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Tony Monaco: Taking Jazz Organ to the Summit

C. Andrew Hovan By

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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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