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.
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith. We hung out at my Aunt Kate's Soul Food restaurant in Harlem after the matinees at the Apollo where I listened to their stories. I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician from then on. My mother wanted me to play piano, but my Aunt bought me a guitar. I've been playing ever since.
At my mother's early prompting, I first sang Blue Velvet at my Catholic elementary school...and all the nuns came running in and asked me to sing again, so I knew I must have sounded pretty good. I've been singing ever since.
I met Tony Bennett in Miami and he inspired me to return to New York. He was a great mentor.
The best show I ever attended is mpossible to say, I've seen so many great shows. From Tony Bennett to Pat Martino, Return to Forever to Weather Report...I've seen some great performances.
My advice to new listeners is don't let jazz intimidate you, the music has something for every listener and it is our American gift to the world.