Saturday, February 16, 2008

John Coliani with Les Paul


While lying back one night, stairing at the ceiling and listening to WRTI Temple jazz radio, I was thinking how sweet the piano was, interspersed with Mel, Mel, Mel Torme, when DJ Maureen Malloy read off the musicians playing behind Mel, including John Coliani on piano...John Coliani made me sit up and take notice.

I know that guy, a truely great piano player. I met him at what is now Steve & Cookie's in Margate, but then, back in the 80s, was the old Strobeck's, then called Bookbinders. Carney insisted I check him out and bankrolled the evening to ensure that I went. The late, great Charlie Carney introduced me to Coliani as the best piano player he'd ever known, and Charlie, a bartender for a half-century at fifty different bars, had been around town.

I was impressed with John Coliani, who was from the DC area, but relocated to Jersey, graduated from ACHS and then lived at the Shore year 'round. Having been playing the piano since he was a kid, John went on tour with Lionel Hampton when he was a teenager, and won the very first T. Monk award, so he was a pretty established commodity when I met him, playing solo in the back of the room by the fireplace.

I may have been impressed by his playing, but was blown away when John said that he was taking piano lessons from Carlton Drinkard, Billy Holiday's former pianist, who was in Atlanitc City working at one of the casinos. A week or so later, again with Carney, I met Drinkard at one of John's shows and got a music history lesson between Coliani sets.

"Lady Sings the Blues" was all fiction, said Drinkard, whose character, the piano man (played by Billy Dee Williams?), is knocked off by the mob over a bad drug deal in the movie, "But I ain't dead," protested Drinkard, whose drinking hand is still mangled by the mobsters who broke it, back in the 40s. He brings his whole elbow up when he takes a sip.

There was a manuscript, Drinkard said, that was the true biography of Billy Holiday, but it was destroyed in a Baltimore hotel fire a long time ago.

I got together a few more times with CarltonDrinkard, usually where ever Coliani was performing, each time with Carney. Then one night I took them to Center City Philly to see a South Street theater production of a Billy Holiday tribute show, I think it was with Dee Dee Bridgewater. Oh, what a night that was. I swung four tickets to the show and I drove, with Lynda from Pittsburgh in front with me and Carney and Carlton in the back seat. First stop on the White Horse Pike was the Black Cat liquor store where Carney got a bottle of whisky, of Carlton's persuasion. Once on South Street we went to a Mexican joint for dinner before the show and Carney disappeard, later I learned, he was arranging for flowers for Dee Dee Bridgewater, the featured singer and Billy Holiday impressionist.

After the show, the band came out, having heard Drinkard was in the audience, and wanted to meet him. They talked with him for a while, with Drinkard saying things about tempo and timing and the young kids nodding their heads. I wrote a story about that night "On the Town with Carney and Drinkard," that I will have to dig out of the archives.

Years later I was sad to read Carlton Drinkard's obit in the Atlantic City Press, and thought of him again when Charlie Carney passed away. And I've often wondered whatever happened to Carlton Drinkard's piano student John Coliani.

So when Maureen rattled off the names of Mel Torme's band and said John Coliani on piano, I had this flashback of Charlie and Carlton, and went on line to see if I could find Coliani.

Well it seems John has done good for himself. He now lives in North Jersey with his son, and besides the stint with Mel Torme, has a huge discography and a web page full of write ups that doesn't include the one I did back in the 80s. You can check out John Coliani's web site at [].

It seems that Johnny C. was playing the same club as Mel Torme when Mel heard a recording of John's piano music being played through the club's sound system, and hired him before they even met. After playing for a few years with Mel, after he passed away John hooked up with the legendary Les Paul, who holds down the Monday night gig at Iridium in New York City.

At ninety two years old (b. June 9, 1915), Les Paul is a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who just doesn't want to hang up his guitar. Paul maintains his steady Monday night Iridium gig with a quartet that includes John Coliani on piano, Nicky Parrott on bass and Lou Pallo on guitar, and whoever else happens to be in town that night. It could be Paul McCarthy, Steve Miller, Pat Martino, Jose Fileciano or Keith Richards, all guys who sat in the Les Paul tribute at Carnegie Hall (July 3, 2005). []

For those who don't know the brand names of electric guitars, Les Paul personally invented the hardbody electric guitar, juryringging some wires, a tin can and a stuffed acoustic guitar, he created an original, and the Gibson Les Paul is one of the most popular guitars ever made. Over the years he also invented and obtained patents for numerous other gizzmos that musicians use to make music, whether its rock or jazz.

Paul himself, as your parents, or grand parents can tell you, had a few hit songs and a popular 50s television show with Mary Ford, has a handful of Grammys, and is no slouch when it comes to entertaining a roomfull of people.

Next show is Monday a week, and it looks like its time for a road trip to The City. Center City is Philadelphia, The City is NYC, and the Big Apple requires certain prerequisite logistics be pre-established to get there and back without too much hassle, though its certainly a doable mission.

In a city with dozens of great jazz clubs, the Iridium [ ] is one of the best, and is now on the Agenda. Besides the steady Monday night gig with Les Paul, Coliani also returns to his Jersey Shore roots every summer and performs a show at the Dante Hall in Duck Town, a great venue for him. Look for him, and for me, to be there this summer.

Getting Coliani's address from his web site I sent off a quick email - Yo! John, how ya doin? And get back a quick, within a few hours after midnight, comeback from the other end of Jersey.

Johnny C's glad to hear from me, was sorry to hear the Carney passed, and said, "Any friend of Carlton Drinkard is my hero," and that he was looking forward to seeing me at the Iridium some Monday night.
So now I gotta go. Except this time I ain't driving; I'll take the Johnny C Train.
February 14, 2008

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