Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience
Jazz, that buoyant mix of improvisation and ensemble playing,
has long been recognized as our nation's richest form of music.
Where did jazz come from? Although the earliest sources of jazz are
rightly attributed to African Americans and Creoles of mixed black,
European or Native American stock,
Italian Americans have exerted a steady and creative influence
on the music throughout its history.
These contributions have been noted by the late jazz scholar
who wrote that "no other European country was the ancestral
origin of as many significant jazz musicians as Italy."
The Birth of Jazz
Contrary to popular belief,
Italians didn't arrive in America en masse solely during the
"great wave" of 1890 to 1920.
Italian explorers such as John Cabot
(Giovanni Caboto, who sailed for the British),
Enrico Tonti (who sailed for the French)
and Giovanni da Verrazzano
(who has a bridge named after him in Manhattan's Battery Park)
were crucial players in "opening up" the New World.
The names of Italian artisans, builders, religious and shopkeepers
can also be found among the name charts of colonial America.
And, in terms of musical history, when President Thomas Jefferson
professionalized the first official U.S. Marine Band in 1805,
he recruited Sicilian musicians,
all of whom eventually played under the baton of maestro Gaetano Carusi.
(Note: The next three leaders of the U.S Marine Band would also be Italian.)
when the brand new French Opera House opened in New Orleans in the 1850s,
the call again went out to Italian musicians.
Local business leaders didn't need to look very far, however,
as the city of New Orleans already had a bustling Italian population,
which had taken root in the 1850s.
Living and working side-by-side by another oppressed group,
African Americans, the Italians shared their own distinctive forms of music,
which encompassed folk and classical traditions.
The sons of these early immigrants,
many of whom were hired to play at the French Opera House,
would go on to become familiar names in the popularization of jazz:
Nick LaRocca, Leon Roppolo, Arnold Loiacano, Joe "Sharkey" Bonanno and,
of course, the gifted musician and performer Louis Prima.
The Roaring 20s and the Big Bands
Gradually, as more Italians assimilated into the American mainstream,
they brought their talents with them,
adding unique Italian "spice" to the musical gumbo we call jazz.
One such artist was Joe Venuti.
Dubbed "the mad fiddler from Philly"
for his outrageous practical jokes,
Venuti single-handedly introduced the violin into the jazz ensemble.
He and his boyhood friend, Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro),
teamed up for some ground-breaking recordings,
which eventually led to their being hired for Bing Crosby's
famous radio show band.
Lenny Payton (born Salvatore D'Angelo) arranged many
of Duke Ellington's numbers in the 1940s.
Fittingly, another Italian American, the late William Russo,
carried on this tradition with his Chicago Jazz Ensemble,
which continues to revive the classic works of Ellington,
Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker.
At the age of four,
Adrian Rollini played a Chopin concert at New York's Waldorf Hotel,
later mastered the vibraphone and then hit upon his favorite instrument,
the bass saxophone.
Joe Marsala and his brother Marty actively recruited black musicians,
thus striking a blow against racial prejudice.
And many Italian American musicians who started out in the Big Band
era would go on to become solo masters of their particular instrument:
clarinet (Buddy DeFranco), piano (Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa),
saxophone (the late Flip Phillips, born Filippelli)
and the drums (Louie Bellson, born Balassoni ... note: his name has
been spelled both Balassoni and Balassone).
Bebop and Post-War Jazz
After World War II,
American exuberance quickly gave way to the seriousness brought
about by the Cold War.
As a mode of artistic expression,
jazz followed the tenor of the times,
becoming more experimental and individualistic.
Regardless of their mode of music, Italian Americans, once again,
were right there at the vangard, bringing their own unique style and rhythm.
Lennie Tristano, a blind pianist from Chicago,
startled listeners with his improvisational piano riffs.
Another pianist, George Wallington (born Giacinto Figlia),
played with Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop artists.
The abovementioned Dodo Marmarosa moved away from the Big Bands
and became the pioneer pianist of bebop.
There was even a "James Dean of Jazz": Scott (Rocco) LaFaro,
an innovative New Jersey bass player.
LaFaro's untimely death in an auto accident at the tender age of 25
deprived the world of a truly awesome talent,
which can still be heard via his work with Bill Evans.
From the 1960s onward,
Italian American jazz artists have continued to influence this
great musical art form.
Pizzarelli (dad Bucky and sons John and Marty)
represent an entire generation of jazz guitarists.
Fellow guitarists Pat Martino and Al DiMeola remain
masters of classical and fusion techniques.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano keeps piling up the awards and accolades.
And what about the "pop" which Italian American jazz artists
have given to American popular culture?
Vido Musso's saxophone influenced the 1950s rock-and-rollers.
When Charlie Brown moved from the printed page to television in the 1960s,
the Vince Guaraldi Trio provided his snappy theme song.
In the 1970s, Morgana King (born Mary Grace Messina) brought her
operatic/jazz singing voice to the role of Mamma Corleone in "The Godfather."
And, during the 1990s, the music of Louis Prima was adopted
by the MTV generation as the essence of "cool,"
thus bringing the Italian influence in jazz full circle.
After playing a jazz concert in Milan, Louis Armstrong explained
why the Europeans treated American jazz musicians
with the same reverence afforded a Verdi or Puccini.
"The Europeans figure our music's the same," Armstrong said.
"We play them both from the heart."
Once again, the great Satchmo hit the sweet note of truth:
Italians bring passion to whatever they do, be it food, art, business
or music----and, especially, all that jazz.