Local jazz organist Tony Monaco continued his mission of bringing to Columbus the B-3 masters of the previous generation...actually, the greatest generation of jazz organ innovators. Perhaps Monaco is fulfilling a wish to perform side by side with them. Perhaps he’s giving back to the community-Columbus having been one of the stops on the jazz organ circuit of the 1960’s. That community fostered his passion for the instrument as Monaco’s father, Baldino, took him to The Needle’s Eye and other jazz organ venues in the city during his formative years.
Whatever the case, Monaco found a like-minded musician in Dr. Lonnie Smith: one who kept signaling throughout the concert for guitarist Robert Kraut and drummer Louis Tsamous to play even louder when it seemed that they were playing as loud as possible. They raised the roof. And then, when it appeared that the intensity had reached its limit, Monaco joined Smith for even more force and groove. This was truly one of the more important concerts of Columbus jazz.
My wife and I had intended to sit on another side of the theater for this concert, just to break out of habit. But then, Joanne Fallico, I assume, informed us that the front row and the parts of the left side were reserved for the Monaco family. We went back to the right side again before the family-about ten strong consisting of mother, brother, sister, daughters, nephews and in-laws-filled the seats and prepared for the concert with anticipation. When Monaco’s wife, Kathaleen, resplendent in a sequined pants suit, came from back stage, the signal arrived that the concert was about to begin.
But not before jazz organ authority, Pete Fallico, in pumpkin-colored suit that was two weeks late to reflect the changing colors of Ohio’s leaves, came out to introduce what the audience was about to hear. He said that the Smith/Monaco concert, sponsored by the Jazz Arts Group of Columbus and the King Arts Complex, was the second he attended in Columbus. The first was the September 27, 2003 event when Monaco brought Jimmy McGriff to town to play in a similar dual B-3 organ performance in the same theater. With the recent passing of Lady Byron (or Evelyn Childress) in Maryland, Fallico regretted the fact that many of the musicians who explored the possibilities of jazz organ are no longer with us. But then, on a positive note, his enthusiasm became unmistakable when he announced that Jimmy Smith will be the first jazz organ musician to be awarded the Jazz Masters Award at the International Association of Jazz Educators conference in Long Beach, California in January, 2005. In the spirit of Columbus jazz organ, which Fallico identifies in the liner notes to Monaco’s Fiery Blues as a recognizable style, he noted the contributions of Columbus natives Don Patterson and Hank Marr. (Marr passed away earlier this year.)
Sure enough, Monaco’s first selection of the concert was Patterson’s "Goin’ To A Meetin’," and the audience immediately was caught up in the groove. Monaco also performed his favorite song, "Nancy With The Smiling Face," the only ballad of the evening, which Monaco sang in a striking contrast to the full force of the invited B-3 assault once Smith came on stage. Later in the concert, Monaco played Marr’s "Greasy Spoon" as well.
With an orange turban looking like a flattened pumpkin, Smith, in a tailored black sport coat and black robe, looked as if his recent awards and record contract had done him a world of good. Irrepressible and obviously enjoying the music with a big grin and entertaining flourishes such as winks and exaggerated hand movement above the keyboard, Smith looked healthier and happier than he did several years ago, when he intermittently used a wheelchair as the result of a slight stroke-or even a year or two ago when he played with Lou Donaldson at the King Arts Theater.
After bemoaning the recent scarcity of straightforward melodies, Smith started his part of the concert with a simple, bouncy number, "When We Kiss Goodnight." But it didn’t remain simple or bouncy for long as Smith cranked up the volume and the excitement as the song evolved into a statement of the B-3’s power, as do all of Smith’s performances. The next tune made no attempt at easing listeners into the song as it started with unrestrained power, pugilistically, and never pulled its punches, reminiscent of some of Smith’s work on his MusicMasters tributes to Jimi Hendrix, Foxey Lady and Purple Haze.
When Monaco came back to exchange choruses with Smith on "Oleo," the thrill was compounded, leaving Kraut and Tsamous to focus all of their attention on the leaders as the organists’ ideas shifted or as the meters changed (Smith, for example, going instantly from a 4/4 drive to the 3/4 carnival allusion to "Over The Waves"). Smith and Monaco certainly gave the audience its money’s worth, with performances of tunes riding waves of undulating intensity for well over 20 to 30 minutes each. The encore presentation was "The Whip" from Smith’s latest CD, Too Damn Hot! With the audience clapping to the first- and third-beat blues vamp-turned-melody, the organists once again transformed the most stripped down of material into ever-evolving complexity and irresistible sweep.
During the intermission, Monaco’s mother, Anna, stood to stretch her legs. Her family talked with the Fallicos, her grandson sat on the edge of the stage and Tony came off stage to talk to all of them. While Anna Monaco’s sons, daughter, daughters-in-law and grandchildren shared in the thrill of Tony’s dream concert-and while, ironically named organ technician Lonnie Smith of Indianapolis fussed about improving the sound engineering for the second half of the concert-I said Hello to Mrs. Monaco, who was on the periphery of the celebration.
This is what she had to say.
"We [Baldino, Anna and Tony Monaco] went to Florida to meet him [Smith]. He was playing at a restaurant, and we told him how much we like his music. He wanted Tony to play his organ so that he could hear how it sounded, and he said to Tony, ‘Oh, you’re good.’ A lot of the people we talked to made promises [to help Tony] but didn’t do what they said they would. But Lonnie encouraged Tony. He has been playing accordion since the age of eight. Tony’s father told him that he had to practice, or else he would send back the accordion. And Tony said, "Oh no," and then he practiced. Tony’s father knew how much talent that Tony had and he wanted him to practice and do well. He used to take Tony to hear music all over town."
Do you still own Monaco’s Palace [the family’s catering business and banquet hall]?
"Oh no. We sold the business in December, 1998. My husband said that we would sell the business and then we would be able to go hear Anthony play. But then he passed away on October 24, 1999. Tony and his brother [Marino] run the concrete business, and they get a lot of the work from MI Homes [a major Columbus homebuilder]. But playing jazz doesn’t pay enough money. Tony thought about leaving the concrete business and being a jazz musician full time, but he decided that [a career as a jazz musician] wouldn’t pay enough. Tony’s a good person. He has a good heart. He’s a good father and a good husband and a good brother and a good son. He does things from his heart."
The things you learn from the mothers of jazz musicians .
Mrs. Monaco, a halo of brown hair floating above her head, recalled some of the important events in her family’s history with an exacting precision of dates. During the concert itself, she didn’t watch Dr. Lonnie Smith, Robert Kraut or Louis Tsamous. Instead, she didn’t take her eyes off her son, of whom she is so proud.
It was obvious from the comments of Mrs. Monaco that the spirit of her husband Baldino-an immigrant from Introdaqua, Italy who worked hard to build successful businesses from scratch, who helped raise a close-knit family that rejoices in each other’s accomplishments, who helped Tony overcome his health challenges (thankfully in the past), and who inspired his family with an everlasting devotion to jazz was the unseen inspiration for the evening of Tony Monaco-meets-Dr. Lonnie Smith.
The Columbus jazz community was the beneficiary of Baldino Monaco’s perseverance enthusiasm, realized in those same characteristics that Tony carried on, so that the torch of the city’s jazz organists could pass to another generation and continue to burn.