I’ve been awake since 4.00am, my mind racing with anticipation of the days to come. I bought a Roland digital stage piano for gigging, a keyboard amp and gig bag; I pick it all up on Friday. I’m happy and punch-drunk with possibility. It’s nice. So I think I’ll share something. Here’s the Johnny Rodgers Band from New York City, talking with me in June 2012, in Kota Kinabalu. What did I want to know? How they discovered music, of course.
Blame It On My Youth
Guitarist Joe Ravo grew up in The Bronx and loved music before he really realised it.
“When I was a kid, we used to go to my uncle’s house in the holidays. I was four or five years old. My uncle was a chemist, and on the holidays the big thing was he would take out his guitar and he would get everybody to sing! He had this early Real book of standards, it was actually called a Fake book in those days, and he would go through the songs with his friend Gene who was a violinist and also some kind of scientist.
My uncle was a bad guitarist, I learned that when I got older! But when I was young, I thought he was great! And his heart was really in the music, he had the right attitude!
As a kid, it’s really a big experience, and I always wanted to go to my cousin’s house for the holidays. When I was older I realised that was why I liked to go there, ‘cos I wanted them to play!
I was fortunate in a sense that I grew up pretty much right in the heart of the 60’s, I was an adolescent then. That was sort of a gift in life, because in the 60’s there wasn’t a lot of distinction between different types of music. There was so much happening – you could turn on AM radio and there would be Top 40s radio. Today, a station might only play rock or something like that. Then, you could hear Wes Montgomery, Herb Alpert, Miles Davis followed by Smoke, Smoke, Smoke, James Brown, the Beatles…
History has been rewritten and people think the 60’s was all about a British rock invasion, but James Brown was going up the charts the same time that the Beatles were.
I got a guitar when I was 10-11. I started to have friends who had guitars, and one of the criteria was that you had to have a guitar! I swear I used to go over to people’s houses to play the guitar, and I would get the latest lick from my friend Fred Rellis.”
Johnny said, “He’s just like the Beatles. They would take a bus across town because they found out this guy knew this B7 chord…”
Paul McCartney tells that story and when I heard that I said, ‘My God, it’s the same story.’ Every kid has that story: how you went across town or took the bus to go to somebody’s house to learn how to play a certain strum! I’m serious!
So I saved up my pennies for a guitar and my dad helped me out. Six months after I had a guitar I was in a band. and a year later I was practising a lot . I did go to engineering school, and when I got out, I played music. Now, I have two lives, I do a lot of technology stuff…”
“You became your uncle!” Johnny said.
“In a sense, I am,” said Joe. “But I play guitar a little bit better!”
New York State of Mind
Johnny Rodgers grew up in Miami. His grandmother always wanted to be a Ziegfeld Follies girl and would play her favourite melodies on the piano. But it was his older sister who got the piano for the house.
“My sister is ten years older than me. When she was young she wanted to play the piano so badly. She would take a piece of cardboard and draw the keys of a piano. She’d sit at the kitchen table till my mum and dad came through, then she’d start playng on the cardboard. Eventually my mom and dad were like: ‘Okay! Alright! We’ll get you a piano!’
So I really was blessed by that because by the time I came around, there was a piano in the house.
I fell in love with Billy Joel and Elton John, and I started taking lessons. My teacher used to say, ‘Do the Mendelssohn, and do the Hanon finger exercises.”
“My daughter’s doing that now,” said Brian.
“Yeah,” said Johnny. “But they only give it to you in one key, and they say ‘Now do it in every key’. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? You gotta be out of your mind. I’m gonna play Root Beer Rag by Billy Joel. She’d be like, ‘I tell you what, you learn the Mendelssohn, and I’ll help you with the Root Beer Rag.’
So, I ate my vegetables and I studied Classical, but was always trying to do the Billy Joel stuff.”
Johnny lived in Miami until he was 23. He studied Musical Theatre, sang, danced and played piano on the side, until he went to University of Miami for its Jazz programme. There he met Steve Zegree, director of an acclaimed vocal jazz programme at Western Michigan University. Zegree said if Johnny came to Western Michigan, he could sing with Mel Torme, who was Johnny’s new hero.
Johnny graduated from Western Michigan, and moved to Chicago, where he played in a piano bar. He was offered a job as a piano accompanist in New York, and he went. “I never thought I would make my living as a piano accompanist, but that’s in fact how I did make my living when I first moved to New York. I started playing in the piano bars.”
It was in one of those clubs that I was playing for Donna McKechnie, of A Chorus Line, and I saw Brian playing for Margaret Whiting and Paul Bernhardt. I said, ‘That guy’s good, man!’
This life is a path that I could never have predicted, I don’t know where I will be in ten years, I could never have guessed that I would be here, five years ago. I learned so much from listening to records of my favourite artists, ranging from Michael Franks, Billy Joel to James Taylor to Paul Simon, to Miles Davis to John Coltrane, the Beatles, I love everything.
Autumn in New York
Bass player Brian Glassman remembers the night he met Johnny.
“It was in 2001, right after 9/11. I was playing with a legendary songstress/ performer Margaret Whiting, who was hugely famous. She started Capital Records with Johnny Mercer in the 40s, Come Rain or Come Shine was her big hit. I was doing her show, and Johnny was in the audience. This show was six nights a week. I had one night off, Mondays.
So Johnny comes up to me and says:
‘Could you do my show?’ He was only like, 26. ‘I would really like you to play bass for me. It’s on Monday, and it’s just the two of us.’
I was like, ‘Aw, I don’t know… it’s my night off..’ (I was thinking, ‘Who is this kid, anyway?’)
Johnny said, ‘Oh please! Come to a rehearsal, and see if you want to do it.’
So I go to rehearsal, and he starts playing me his songs. He was wonderful. I said, ‘Okay! I’ll do the show.’
So that’s how it starts, with the two of us.”
Johnny won a award for promisiing composers from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). This gave him some money to make a recording of a couple of his songs.
“I went to the recording session,” said Brian. “That’s the first time I met Danny. He was not even playing drums, he was playing hand percussion. Johnny met him on some other recording session previous to that.”
They recorded Johnny’s two songs, and after that Johnny got an offer to perform in Broadway composer Maury Yeston’s career retrospective.
“He asked Johnny to do a recording of one of his songs called Danglin’,” Brian said. “Danny said, ‘I have the perfect guitarist for this. He’s going to be wonderful. He’s got a nylon-stringed guitar.’ It was Joe.
The four of us started rehearsing for that recording, and we said, this really is nice. This really works. That was in 2002.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me
Drummer Danny Mallon and I talked more about blogging than about him. But he found time to summarise his musician’s life, like the lyrics of a song.
“You know, what you think is the easiest door in, isn’t always the easiest door. I knew that music was the thing. When I saw the Beatles play, I knew I wanted to be in that.
I did study drums first, but when I got to school there was no room left in the drum class. So I ended up taking some guitar, just to be in Music.
But it’s kind of like marrying the sister of the woman you love, just to be close.
It doesn’t work, and you have to be with the one you love. So I just kept looking for that way in, until I found it.
Brian said, “The three of us are a little older than Johnny. We were very impressed with his broad knowledge of everything that came before him. Like ‘How does this kid know all this stuff?’ We grew up with it, but he was much younger. So, right off the bat we were impressed with his knowledge of the history.”
“I was lucky to go to good schools and study with great teachers,” said Johnny. “Being on the road with these guys is also like studying with great teachers.
When I play for Liza Minnelli, the few pieces of advice she gives me are: always give 110 per cent and, more importantly, always surround yourself with people who are better than you. Because that’s the only way you grow.
We all share a lot of similar influences. It’s very broad, but as broad as it is, I think we could all name our favourites of certain genres, and they would be exactly the same.
We all tend to go there when we are putting arrangements together. Like we’ll be doing Home to Mendocino, and we’ll be like: ‘Oh the riff should change here at the bridge…’ and Joe’ll play something, and it’s very Paul McCartney-esque, and we all go… ‘whoa, that’s good’.”
Joe really likes the band thing.
“I did a lot of Broadway shows, but my favourite thing has always been to play in small bands like this. Like three to five people, because you get a relationship with the people, and that comes out in the music.
I think that’s one of the most important things. A lot of people who aren’t on the stage don’t really realise what a band is. There’s something a little adolescent about it, it’s like four boys who get together and argue and act like a really bad family and wrestle and stuff.
But then the music comes out and it’s a little bit different, it has a little something that it wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s always like that. When I go to hear bands, a lot of times I can tell whether it’s really a band or not. They could be the greatest players in the world, but they may not be a band. There’s a big difference.
The JRB first came to Kota Kinabalu in 2010, as part of a South East Asia tour, ‘The Rhythm Road; American Music Abroad’. Jazz at Lincoln Center works with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, to send U.S. music ambassadors around the world.
According to Brian, about 800-900 bands applied to be part of that, and Lincoln Center picked ten bands to go to different parts of the world. JRB was chosen for South East Asia.
“In November 2010 we got back from this Asia tour,” said Brian. “There was a debriefing in Washington, and the State Department said they sometimes send bands to other places that you might not expect to go. Maybe Iraq or Afghanistan, somewhere like that.
They asked us to go to the Middle East. So in September 2011, we went to Jordan, then a little place called Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It’s the same show that we played here in Asia. They loved it!
People are the same all over. We were doing universities. Egypt was our last country. It was wild. We were all over the country too, Alexandria, Cairo, The Nile Delta.
“At first, I was a bit scared to go, but we had a fantastic time. People were so welcoming. They loved the music, we were like rock stars wherever we went. We worked with a lot of young people, met with their bands, and mentored a lot of college-aged kids. They were wonderful.
One of the guys from the State Department said to us that some of these kids could be approached for suicide bombings in the future, and if they could just remember what a good experience they had meeting JRB, it might make the difference.
“Then Roger Wang invited us to do the festival here, and Chew from the Embassy [Chew Wing Foong, Senior Program Specialist, U.S. Embassy, Kuala Lumpur] helped with the airfare. So we’re also doing some things for them. [They left on a 5.00am flight to Sandakan the day after their KKJF show, to do performances and workshops].
The State Department picks good communicators.
“I’m the blogger,” said Danny. “They’re all supposed to be blogging, but I’m the main blogger. I posted four blogs from our first flight until we landed in KK yesterday.
The thing that I’m learning is that it’s good to be current, to blog in real time. So people wake up and they can see where are you now. Otherwise, it’s like, ‘I’m seeing in Facebook that you’re in one city, but then in your blog it seems you’re in a different place…’ ”
The JRB blog. This is where Danny is blogging.
Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye
JRB has just finished recording an album of covers, which is all the American music they’ve been sharing abroad: Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Chet Baker…
They talked about their special guest, who played on their first album, Randy Brecker. Johnny described their great idea for this Grammy Award-winning trumpet player.
“We do a version of Cheek To Cheek but instead of just doing it like a standard, we made it two separate sections. There’s a Dixieland section, then when you get to the part Oh, I’d love to climb a mountain… we go into the Milestones thing! So when we gave it to Randy, we said, ‘Imagine that you are having a conversation as Satchmo and Miles Davis, if they were to play together,’ so we got this great duet of what it would be like to have Satchmo and Miles play on the same song together. He said he had the most fun with that.”
Satchmo and Miles, done by Randy Brecker! I’d love to hear that! Maybe I’ll get to review the album. Who knows? Thank you for the music JRB, catch you another time.