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Tony Monaco: Master Chops T

R.J. DeLuke By

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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?
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