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Meet Francesca "Cha Cha" Miano


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My parents bought "Shearing in Hi-Fi" the year I was born, so it and I came into their house at the same time! One of my earliest memories is of riding my toy rocking horse back and forth, while it was playing in the background.
A Newport Jazz Festival-New York concert at Carnegie Hall in the early 1970s got Queens native Francesca "Cha Cha" Miano hooked on hearing live jazz—even though, she says, some of the music she heard on the mixed bill that night was way ahead of her at the time. Little did she know that her magnificent obsession would eventually lead to an unexpected close friendship with one of the most important and influential jazz vocalists of our time.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I have lived all my life in Astoria, New York, and work as an Administrative Assistant in the compliance department of a bank in Manhattan. Besides being passionate about jazz, I am very interested in writing. As a matter of fact, I combine these two loves via a blog, Jazzsaints, which features interviews with various performers, as well as short essays on the music.

How did you get your nickname?
My fellow students in Arnold Jay Smith's Jazz Insights class at the New School started referring to me as Cha Cha after I mentioned that one of my childhood friends, who could never pronounce Francesca, called me Cha Cha instead. Someone in the class announced she was going to start calling me that as well, and from then on it became my jazz name (only my jazz friends call me Cha Cha).

What is your earliest memory of music?
Being a toddler listening to my parents' 78s of Stan Kenton, George Shearing, Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, etc.

How old were you when you got your first recording?
I was probably four, and the record was the 45RPM single of "The Chipmunk Song." My parents and I had seen The Chipmunks on The Ed Sullivan Show, and afterwards my mom bought me the record. I didn't ask for it, but she thought I would love it. She was right!

What was the first concert you ever attended?
A Newport Jazz Festival-New York concert at Carnegie Hall in the early 1970s. On the bill was the Modern Jazz Quartet, Stan Getz with Gary Burton, and Pharoah Sanders. One of my girlfriends and her boyfriend had bought tickets but when he couldn't go, my girlfriend invited me. Of course, this made me extremely happy, because I had never heard live jazz before. I was already aware of the MJQ and Stan Getz, but Gary Burton and Pharoah Sanders were new to me. You might say my ears were still opening up to more fully understanding all the nuances of the music. I was able to handle most of what I heard on the stage of Carnegie Hall, but Pharoah Sanders' very free style was way ahead of me at that point! At any rate, for about a week afterwards, I read and re-read the program. You can read more about this concert on my blog.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
The album, Shearing in Hi-Fi, which includes Toots Thielemans on guitar (and harmonica on "Body and Soul"). My parents had bought the album the year I was born, so it and I came into their house at the same time! One of my earliest memories is of riding my toy rocking horse back and forth, while it was playing in the background. I didn't check out other jazz recordings until I was a teenager.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
Since the 1970s. One of the great things about working in midtown from 1974 through the early 1980s was that I got to see so many greats at free concerts in the area: Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, Red Norvo, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, Maxine Sullivan, Chris Connor, Johnny Hartman, Jon Hendricks, etc. I also went each year to what eventually became the JVC Jazz Festival, as well as to many Jazz at Lincoln Center events when they were still held at Alice Tully Hall. After 2004, I began hanging more often at the clubs.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
The spontaneity and the energy. I tend to sit near the stage so I can closely witness the interaction of the performers as they create their music. I can deeply feel their energy, which is only possible when directly in their presence, as opposed to listening to a recording.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
When you feel like it has been a life-changing experience after the gig is over. There have been times when a live concert has literally healed me by uplifting me and giving me strength when I was going through rough times. Also, I became friends with quite a few of those whose gigs I attended, which brought me deeper into the jazz world.

What is the most trouble you've gone to, or the farthest you've traveled, to get to a jazz performance?
With so much great music right here in NYC, there is little need to go anywhere else. The furthest I've traveled for gigs is to New Jersey! I saw Misha Piatigorsky, Hendrik Meurkens, and Claudio Roditi, (separately) at the Metuchen Bistro; Hendrik, again, in a band with Mike LeDonne and Bob DeVos at Cecil's; Jed Levy's quartet performing the tracks from their then-new album at a church; and Mark Murphy at Trumpets.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
There is no one particular concert. However, I only got to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon play one song each, at tributes to other performers. I wish I could have heard them play entire sets at their own gigs. It also would have been great to hear Chet Baker on one of his good days.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
I would love to have heard Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker at the Haig on the West Coast. While I had often heard Mark Murphy live from 2004 on, I wish I could have heard him around the time he was recording masterpieces for Muse Records in the '70s and '80s.

What makes a great jazz club?
A good variety of performers (not the short list of favorites which seems to be the norm at certain clubs), not being so wedged in that I am practically sitting on the same seat as the person next to me, and not feeling like I need to take out a loan to afford the cover charge and minimum.

Which club are you most regularly to be found at?
55 Bar, mainly for the vocalists, and Smalls or Mezzrow, mainly for the instrumentalists.

Is there a club that's no longer here that you miss the most?
I sometimes miss the old Iridium, when it still focused on jazz. It's the club where I first heard Mark Murphy live. I spontaneously decided to go on a Wednesday night after work, since my office was just a few blocks away. I was flabbergasted at what an amazing artist he was live, with a powerful, still flexible voice that seemed to reach inside my soul. His masterful command of the stage was equally startling, as I had not expected that. I was also impressed with how easily he interacted with his audience, which, at this gig, included many of his students, as well as Andy Bey, who was sitting behind me. The clincher for me, however, was when Mark sang "Like A Lover," and I realized that, even though he was in his early 70s, he sounded as wonderful as he had on the original track, from 1978.

You had a special friendship with Mark. How did that come about?
After the Iridium gig, I continued to attend Mark's gigs in New York, each time bringing along a different recording to of his to be autographed. During a gig in 2007, I mentioned that I had videotaped an appearance of his on [the former cable TV channel] BET Jazz. He asked me to get him a copy. Later that year, I presented him with a DVD of it and Mark looked at it, then at me, and smiled and said, "You're the best!" Then he hugged me. From that moment on, we became closer. One time he brought a glass of white wine to my table, which made me feel, frankly, very honored. There was one other beautiful experience, after a few other friends and I had gone with him to another performer's gig following his own. It was a chilly December night, and Mark said to me, "Put on your little hat!" and "Put on your little gloves!" And he reached over and buttoned up my coat and turned up the collar. This fatherly gesture was totally unexpected and made me realize, more than ever, what a sweet and loving person he was. [Ed. note: October 22 marks the first anniversary of Mark Murphy's passing.]

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
Dave Brubeck had an outdoor gig at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park. In the middle of one of his songs, a pigeon landed on the stage and proceeded to strut, seeming to bop its head in time to the music. The audience started laughing, and so did Brubeck.

How do you discover new artists?
On the radio, by reading about them in jazz magazines, or by hearing them play at others' gigs.

Vinyl, CDs, or MP3s?
I probably have hundreds of recordings in all these formats. I've been collecting jazz records since 1974. I switched to audio cassettes in 1983, and finally started buying CDs around 1993. I still have a working turntable, cassette player, and CD deck, but my long hours in the office don't leave me much time to use them anymore, so right now I listen mostly to mp3s.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
Probably drums. As long as I've been alive, I have been aware of rhythms in so much around me. As a child, I would even try to beat out rhythms on tabletops and chairs—not very well, alas. Drums provide a foundation that can affect the intensity of a band's performance.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
The way it grabs you when you really listen. It truly is music of the moment that can heal you with its positive energy.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
A real drag! Jazz has been a significant part of my life practically since I was born and, during various difficulties through the years, I would not have been able to keep going without it. I consider jazz a gift from God.


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