Johnny Costa: Mr. Rogers' Piano

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Two jazz pianists come to mind when talk turns to children. The first and best known is Vince Guaraldi, the composer of songs and incidental music for the Charlie Brown specials and the pianist who played them. Guaraldi died in 1976. The second keyboard player is Johnny Costa, the musical director and keyboard player on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from 1968 until his death in 1996.

Costa was born in Arnold, Pa., about a half hour from Pittsburgh. He began studying piano when he was 10 after learning to play the accordion. After World War II, he attended college and graduated with two degrees—one in music and the other in teaching. The second was just in case his piano career went flat.

Costa's first job in 1951 was as a staff musician on KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. He then recorded a handful of superb piano albums for Coral in the 1950s, including Johnny Costa Plays Piano Solos (1955), Johnny Costa Plays for the Most Beautiful Girl in the World (1955), Costa Living (1955), A Gallery of Gershwin (1958) and In My Own Quiet Way (1959). In the late 1950s, Costa was briefly the musical director of Mike Douglas's weekly TV show in Philadelphia.

But studio work and touring to promote albums pulled Costa away from his wife and two children. So Costa decided to stick closer to home. He played regularly at a Pittsburgh club and appeared on KDKA. In 1963, Costa met Fred Rogers through a mutual friend. Rogers was enchanted by Costa's gentle, commanding piano style. In 1968, when Rogers was given the green light to move forward with the first 100 shows of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he offered Costa the job. [Photo above, from left, of Johnny Costa and Fred Rogers]

Though many of the songs were by Rogers, who had a degree in music composition, Costa harmonized the songs with him and arranged the melodies. In the 1990s, Costa recorded four albums for Hank O'Neal's Chiaroscuro label—Classic Costa (1992), Flying Fingers (1992), A Portrait of George Gershwin (1994), and Dream (1996).  

What Fred Rogers heard in Costa's playing in the early 1960s was childlike delight combined with an Art Tatum-like mastery of the music, a powerful sense of where he wanted to go on a song and, most of all, kindness.

Johnny Costa died in 1996.

Perhaps my favorite Costa album is Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (1984), which is long out of print. His early albums for Coral are impossible to find as well.

JazzWax clips: Here's the album Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers' Neighborhood...



Here's Costa's 1955 Piano Solos album for Coral...



Here's a marvelous short on Johnny Costa...



And here's Costa when he and guitarist Joe Negri were on Ken Griffin's 67 Melody Lane in 1954...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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