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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.

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