Monday, October 03, 2022

'I’m the Salieri Type, Not the Mozart’

“SCHENECTADY – On a recent Thursday night, after three hours of uninterrupted jazz, the crowd had thinned at Leesa’s. 

“The trio of loudmouths at the end of the bar had deferred to the trio on the stage. The faithful, lingering past 10:30 at the State Street restaurant, were fulfilling every working musician’s dream – listening.”


A former newspaper colleague tells me the jazz pianist Paul Mastriani died in 2017 at age eighty-one. I haven’t seen Paul play in more than twenty years but the memories are vivid because he lived and played vividly. At one point during the evening described above, Paul began playing the opening of Chopin's "Polanaise" unaccompanied by the drummer and bass player. Listeners giggled. Thirty-six bars later he finished the theme, was joined by the rhythm section, and launched seamlessly into "My Funny Valentine." Paul later told me the Chopin and the Rodgers and Hart standard share a minor key and begin with the same three notes.

Paul was smart, quick-witted and incorrigibly funny, like many jazz musicians I’ve known. By day for thirty-four years he played a different sort of keyboard as a court stenographer – the guy who sits silently near the bench recording everything the lawyers, judge and witnesses say. Much of the rest of his life was spent at the larger keyboard. The paragraphs at the top are the lede to the extended profile I wrote of Paul in 1995 for The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y.      


Judged by the conventional litmus tests of money and fame, Paul never made it big as a musician. I don’t know if he ever recorded professionally. In his profile of the jazz singer Marie Marcus, “In the Wilderness” (Alec Wilder and His Friends, 1974), Whitney Balliett opens with a beautiful, extended paean to small-time jazz musicians who never become nationally prominent, perhaps never record, whose followings end at the town limits. I’ve known many of them, often superb players, and Balliett does them great honor:


“The number of jazz musicians in this country who piece out their lives in the shadows and shoals of show business has always been surprising. They play in roadhouses and motel lounges. They play in country inns and small hotels. They appear in seafood restaurants in ocean resorts and in steak houses in suburban shopping centers. They play in band shells on yellow summer evenings. They sit in, gloriously, with famous bands on one-night stands when the third trumpeter fails to show . . . Some of them sink into sadness and bitterness and dissolution, but by and large they remain a cheerful, hardy, ingenious group who subsist by charitably keeping the music alive in Danville and Worcester and Ish Peming [and Schenectady].”


Paul was born in Schenectady, a heavily Italian-American city. He once suggested I look into the influence Italians have had on jazz and popular music generally. His father owned a bar that became a musicians’ hangout. Paul remembered one of the regulars, a former vaudevillian named “Slack” who played spoons with both hands and tap-danced with bottle caps on his toes.  His first music teacher was Hap Huber, who played with a jazz trio and hosted a show on a long-defunct Schenectady radio station. “But mostly what he did was play Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson records, and help me figure out what I was listening to,” said Paul, who studied theory and advanced chord structure with Huber for four years. “He had perfect pitch. I can’t tar a roof with my pitch.”


Paul played in school bands and rock ’n’ roll bands, including one called The Valentinos. Their repertoire included The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak.” “‘Don’t talk back.’ That was my line,” he told me. He moved to New Jersey with the band and roomed for a month with Chet Baker, who had just been released from Riker’s Island after doing time for a narcotics conviction. Paul remembered him as a “nice guy” and exceptionally good chess player.


Paul traced his musical roots to Tatum by way of Peterson, sharing their baroque sensibilities, impeccable technique and confident sense of swing. I remember when I interviewed him twenty-seven years ago, he was listening to Ray Brown and Gene Harris, "to work on my chops." His repertoire of choice was standards, especially the songs of Harold Arlen, particularly those to which he knew the lyrics. Near the end of the 2,000-word profile I wrote:


“The pianist is short and portly, and wears glasses, a mustache and a goatee gone to white. At the keyboard, he looks transported while playing, as though the bar and audience have evaporated and he’s playing alone, on top of a mountain. Between numbers, he jokes with his accompanists and friends in the crowd.


“‘A musician is supposed to entertain. I was never one to turn my back on the people. I’m the Salieri type, not the Mozart,’ he said.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

Lovely piece. It reminded me of my late father, a pianist and arranger (self-taught, by ear) who organized his own big bands on several occasions from the 1940s (when he was in high school) through the mid-'60s. I saw his band perform once, at our local VA hospital in about 1966. The vets loved it.

Dad's main man was Stan Kenton, liking the edginess and experimentalism of some of Kenton's music. Benny Goodman, by contrast, bored him. (He did love Count Basie, though.) And, to keep his hand in in later years, he played piano in various out of the way places, as the quote you provided describes.

Nice memories.