Reviews & Opinions

Tony Monaco Interview

Talk about life altering experiences, listen to jazz organist Tony Monaco describe the first time he heard the legendary Jimmy Smith on the Hammond B3.

"I put the record on my player-the same one I'd been using to play the Beatles-and played 'The Sermon.' It lasted 20 minutes; I'd never heard a song that lasted that long. The velvet that came out of the speakers.the tone that engulfed my soul..,.the freedom.all of it. Yes, it was a spiritual experience," he exclaimed.

Monaco, a member of the quartet saxophonist Pete Mills is bringing to Erie and the Ambassador Saturday night, recalled his emotional discovery of Jimmy Smith and the B3 in a recent phone conversation from his Columbus, OH home.

"An accordionist in my dad's wedding band gave me a copy of the LP 'The Best of Jimmy Smith,' and I couldn't wait to hear it," said Monaco.

Just 12 at the time, and himself a prize-winning accordionist, Monaco rushed to his room to play it. "I fell in love with that instrument. Immediately I wanted to do that. It was clear to me that I had the passion to play-and I felt I also had the gift."

Monaco's self-analysis proved correct on both counts. Originally inspired by Smith's playing and advice, and later encouraged, and produced on record by Joey DeFrancesco-generally regarded as today's greatest B3 player-Monaco has gone on to gain critical acclaim and establish a solid performing and recording career, both as leader and sideman.

Monaco, 49, has ranked in the Top 5 in recent years in Down Beat magazine's International Critics (and Readers) Polls; he now records regularly for his own Chicken Coup Records, and he enjoys a busy performing schedule at home in Columbus, elsewhere in the U.S., and abroad.

In January, for instance, Monaco is scheduled to play three nights in New York's Birdland, and a pair of gigs in Scullers in Boston.

Monaco's brand new recording is "Live at the Orbit Room: The Ultimate Jam" (Chicken Coup), an often blistering, soulful set recorded last year at the Toronto club with house guitarist Ted Quinlan and drummer Vito Rezza.

The new CD, and a number of others by Monaco, is available on iTunes. Or for a preview, folks can check out his website (www.b3monaco.com), and www.youtube.com for two different performance videos--"Burnin' B3 Man" and "Midnight Special," a tribute to Jimmy Smith. There's also a lot on Monaco on www.myspace.com, including a trio performance of "Ode to Billie Joe."

The son and grandson of musicians from Abruzzi, Italy, Tony began his musical career playing a smaller, 12-button accordion, on which he became very proficient, winning local, regional and even a national contest at age 12.

After he fell in love with Jimmy Smith and the Hammond B3, Tony first tried to play Smith's tunes on his accordion. "No more mazurkas, polkas or playing 'Granada,' " said Monaco. "Now I was playing the blues, 'The Preacher', and 'Back at the Chicken Shack' (all songs recorded by Smith).

Tony had one more step, though, before he would sit down at a Hammond B3 organ. "At 13, I got a cordovox-a Lowry organ connected to the accordion. I put it through Leslie speakers, and it sounded quite a bit like a B3. I started recording myself playing Jimmy Smith tunes. I'll betcha not too many other people did that," he said with a chuckle.

Meanwhile, young Monaco started checking out the other major jazz organists of the 1960s-70s; he rattles off their names-Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Charles Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and more.

In the mid-1970s, Jimmy Smith had his own club and label. Monaco found an address on the back of one of Smith's albums, and decided to send his new idol a package containing a cassette, photo and letter.

Did Smith respond? Yesiree. On Tony's 16th birthday, he received a call from Mr. Smith. "It was around 1 a.m.," Monaco recalls, "and my dad answered and started talking to Jimmy in Italian. Finally, I got on the phone. I was shaking in my boots."

Not long after, Smith invited Tony to join him at Smith's West Coast club. "We stayed in touch after that," says Monaco. "We talked a lot on the phone. He told me not to worry about playing a lot of notes, scales, licks and all that stuff, but learn the right chords." Monaco says he continues to heed that advice from the master.

Just when Monaco was getting into learning the B3, he came down with a debilitating neurological disease that put him out of action and in the hospital. "It was something like polio," he recalls, "and it bothers my shoulder when I'm playing to this day."

When Tony returned home from the hospital, a gift that would last a lifetime awaited him. In the middle of the living room stood a Hammond B3.

"Life is a collection of moments, and that was a moment I can remember as if it happened yesterday," said Monaco, who went on to describe vividly the gift that is still giving.

"I can remember the color, the smell-it was of oil from being in the store, rather than smoke from being in a club; it was a living, breathing, moving thing."

Tony immediately began taking lessons in Columbus from a gentleman named Jim Russell-the only lessons Monaco has taken.

Monaco, who has worked a variety of day jobs in his lifetime (he and his brother operate a construction company), lost interest in music for a while following his dad's death in 1999. There were other problems-a divorce with three daughters involved (now ages 25, 23 and 21), and a weariness from playing (and singing) in piano bars "with a drum machine."

He came back, however, thanks to an appearance in Columbus by Joey DeFrancesco. "Even though I'd lost interest in playing and in jazz generally, I invited Joey to my mother's house for dinner. I didn't even tell him I was an organ player. Later, at a clinic he was giving, someone told him he ought to hear Tony Monaco play organ. Joey invited me to play and we soon became friends. He delivered me from my purgatory of not playing. He brought me back in May, 2000, seven months after my dad died."

DeFrancesco eventually produced and played on Monaco's first CD with hopes of selling it to Concord Records, for whom DeFrancesco recorded at the time. "They didn't need two B3 players, though," says Monaco, "so the deal didn't happen."

Later, the CD was put out by Summit Records, and "Burnin' Grooves" remains Monaco's best selling recording.

It was followed in 2002 by "Master Chops T" and "Intimately Live at the 501," 2003, "New Generation: Paesanos on the New B3" (on which he was joined by DeFrancesco), 2004, "Fiery Blues," 2006, "East To West," and the new "Live at the Orbit Room."

"No two of my records sound alike, because I'm always growing. I don't want to sound like I did five years ago," says Monaco.

As for playing with saxophonist Pete Mills on "Fresh Spin" and at the Ambassador, Monaco says, "It's his project, done with me in mind, so I can sit back and weave my tapestry."

Finally, Tony says that the B3 remains the love of his life. "Outside of my mother," he adds.


Bob Protzman has written about jazz for five decades and hosts "Everything Jazz," 9 to midnight Sundays on WQLN-FM 91.3. You can reach Bob at protz@verizon.net or jazzhosts@wqln.org.

June 26, 2011