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Tony Monaco: Master Chops T

R.J. DeLuke By

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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?
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