Bassist George Prado once told me, "Joe Piscatelle has probably forgotten more music than most people learn in a lifetime." But when this accomplished jazz pianist plays, I get the distinct impression that he's never forgotten anything he's ever heard; every lick, melody, and rhythmic figure is neatly cataloged in his musical brain, ready to burst forth in a flight of improvisation. Ask him to name his influences, and he'll tell you "everybody." You'll hear echoed the technique and sheer physical power of Oscar Peterson, the hard swing of Art Tatum, the bebop lines of Bud Powell, and the harmonic sophistication of post-bop Miles Davis as Piscatelle weaves in and out of key centers, sometimes way out, leaving lesser musicians scratching their heads and saying, "I don't know what he just did, but it sounded great."
There is also his ear-catching habit of quoting melody lines from different tunes. In the first chorus of Piscatelle's solo on "Donna Lee" from drummer Joe Guerra's album, Jazz Desde Laredo, you hear occasional faint suggestions of a vaguely familiar theme amid bebop lines. A series of arpeggios, a chordal duet with the bass, and then, on the third chorus, he breaks into what was hinted all along — could it be? "Camptown Races"! Except on the "doo-dah, doo-dah," he plays the most deliciously dissonant chords, á la Thelonius Monk — and suddenly, the melody is a parody of itself. It's pure Piscatelle, the kind of spontaneous musical expression that comes only from a lifetime of living and breathing jazz.
I recently spoke with Piscatelle at the Omni Hotel, where he was performing with vocalist Ken Slavin and bassist Chuck Moses. We talked about his life and career: playing with the USO during the Korean War, living and playing in Europe with jazz greats like Art Farmer, midnight poker games on tour with Chet Baker, the New York scene, several marriages, and 37 years of playing jazz in California. With his East Coast speech rhythms, hip wisdom, and talent for storytelling, his conversation was as entertaining as his playing.
BB: What were your first musical experiences?
JP: Everybody on my mother's side was musical. She and her sisters played classical piano, and my uncle Vic played with Glenn Miller's orchestra. I started playing when I was three and a half.
BB: Did you take lessons?
JP: Yeah, when I was 10. I didn't really want to play classical, but my mother insisted on it. I used to argue with her all the time. We lived in Connecticut, and when I was 11 or 12, I'd catch the radio shows from New York City (Birdland, you know) and my ears just turned to it, because that's where all the action in the music was. I knew these guys weren't wasting time. It gave me some direction.
BB: This was the early '40s, late '50s?
JP: Exactly. Then, when I was 16, we moved to Florida, and I started playing solo in clubs. I was making 85 bucks a week — big stuff.
BB: So did they hassle you about being underage?
JP: Nah. If they hassled me, I'd just tell 'em I was 22.
BB: What kind of stuff were you playing?
JP: Oh, I played everything, all the popular music of the time, in all the keys. And then I got onto Art Tatum. I went through all the piano players, every one I could hear. I listened to everybody, all styles, and I'd figure out what they were doing. But when I got to Art Tatum, I thought, "Here's a guy who does everything. There isn't anything he doesn't do, and I can hear what's coming. I need this cat." So I learned everything I could from him; I used him to learn. And then I was playing solo in this little club, and there was a trio playing in the back room for dancing: piano, bass, and drums. One night the piano player didn't show, and they told me to go back and play with them. And the drummer — he was a great drummer — told me, "Do you always play on the one? Play it this way." The swing thing, you know, oomp-chop, oomp-chop, oomp-chop, on the two. And I was pretty shaky. I thought, "How am I ever gonna get back to the one?" But I made it through the piece without turning the beat around, and I loved the sound! It was a feeling I'll never forget, a feeling that never goes away. It was like the kingdom of heaven was bestowed upon me. The whole world of jazz opened up for me right there. And it changed my life. No more piano bars, no more $100 tips. It was jazz from then on.
BB: What advice would you give aspiring young jazz musicians?
JP: I wouldn't tell 'em anything; it just goes in one ear and out the other. I don't get it when these cats come to me wanting lessons. What can anybody give you that you don't already have? Everything starts in your own backyard. Why not pay to just hang out with me for a couple of months? You learn by copying. And then you put it all together in your own way. These young cats just don't have the feel. When you're young, it's all about ego. But that's really just fear. Life's a surprise, man. You can never be sure of it. But you should never be afraid of it.
BB: So how does Joe Piscatelle define jazz?
JP: Jazz is the American classical music. It's the finest art we have that we can call our own. It's a feeling. It's a lifestyle. It's a gift, a personal thing that you're born with to carry on. You've been given this beautiful thing to share. And nothing — no amount of money, nothing — can top that.
Ken slavin, Chuck Moses, Joe Piscatelle
Every Friday and Saturday
The Afterthought Lounge at the Omni Hotel
On the Lawn: a Fundraiser for the Center for Spirituality and the Arts featuring the Regency Jazz Band
Sunday, April 7
The Center forSpirituality and the Arts