of great organ players come right out of Columbus. Don Patterson was from Columbus. Hank Marr is from Columbus. I was under age. My dad would take me to these clubs so that could hear these guys live. And then, what ended up happening is, I started playing in the jam sessions around town where the organs were. And the next thing I know I’m getting calls at 16 years old to play the gig when these guys couldn’t show up. So that’s what kind of really got me going, because all of a sudden I’m filling in a date for Hank Marr or I’m filling in a date for somebody that’s well known, and it got in my blood. I love this! You know?

AAJ: What about the influence of other types of pop music of that era, did that affect you as well?

Monaco: Yeah. A lot of these jazz clubs I was playing at, of course, on breaks the juke box would be going. A lot of these were chiltin’ gigs. The juke boxes would be playing Marvin Gaye and all that stuff. The main thrust of my CD collection or record collection is all organ players. That’s what I loved the most and I concentrated on that.

AAJ: The pull was that strong?

Monaco: I really love organ. I live and breathe it. I’ve got one in my house. I’ve got one in my trailer ready to go on the road. I’ve got one in my shop where I run a construction business. And so every where I go I got one to turn on. But I listened to a lot of Santana. I like Rick Wakeman. I like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. There was a lot of really neat B3 stuff going on there too.

AAJ: So you came up through all that, but Jimmy Smith had the strongest pull. And you finally met him?

Monaco: He called me because he kind of really dug the fact that I was trying to do his stuff on the accordion. And I was just making the switch. As a matter of fact I was just coming out of the hospital from my first bout with the disease, called neuralgic amyotrophy, which means the atrophy of nerves. And I had just made the switch over to organ when he called. It was like three years later that I went to LA to visit him. He had a club in LA and he remembered me. The next thing you know I was playing.

My dad and I went out there to do a couple of things. I had a brother and sister, we did a lot of show music. And so we were going out there to kind of make some connections for this family band that we had. So, of course we’re going to go see Jimmy Smith at his supper club. I was always the one that was the jazz musician in the family. But when I was younger I did a lot of things with my brother and sister. They’re very talented too, they just never really got into jazz.

AAJ: When and what was the moment that pushed you into more gigs and a reputation as a jazz player. How did that evolve?

Monaco: Soon after I met Jimmy Smith and played in his club ... I’d always played a lot of jazz gigs in Columbus ... our family opened a restaurant business. So what ended up happening was: now we own a very nice exclusive Italian restaurant and we also had a lounge. So all of a sudden my B3 was in the lounge of the restaurant that we owned. So I kind of got stuck for about eight years, 10 years, running a restaurant business and playing there only. And of course because of the kind of restaurant it was, we had to play a wide variety of music. People that go to fine dining Italian restaurants don’t go to hear jazz. Unfortunately. So, I kind of got held back because I was in the restaurant business. In the meantime, now I’m married and got three kids.

So what happened was, about five years ago, my dad ran into Chuck Mangione in Florida. He told Chuck “I got a son, he’s really a good organ player. You should hear him.” And of course Chuck says, “Everybody says their kid’s a good player.” So he gave him a tape that I had made. I had a record deal with a record company. I don’t want to disclose their name. But before that record could come out, it was a jazz organ record, they sold their catalog and moved on to bigger and better things. So that kind of fell through, because of the catalog switch. But anyhow, Chuck heard the demo tape I was presenting to that record label. And he loved it. He came into Columbus and played three nights with me at my parent’s restaurant. We had a banquet facility and threw a big jazz thing. And that got the ball rolling for me again. Because now I was mobile. I wasn’t in the restaurant business. I’d taken over my dad’s construction business, like, 10 years ago. So now I had my trailer and my B3 and everything. So that gig with Chuck really sort of accelerated me around town. Cause I’d been tucked away for 10 years running a restaurant business. And life goes on. If you’re not out there playing the gigs with the other musicians, you kind of get forgotten. But once I played that gig with Chuck, things just kind of took off.

Then my dad got sick with lung cancer and died three years ago. Once again, that kind of put me back, because I had to be there to help my dad with everything he needed to have taken care of. But soon after dad died I met Joey DeFrancesco. That opened all the doors. It didn’t necessarily open the doors in terms of record labels beating down the door. I think it opened the door within myself because here I was hanging with who I consider one of the great jazz organ players of today. He’s digging my playing. And the band’s digging my playing.

AAJ: How did that come about? Did he come through Columbus?

Monaco: Yeah, he was coming through Columbus. A friend of mine, another musician, said “Hey, Joey DeFrancesco is coming to town.” So I thought, maybe Joey gets sick and tired of eating in restaurants. Maybe it would be real nice if I could find out if Joey maybe wants to go to my mom’s house and have some really good homemade Italian food. And I really didn’t have any intention of doing anything with my organ music, other than it was just one Italian-American boy hooking up with another Italian-American who just happen to be organ players.

I believe in God and I believe in fate. What ended up happening was, when I went to pick up Joey, I had to pick him up at a seminar that he was giving at a local high school vocational careers center. So when I went to pick up Joey, one of the persons that was there said, “Hey Joey, this is Tony Monaco. He’s a good organ player. You should hear him play.” So Joey slid off the bench and said “Come on.” Well I wasn’t really prepared for this. I went to pick him up to take him over to my mom’s house. That was it. I was totally unprepared. My legs were shaking, man. And I don’t get flustered that easy, but Joey’s bad, man. And Byron Landham, his drummer, was at the drums. All I could think is “Let’s set a groove,” you know. So I tapped out a groove and started playing “Fly Me to the Moon,” with a style that’s called squabbling; it’s an organ thing. Joey’s eyes lit up so big. I’ll never forget it because I was paying attention to what was going on around me. His eyes lit up and he gave out a “yeah!” you know. And it was like we were instantly friends.

You can tell when somebody plays whether they’ve got the feel or not. That’s something you just can’t learn. You either groove or you don’t.

AAJ: So he was responsible for the first CD?

Monaco: Yeah. On the way to my mom’s house we started talking organ. And I said, “Joey, man. I’ve been trying a long time to make things happen. I had a record deal fall through once. I don’t know anything about organ.” He said “You never met anybody like me. You’re going to come to Arizona and I’m going to produce something for you.”

Cause I was telling him I’d like to have a nice CD some day just so my kids can share with their grandchildren. I went over to Arizona, and the recording that became Burning’ Grooves ... it clicked. It was very nice. It was funny, he was just sitting in the control booth watching me play. It wasn’t like he was telling me what to do. He was really cool because he helped me select what he thought were good tunes and good rhythms to put together on a CD.

AAJ: Did he play on that as well?

Monaco: Joey played a little bit of piano on “Girl Talk.” So that came out real good. He played piano on a couple of things with me. But the selection process from Summit Records ended up deleting those tunes and I ended up having to go in and do another session with the guys I normally play with, to fill it in to the format they wanted.

AAJ: That must have helped a lot, having that CD.

Monaco: It helped a lot. Joey’s original intention was to take it to Concord Records because he was on Concord. But Concord already has Joey. So that didn’t happen. But because I had this recording that, up to that point, had been the best thing I put down on tape... when I went to New York I went to the International Association of Jazz Educators convention, I met Darby Christiansen, and me and Darby hit it off real well. That’s how we got Burnin’ Grooves.

The release date on that was September 5. For my first national release to come out on September 5 and then tragedy of September 11, it was weird. But you know Burnin’ Groovesdid very well, I think, for my first CD. It made the charts. I got some nice reviews.

AAJ: I heard about a Battle of the Hammonds in Columbus. Was that before or after the CD?

Monaco: Actually, it was before I signed with Summit Records, but after I recorded with him. So Joey came back and he said, “Let’s have some fun.” What we did, is we brought two Hammond B3s into a club I play in all the time, called the 501. We put the B3s on the stage. Byron, his drummer, was traveling with him. I bought Byron a referee shirt from one of those sports stores. And I had my brother bring a fog machine and a CD of Rocky music. I had some boxing gloves that my dad had. So me and Joey were in the back with robes and boxing gloves and Byron’s with us with a referee shirt and a bell. So we started blowing fog all over the place and my brother started playing Rocky music and me and Joey came out. It was a ball.

It was outrageous. Two screamin’ Hammond B3s and, of course, I’m not gonna let Joey take me, you know [laughter]. Cause this is my town. So I was trying my best to keep up with him, you know?

AAJ: In the 90s there seemed to be resurgence — there has always been Jimmy Smith out there and some others — but there seems to be a real resurgence in that instrument. Synthesizers are so complicated and they can imitate different sounds. They became popular. But the old B3 seems to be hanging in there. Maybe Joey DeFrancesco had something to do with it, after Miles picked him up.

Monaco: Absolutely.

AAJ: But it surprises me a little that that instrument, with all the other electronics available, still has popularity and a sound.

Monaco: Actually more popular today than it has been in the last couple decades previous. My thought is, the majority of my audience that comes to see me when I play are youngsters, in their early 20s to 30s. I think that people got over-stimulated with all this digital stuff. And I don’t think there’s anything more fascinating than the sound of a Hammond B3, because it’s generated by tone wheels. And I don’t think there’s anything that sounds the same as a Leslie actually spinning. I know they make different effects units that are supposed to sound like a Leslie, but I have not found one yet that sounds like a Leslie in a live situation when it’s just cranking, and distorting and throwing that sound all around.

I think the youth are just really into the retro fact that here’s this thing that sounds so darn good. And if it’s played right, the B3 is nasty, man.

AAJ: On the new CD, you’re much more of a composer. Is that something you played with for a while? Do you write much?

Monaco: Burnin’ Grooves is more of a straight ahead, in your face, jazz organ trio CD. Master Chops T is wider. What I wanted to do with Master Chops T is not just present the organ as a lead instrument, but also as a total instrument, because the organ has so many applications possible. So what I tried to do with Master Chops T is write a couple of tunes to highlight it in a different way. In other words, give the saxophone, give the trumpet, give the steel drum, give the trombone space to blow. And then use the organ not only as a comp instrument but actually as a lead instrument behind them, embellishing and moving them where I want it to. In other words, I’m throwing the tone colors at them with different draw bar settings and stuff so they can take their solos to another level. That was my thought process.

I wrote a tune “Ya Bay BEE” which, to me, sounds like something that should be on an Austin Powers movie. It’s kind of got that sidewinder, 60s-ish, trumpet solo, really cool kind of thing happening with it. “Acid Wash,” if you take a really good set of earphones and put them on so that you are totally into the sound, there are a lot of things happening in the background, in terms of new digital effects, that really open that up. “Acid Wash” is my version of Jimi Hendrix. There’s a lot of things happening with some digital effects in there that, unless you’re really listening close, you don’t pick them up. But once you start picking them up, you’ll hear so much more in that tune than you hear on your first glance. It’s a blast.

AAJ: Did you do a lot of writing before this CD?

Monaco: I’ve done writing in and out. I’d written some vocal tunes back in the 70s and 80s when I used to record some things with the family band. Writing is one of those things where some days you just wake up and you got it in your head when you’re not trying. They just come.

AAJ: Also on the CD there’s some crooning. I know most Italians like to sing.

Monaco: Sure, man. Losing my vocal chords seven years ago when that disease came back, they told me I would never sing again. And they gave me an operation, taking fat out of my stomach and putting it into my vocal chord. He said “you’ll talk again, but you’ll probably never sing. It took me six months after that to learn how to sing. I was trying to hit notes with two vocal chords with only one working. So I had to re-learn everything all over again. Left-hand bass lines and then also my singing. I just love to sing. It’s just something I love to do. Especially Frank Sinatra tunes.

AAJ: You got the disease again at the age of 35. Is that when it affected your vocal chords?

Monaco: Yes. That’s when it really affected me the worst. It got one of the nerves on my left vocal chord. I clear my throat a lot because it doesn’t work properly. It also affected a lot of nerves in my left forearm, which totally destroyed my ability to play left hand. So I to learn all over again how to use my left hand by substituting different muscles.

It’s not like tendonitis. When you get tendonitis it just hurts, but everything is still working. The body is amazing. What happened with me is when the nerve gets damaged, and in some cases it actually stops working, you’ve gotta train your mind, because your mind still thinks it works. When you go to pick up a glass it’s all automatic. You just do it, because everything’s working like it’s supposed to. When you get sick with this kind of a disease and it destroys the nerve, you think about picking up the glass, but your hand doesn’t do it. So what you have to do is retrain your mind by repetitive motion to learn a new way to pick up the glass. And that’s kind of what happened with me with my left-hand bass. I had to start with a metronome at a very slow speed and just try to play in time, very slow. Slowly, over about six or seven months, I was back at it 100 percent. But my positions, or the muscles I was using, are different ones. I figured out a way, I guess.

AAJ: It must have taken a lot of concentration.

Monaco: Well I am type-A. [laughter]. So I’m determined sometimes.

AAJ: That’s a lot to work through.

Monaco: It gave me a lot of gratitude, that’s what it did for me, is bring a lot of gratitude and a lot of thanks to God. Cause I’ve seen first hand twice, once when I was 16 and then 35, that everything that you have can be stripped away in the matter of a few hours. Sometimes in the matter of a moment.

My voice went instantaneous. I was talking and it was gone. That nerve stopped functioning and my left vocal chord just flailed off to the side, and there was only air coming out and I couldn’t speak anymore for six months.

AAJ: That must have been scary. But you sound good on the CD, so you’ve come a long way. You own a construction company and you’ve had other businesses, so you don’t rely solely on gigs. That must help. A lot of people say in the last few years or so gigs are hard to find, especially if you’re not one of the big names.

Monaco: I’ve been very blessed to run my parents restaurant and now the construction business that my dad started back in 1950. My brother and I now own that business and are running that. I’m blessed with the fact that I have a normal income coming in and that I can play jazz and still get my kids what they deserve. And I feel terrible for the poor guys that are trying to make a living, because we’re still getting paid for gigs today that at the same rate as 20 years ago. I used to be able to go out and play a club in the early 80s, just a local three-hour gig, nothing special. You would go out and play those gigs for $100 cash in the 80s. Well the money’s not that much better now. I feel very bad for the guy who relies solely on playing gigs. My heart goes out to them.

AAJ: Do you give any thought to going out on a tour outside of Columbus and giving music more of a push?

Monaco: Absolutely. That’s what I want to do. I just came back from playing some gigs in San Francisco and LA. And they were a blast. I had standing room capacity on most of them, Once again, a bunch of youngsters really into this organ thing. I finally managed to hook up with an agent. That’s one of the toughest things to do because the money is so poor. Agents aren’t going to spend all that time trying to book you, because the rate of return is not high enough. So I have an agent. I’ve got some festivals beginning. I’ve got dates in Illinois, some in Michigan, some in Minneapolis. It’s starting to open up. Fortunately, with my brother running the business, I’m at a time in my life where my kids are getting older and I can take the risk and go out and take some gigs and have some fun. I give thanks to God every day. I’m just grateful to be playing.

AAJ: Great. Is there anybody you’d like to play with out there that you haven’t? Obviously, you’ve played with Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco. Anybody else on your wish list?

Monaco: Well, I love Dr. Lonnie Smith. I think he’s a phenomenal organ player. I love so many of these guys. I love to play with anybody, really. There’s so many great musicians out there. I just played with a monster last night that’s unknown. His name is Gene Walker. He’s a saxophonist. I had so much fun with the guy. He’s been on the road with the Beatles, he’s played with George Benson. This guy lives in Columbus and he plays like you wouldn’t believe. I love to play with anybody that’s good.

AAJ: You’d like to do more recording in the future?

Monaco: Absolutely. But I do have one long-term ultimate goal that I would like to do. This is down the road. But at some point and time in my life, I would love to have my own recording studio and actually produce youngsters and try to help them get out there. That’s my real goal. To take some enthusiastic kid, who could have been me when I was 16 years old, and recognize his talent and try to help the guy. Cause it’s so hard.

AAJ: Yeah. There’s a lot of people around that that have the talent, but nobody notices them.

Monaco: There’s not an industry big enough to afford to suck them in.

AAJ: It’s easy to get discouraged and go off and do something else.

Monaco: And I see that all the time. Great players that really have it together, but they just don’t play anymore because it’s not worth it for them to pull out their axe, you know? That’s what I would love to do. And it’s gonna happen. I believe in God and I believe that I’m doing the right thing. I try to treat people right and I try to always examine my motives for everything I do. As long as I have a clean heart and a clean slate, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. There’s a reason why I met Joey two years ago and not 12 years ago. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I had to be there for my dad when he died. Maybe I had to be there for my kids when they got on the school bus. Who knows why things happen the way they do, you know?

Visit Tony Monaco on the web at www.b3monaco.com .


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