Tony Monaco: Taking Jazz Organ to the Summit

C. Andrew Hovan By

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At this point, I don't have any regrets at all. The best part about music is it will humble you in itself, so the journey is the best part. —Tony Monaco
Columbus, Ohio native Tony Monaco is primed and ready to place jazz organ in a whole new spotlight. Although he has been a playing musician for most of his life, it has been during the past sixteen years that he has made the biggest strides as an artist. A gifted educator with a unique approach to instruction, Monaco recently sat down to discuss his past experiences and to promote a major event that he has spearheaded with the help of the staff and leadership at Hope College. The First Annual Jazz Organ Summit is happening September 9th and 10th in Holland, Michigan and boasts a variety of clinics and performances.

All About Jazz: You certainly experienced much in the way of inspiration and training at a young age living in Columbus. Having made a connection with guys like Hank Marr and Don Patterson, how much did those experiences have an impact on your early development?

Tony Monaco: It was those early experiences and the great music played live in the clubs on the Hammond organ that infected me! Because I was under age, my father would take me every Sunday night to the Needles Eye jam session hosted by the late organist Alvin Valentine. That's where I met and heard Don Patterson live. I also got to hear Bobby Pierce play at my brother's place, Hank Marr played at the Anchor Inn and sometimes at Good Times. A big part of who I am was developed in those places. Once I was embraced and brought in to start playing with musicians at this level, that was the fuel for the fire. So many young folks want to learn how to play licks and poly phrases that work essentially everywhere, but listening is the most important part of the learning. Of course I constantly listened to vinyl LPs, but going to experience the live shows is something that can't be replaced.

AAJ: Then barely out of your teens, you get the golden opportunity to connect with the legendary Jimmy Smith. That must have been a dream come true. How did that all come about and what did you gain from that experience?

TM: I was introduced to Jimmy's music when I was 12 years old. I was playing the accordion and was so taken by this new music that I put all my Beatles records away and consumed myself in Jimmy Smith. I started to play his songs and tried to play his licks on the accordion first. I learned how to play left hand bass on the buttons. Well, Jimmy had a self-produced record on Mojo Records that had an address on the back and so I started sending cassette tapes and pictures to that address. Coincidentally, his first call was to me on my 16th birthday in the middle of the night. He was in his club in Los Angeles and I was sleeping. In his raspy, powerful voice he gave me the only lesson anyone ever needs to take. He said I played too many notes and needed to learn how to play the right chords. I'm still on that lesson. I proudly own that I'm a musician for life, 49 years now, and I am constantly reaching to improve my playing. Personally, playing the bass lines and accompanying has become my favorite part of playing the organ. You can't change the solo until you can change the harmony. I was blessed to play at his club when I was 20 and, of course, I still have the wealth of his recordings to keep me busy!

AAJ: The organ can take on an infinite number of sounds, given the stops used and the settings. Were your mentors willing to share information about these things or is that something you developed on your own?

TM: That's a funny thing. Back then, the organists would slide all the drawbars in on break. Hank was also very clean, so he wiped the organ keys after each set and dusted the upper rail. I learned the sounds by listening and trying to set up the drawbars to match. Plus, I looked closely at LP covers and looked at the settings when organists were playing live, if I could get close enough.

AAJ: Your career path had been quite varied and it has been only recently that you have devoted your full energies to music performance and education. Were you still playing regularly while working in various business situations?

TM: I never stopped being a musician from the time I started learning when I was 8. Being a first generation Italian-American, our family was small and we always worked hard together. We had a regional touring show band called The Monaco Family and travelled around playing shows, corporate events, amusement parks, regional television, and so forth. And that was on the weekends. I also had a wedding band that worked a lot. I've played a million weddings and private events as I started professionally at the age of 12. I had my own checking account to deposit gig checks and pay the band. I also worked during the week in my father's concrete business when I decided to drop out of college. Then we opened an Italian restaurant and banquet center where I worked for twelve years. There I did everything from inventories to scheduling. But, I played nightly in the lounge and did weddings and parties too. I started having children and later ventured to become a food broker. Then, I started writing and recording jingles and dabbled in production music. I was then hired as an assistant broadcast producer by one of the agencies that used my music. This is where I got my video experience. I was then offered to run my father's construction business in the 90's. I built a warehouse and had an organ in there too. In 2006, the housing industry took the big dive that eventually caused the 2008 crash so we had to close in order to save our assets. This is when I was finally able to give it my all. The good news was that my recording and performing career as a jazz organist was on the rise. On the other hand, the financial hit and lack of security was a scary proposition.

AAJ: How does all this previous business experience impact your ability to market yourself, your recordings, and various teaching situations you're involved with currently?

TM: I am in the music business. Knowing how to run a business is vital to survival and longevity. It's the 80/20 rule; 80% of your time is doing business for the 20% of your time playing. However, 20% of my business customers return 80% of my income, but the other 80% affect my bottom line. I've seen this market and technology change all reality for many artists, including myself. When you look at the musicians that are working and playing year after year, you realize it's not just talent or luck. It's about developing and reshaping your product. You must keep the money balanced in the black, while investing in future projects and creatively promoting yourself.

AAJ: I know that Joey DeFrancesco offered to help put together your first record deal in 2000. How did that come about?

TM: My father died in October of 1999. He battled lung cancer and once his condition worsened, it was all I could do to run the construction business and help my father and mother prepare. I did stop playing music at that time and during this period I started to question my talent in the sessions. Previously, I had a few musical successes regionally, but I had two record deals fall through as well. It was at this time that I surrendered myself to God's will for me and asked to be a servant. I love the model of Saint Francis of Assisi. I didn't touch the organ for at least the next two years. Then in the spring of 2000, my friend Jim Maneri called me to say that there was a new club opening downtown and that Joey De Francesco was going to open it. To make a long story short, I offered to take Joey to dinner as I wanted to meet him. When I went to pick him up he was giving a clinic. Someone in the audience told Joey I was there and that I played organ. So he got up and invited me to play with Byron Landham. I hadn't played in years now. I was so nervous my legs were shaking, but I grabbed a groove and went for it. His eyes popped open and he jumped up and said "Man, you should let me produce you."

AAJ: About ten years separate you and Joey in terms of age. So here he is already established and you are still kind of a local hero looking for wider recognition back in 2000. Did that have any kind of impact on your relationship?

TM: I love Joey! He helped me when I didn't really even know I was looking for help. I just received the answer from my previous surrendering question-Why did you give me the talent Lord? These kinds of relationships have a different power to them, I suppose. He graciously plays my music on his radio show and we always communicate with respect and the love of family.

AAJ: What was the impetus to finally decide to pursue your music career full-time?

TM: When I closed the business in 2006, I had no choice. I put my business experience together with my assets as a musician and built a diversified portfolio of product lines. From instructional DVDs and downloads, expanded online lessons, more local gigs, and bigger international gigs, having things spread out helps the cash flow.

AAJ: Have you ever considered moving to a big city like New York or Los Angeles? Do you think the fact that you choose to stick to your hometown of Columbus has had any impact on your music career?

TM: When I was younger, I dreamed of living in New York or LA. Being a family man and now a fifty-seven year resident of Columbus, I have to say I love my city, my family and my friends. This is home and I am so blessed. I can travel and play anywhere around the world and have friends waiting. Or I can play Tuesday night at home with equally great musicians and have friends waiting. I try to balance life on the road with home life. My online lessons connect me several times each week to students scattered about the globe. At this point, I don't have any regrets at all. The best part about music is it will humble you in itself, so the journey is the best part. Learning is available to all and there are great musicians everywhere.

AAJ: Tell us about how you got involved with running Chicken Coup Records.

TM: Summit Records in Phoenix was my first official record label that released Burnin' Groves in 2001, the recording that Joey produced. By 2005, I had released 5 CDs on Summit. I also became real good friends with Darby Christensen, the president and CEO of the label. I worked the releases by going to conventions and networking. So I talked Darby into letting me start my own side label with him and Kip Sullivan for organ players. The Coup started in 2006 when I was forced to close the construction business. Jimmy Smith liked chickens and you know about his album Back at the Chicken Shack, so Chicken Coup Records became the name. I recorded East to West with Adam Nussbaum and Bruce Forman for the first release. To date, we have released 25 titles and have our latest scheduled this fall. A lot of the organists on the label are fellow and current students.
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