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Feature Interview May/June...Frank Caruso

in his own words... Frank Caruso

Chicagoan Frank Caruso has played piano professionally since he was twelve. He studied at DePaul University and served in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington D.C. While still in the service, he was a featured performer at the White House Birthday Party for Duke Ellington, and has played for President Nixon, President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Senator John McCain. He has performed for thousands of private and public events and appeared with famous artists. Caruso performed with Luciano Pavarotti in concert at the United Center and has appeared with legends such as Henry Mancini, Louie Bellson, Steve Gadd, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Maynard Ferguson, Dave Douglas and the Count Basie Orchestra. He also has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia for jazz and pops concerts. Most recently performed the soundtrack form Lord of the Rings/Reign of the King at Ravinia with the CSO.

In addition to his artistry on keyboard instruments, Caruso has served as music contractor and conductor for many recordings and live shows.

Eddie Gomez, Frank Caruso, Bob Rummage

during a recent recording session.

Caruso performed music for many radio and TV commercials and also composed for his solo album, Freefall. Caruso recorded with Randy Brecker for River North Records. His other jazz quintet albums include: Mango Tango and Heart of the City—both in collaboration with saxophonist Mark Colby (a Conn-Selmer clinician) and Songs From The Kingdom Of Jazz with saxophonist Jim Massoth. In 2012 he recorded a project with legendary bassist Eddie Gomez. most recently recorded a trio project with Bob Rummage and Eddie Gomez. His recent book Piano Improvisation: A Powerful, Practical System explains his system for improvisation.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you get started in music?

Frank Caruso: I think I was six or seven when I started taking music lessons. My parents couldn’t afford a piano so I started out on accordion. I had some really good music teachers along the way. One of them particularly was a great accordion player named Vince Geraci—he was a great teacher. He insisted that I study with him when I was about fourteen or fifteen. He taught me a lot of stuff about theory—stuff I needed to learn. After that, I went to Notre Dame High School in Niles. They had a good jazz program. Father Wiskirchen was in charge of the Melodons, a nationally recognized high school jazz band. Jim McNeely from the Village Vanguard Orchestra played in that band, and so did Jim Pankow and a lot of really good players. I was always around a lot of really good musicians, and started gigging professionally when I was about fourteen or fifteen. Guys would pick me up and take me to gigs because I knew a lot of tunes.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Had you switched to piano by then?

Caruso: No. I didn’t switch to piano until I went to college, so I really didn’t start playing piano until I was seventeen or eighteen, but I never really had a problem. A lot of good players––George Shearing, for instance––started out on accordion, and Art Tatum played accordion for a long time, and Larry Novak. At that time in our society, people who could afford pianos were generally upper middle-class––that’s just the way it was.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you transitioned, was learning the left hand the toughest part?

Caruso: Yeah, that’s a given, but you just overcome it. Then I went to DePaul University for a couple of years in music school. I was actually disillusioned with the whole process, because at that time DePaul didn’t have a Jazz Studies program––it was traditional harmony and doing a lot of assigned papers and stuff, and at that age I just wanted to play.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you into jazz music at the time?

Caruso: Oh yeah. People who knew me at a very young age said I was predisposed to jazz music. There are certain things you just can’t take credit for. So from there I auditioned for the Navy band, the Commodores, in Washington D.C., which was really good duty.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: It was a good alternative to fighting.

Caruso: Yeah, it really was. Aside from that, there were great players there. I played with Steve Gadd, the late Joel DiBartolo—he was in the Tonight Show Band as the bass player for a long time. Stan Mark was our lead trumpet player—he played lead with Maynard Ferguson. That place was just crawling with really good young players. I would have had to go on the road with Buddy’s or Woody’s or Maynard’s band to get the experience I got there. Our staff arranger was Jay Chattaway. He has done several soundtracks. He did the soundtrack for The Silver Bullet (Stephen King) and he produced a couple of albums with Maynard Ferguson. It was like being a studio musician for the government.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So, in the Navy band you don’t just play John Phillip Souza marches?

Caruso: Oh, no. My job was the piano player for the big band, and some combo stuff. I was the guy that they would call first for jazz stuff—even when I was in the Navy. After I got out of the Navy I came to Chicago and did a couple hotel band things and a couple jingles. I became disillusioned with the business, so I quit playing for ten years and lived in the desert in Arizona—nobody could find me. I lived a couple of miles from the Colorado River and I just checked out for a long time.

Caruso performing in the Navy Band: Washington D.C. Commodores, circa 1970

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was it that was disillusioning?

Caruso: I wasn’t playing as high a level of music as I played in the Navy; I was doing a lot of jobbing. It wasn’t the same. I just wanted to get away from it, so I did. I came back in 1983, and started getting calls for gigs right away.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So when you were in Arizona, you weren’t woodshedding?

Caruso: No, I basically quit playing. I learned a lot of things about life I hadn’t learned, because I was always a musician since I was a kid. I felt like I was just out there hacking tunes out. They would say to me, “Play this tune.” I go, “I don’t know this tune.” They said, “Just play it––the second time around you’ll catch it.” But that was actually a great way to learn. I was fortunate the older guys would take me under their wing. I was playing with really good players, but the gig situations weren’t right. I didn’t feel right about what I was doing. Shortly after I was back, I recorded a solo project for a new acoustic label and did an album called Free Fall. It was getting heavy radio play, but they didn’t want to send me out. And then I met Mark Colby and we started recording. We did two or three projects. Two of them were not released, including one we did with Randy Brecker. But the first recording we did, Mango Tango, got really good airplay; and then we did Heart of the City for a local record company that had distribution with Polygram. They asked us for a cover a tune—we did “It’s Probably Me,” a Sting tune—and it was the most “added on” instrumental in the country right out of the box. But they also dropped the ball––they wouldn’t hook us up with Polygram management, for whatever reason.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You don’t have a high opinion of record companies then.

Caruso: Well, not those! [laughs]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let’s get back to this whole Arizona thing. Why did you choose Arizona?

Caruso: My wife’s parents owned land out in Arizona and they flew us out in February. It was sixty degrees and balmy. And I came back to Chicago, and it was cold and rainy, snowy, so I said, “Let’s do it.” I learned a lot out there because I was away from music. At first it was difficult—not playing, not hanging with the musicians. But being isolated like that, I started to examine music from a slightly different perspective—not as reactionary, but in a more mature way. I started listening to things other than what everyone was pumping out all the time—and had time to think about things, which I hadn’t done previously, because I was always working gigs. The thing is, when you are a musician, you actually keep playing music in your mind even though you aren’t playing it. I learned how to become more self-sufficient. So it was good from that standpoint.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did that time contribute to your music concept and theory and your ideas of arranging?

Caruso: Definitely. When you are away from it, you get time to think more personally and you have time to listen to other people more. That was an important developmental time in my life. The funny thing, as soon as I got back to Chicago, everyone started putting me to work right away, so I was very fortunate. When I came back I had four children, and eventually had seven, so you have to play a lot of songs to pay for seven kids––you can’t be turning down gigs! [laughs] But through all that, I kept that spark of jazz—it never got lost. And I had some great opportunities. I played with the Basie Band at the Regal Theater when they came to town in 1988. Tee Carson, who replaced Basie, went back to the West Coast for something family related. Frank Foster called Bobby Ojeda, and said we are going to Chicago and need a guy who can play the book. And he said, “Call Frank Caruso.” I had done a lot of that stuff in the Navy. So I did two shows, and Sonny Cohn, the manager, said, “Hey, do you want to come with us?” And I said, “Yeah man, but I can’t.” I couldn’t leave my family for forty weeks a year. Then, when Maynard Ferguson came through, Rob Parton asked me to play with them at New Trier High School. So I have gotten a chance to play with some big people, but it extends beyond jazz. I got to play an accordion solo with Luciano Pavarotti in 1998 at the United Center. He had a big, beautiful voice. I was standing three feet from him, thinking: Man, this can’t be happening!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was there classical and opera music in the house when you were growing up?

Caruso: Well, my parents didn’t really listen to music per se. But my teachers showed me a lot. Joe Vito was the one who got me that job. He really wanted me to have a chance to play with Pavarotti. I kept the fact that I was a good accordion player

Caruso with legendary drummer Louie Bellson

photo by Bill Klewitz

secret, because I liked to play piano. Joe Vito was a really extraordinary person—he was one of those people that made sure you got opportunities that he thought you should have.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about Joe Vito.

Caruso: Well, there’s a guy who knew opera. I talked to Joe virtually every day on the phone for thirty years, so when he passed it was hard. I think Joe Vito was responsible for putting many Chicago musicians to work and into positions based on their talent. That’s very rare; most guys are trying to just cover themselves. For instance, when I played for Pavarotti, Joe called and said, “Frank. I’ve got an accordion gig for you in January. I will be out of town” And I said, “ I’m open, where is it?” And he said, “The United Center.” I told him I like playing accordion, but I don’t want to play for people walking into a basketball game. And he said, “No—it’s for Pavarotti!” [laughs] He was that kind of a guy. And that performance was bumped to February, so he could have done the gig himself, but he never said one word. He wanted me to do it. You don’t often run into people like that. So, in my life, I really do try to provide opportunities for guys that are really talented and work hard. But he was in the business when a lot was going on, so he could actually do it. Great guy. When I went to Italy with my son, he showed up as a surprise, in the hotel room next to ours. Who does stuff like that? Just a great human being and a wonderful musician.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your talent and his went in similar directions, in terms of being able to do a broad variety of things. For starters, you both played accordion and piano.

Caruso: Yeah, that’s true. In fact, he wife is letting me use his accordion since his passing. I should probably do a jazz accordion album sometime. Don Stille and I have talked about that, but we haven’t put our heads together on that yet. We did a couple of things at the Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park. We had a ball. I told him we’ve got to go in the studio, and he said, “Let me know, man.” Don Stille is a wonderful musician. So is Larry Novak—I think Larry got me the gig with Henry Mancini at Ravinia. So guys have really helped me out a lot, and put me in the right places.