WAS I THERE?

BY RICK MONTALBANO
I was born in 1949, a year before the first half of the last century ended. I was very
fortunate to grow up in a time when live music was flourishing. I started playing at 11.
My first teacher, John Jaski, sent me on gigs when I was 13. The idea that people
would pay me to do what I loved to do seemed a little backwards I guess. I thought a
job was something you were forced to do and not supposed to enjoy.
So I started earning money at a young age and getting exactly the kind of education I
wanted from smart, funny, talented people, AKA musicians. I loved hanging out with
them. The life style suited me. It’s probably not necessary to say at that once I started
playing and making money, I stopped paying attention to school. After all, there was
music to be made and fun to be had. That’s the way my life was and is.
What a blessing to have all these wonderful musicians and mentors right here. There
was Jack Palmer, Dolores and Sammy Mancuso, Sal Amico, JR Montrose, Nick
Brignola, Sal Nistico, Jimmy Wormworth, the Zito family and Chick Esposito. On and
on the list goes. I played dance gigs early on with Johnny Salerno, Sal Alberico, Billy
Bartell, Paulie Gentile & Vinnie Petrucci. I accompanied variety shows put on by The
Rhythm-Lites, a group of young singers and dancers – a real throw back to the old
Vaudeville style. It was all invaluable experience.
The kind of training you can’t get in a school, a book, or a practice room.

Harry James’ Trumpeter Jack Palmer moved back to Rome from New York City in the
60s and took me under his wing. That was some big wing. I learned so much from him.
Not only about music, but about life and about the music business, like how to conduct yourself around people,
how to be professional. Years later playing in New York and Las Vegas, I learned first hand just how far his influence spread.
Jack gave me a long list of tunes and said: “learn these and you can play anywhere in the world.” He was
one of the brightest and funniest people I’d ever met. My experiences with him alone
could fill a book.

One of the highlights of that time was a long stint at a club called Birdland, located in
the old Baggs Square area of Utica and owned by Dick Frank. It was jazz organ club
inspired by the famous Birdland of New York City. The house Hammond B-3 was
tweaked over the years by some killing organists and sounded like none I’ve played
since. I played there for a year with one of the jazz world’s great saxophonists, a cult
hero and kind soulful genius named Tina Brooks. In those days there was a circuit of
soul/jazz organ clubs around the East Coast affectionately called The Chitlin’ Circuit.

This was Utica’s contribution to that most incredible music scene.

I didn’t get through the 60s unscathed by the Rock scene. My friends, the Del Vecchio
brothers came back to Rome one day and coaxed me into their road band. If by
coaxed you mean kidnapped. What followed was a crazy blur of 5 guys, a van with all
of their belongings and instruments traveling up and down the East Coast and out into
Middle America playing some of the greatest and most God-awful gigs ever. I played
the Hammond B-3. Bennie DiCastro let me borrow his club’s organ until I earned
enough to buy my own in 1968. That organ was played and modified by another of my
great mentors, Wendell Byrd, another story waiting to be written. That instrument
followed me all over the country. It was dropped down stairs, pushed off the back of
trucks, poked, prodded, burned, stabbed, used for transporting contraband…and still it lives on.

My last encounter with the group was in mid august 1969, when they pulled up to my
house one August Friday morning in the van, insisting that we were all driving down to
the Catskills to attend some rock concert on a farm. I happen to suffer from a terrible
fear of crowds so I decided not to go and that fear helped
me finally make the decision that jazz was the right field for me.

From there, my next stop was a band called Fuel. Vinnie Esposito, Dave and Dean
Blask, Sammy Oliva, and the great guitarist Carmen Caramanica joined forces in a
high energy Jazz/Rock/Fusion horn band. I started composing
and arranging in that band and that’s continued to be a joy in my life.

Throughout all those early days, I also worked in radio at WRNY and WTLB, doing a
typical disc jockey show, plus news and sports and engineering and also terrorizing the
other guys on the air. This all helped fill up the well of tunes that I’ve accumulated over the years

Next up was my gig with the great R&B/Soul Singer Lou Rawls. My association with
Carmen Caramanica opened that door for me. I played piano and organ and
eventually conducted for Lou. We were on the road full time, playing Las Vegas, New
York, LA and everywhere in between. Some really good musicians passed through that
band including Jaco Pastorious and Don Alias. Both became life long friends and mentors.

During those years, I married Jill Wrege, eventually moved back to Rome and raised a
family. I initially considered changing my name to Ricky Wrege.

That brings us to the 80s, the era of 1,000 weddings. After a long association with Ron
Colangelo, Al Serway, Scott Rutledge and I had 10+ years of nonstop weddings,
banquets and parties in a band called Ovation. That band, those guys and their great talent
kept my family afloat for a long time and I will ever be grateful to them. Al and I also started The Music Factory recording
studio during that time. In those days, peoplestill recorded on tape, listened to records and had to learn
how to play before they went into a recording studio.

During the 80s I also served as music director and pianist for Dominick Bruno’s Three
Rivers Inn, a long time Syracuse area showroom featuring Las Vegas style
entertainment. That evolved into a position as contractor and pianist for the Turning
Stone Casino Show Room in the 90s and currently. There I contract and play for
combos, big bands and orchestras accompanying acts like Frank Sinatra Jr, Anne
Murray, Aretha Franklin, Wayne Newton, Smokey Robinson, Steve Lawrence, Bobby Vinton and Joe Piscopo.

Late in the 80s, I began teaching jazz piano at Colgate University, Hamilton College
and Syracuse University. I’m still there and have had a lot of gifted young piano
students over the years. They have been an inspiration and a challenge and I usually end up learning as much they do.

A short list of some of the jazz musicians I’ve played with over the years:

• Doc Cheatum
• Chuck Mangione
• Jaco Pastorius
• Clark Terry
• Phil Woods
• Nick Brignola
• Sal Nistico
• JR Monterose
• Sal Amico
• Jane Monheit
• Joe Lovano
• Joe Magnarelli
• Benny Golson
• Slide Hampton
• Lionel Hampton
• Kenny Burrell
• Tina Brooks
• Barbara Morrison
• Tom “Bones’ Malone
• Randy Brecker
• Grady Tate
• Eric Alexander
• Don Menza
• Louis Bellson
• Peter Bernstein
• Don Alias
• Dave Liebman
• Jimmy Heath
• Bob Mintzer
• Aretha Franklin

I am currently part of the Central New York Jazz Orchestra, a big band that brings in
top jazz musicians and vocalists throughout the year and affords me a great
opportunity for composing and arranging. I’ve also been fortunate
to often perform and record with The former Syracuse Symphony.

For close to 15 years, I was involved in a weekly Wednesday night jazz gig at
Pastabilities in Syracuse, with long time musical partner Jimmy Johns on vibes and my
pal John Rohde on saxophone. My son Rick joined us on drums when he was in town
and a great group of young jazz players, including Joey Arcuri on bass and Andrew Carroll on piano, were regulars.

This is also my 30th year playing solo piano at The Savoy Restaurant in Rome. I grew
up right behind the Savoy on the Mohawk River and started working there when I was
just a kid. The Destito family has been a great part of my life. They’ve been big
supporters of live music for many years. I’m proud to say I was and to some degree
still am part of a select group called The Termites. To be a termite you had to have
grown up directly behind the Savoy, in those endless sunny days of the mid 50’s, as
Uncle Pat Destito used to say, “On the bayous of the Mohawk.” You were part of a
lucky group of neighborhood kids who hung out at this extraordinary place called The
Savoy. It was a society scene right out of Hollywood and Vanity Fair. Beautiful women
and well-dressed men, dining, drinking, laughing and singing the nights away. Uncle
Pat holding court, Rosie cracking everyone up, Orrie singing songs and breaking
guitars, Milt Munn at the piano, Joe Peraino on the floor, Fanny, Ang and Martha in the
kitchen, along with the Grand Matriarch-Grandma Destito. When I say hanging out, I
mean running all kinds of errands, sweeping and mopping floors, grinding cheese,
scraping the grill, shoveling snow and whatever else Razz told us to do. He was king
and we obeyed. But what a benevolent ruler. While we worked, we laughed and sang
and the when the work was done, we ate. Sometimes during those endless summers,
we were invited to the weekly Destito picnic at Caroga Lake…swimming, bumper cars,
singing, and of course the food. The termites laughed a lot in those days. At each other
mostly, but especially at the quick wit of Razz, Uncle Pat and Orrie. They were
celebrities to us. Almost everyone who was around during those times has incredible
stories and I hope to someday put together a book of all the rich, poignant and
hilarious vignettes that make up the Savoy folklore. I have wonderful memories of
those happy days and a few stories of my own. I’ve traveled quite a long way since
then and I’m glad to say I’ve ended up right back where I started.
I‘m blessed with a beautiful sprawling Italian family. I’m the last of 7 kids. My family
consists of Mickey and Milt, Phil and Judy, Nick and Laverne, Anthony and Louise,
Mary Jane and George and Kathleen, hundreds of cousins, nieces and nephews,
children and grandchildren.They are all talented and musical, kind and generous and
they somehow manage to put up with me. I have a son Rick who ended up being a
marvelous musician. He is married to a beautiful and gifted singer named Jane
Monheit. They play music all over the world and have rewarded me with a fantastic
grandson named Jack Newton Montalbano, who is a total joy.
In addition, they let me play music with them sometimes.

I’m very happy to still be here playing music. As my friend and mentor JR Montrose
used to say: “You’ve got to stay interested.” I am definitely interested.
Since my last look at this recollection, and some major life changes, I’ve had the good
fortune of marrying a wonderful girl by the name of Julie Falatico. You may recognize
that name, as she is a great singer who returned to her roots in Utica and has been
performing in the area ever since. We met on the bandstand and still do…meet on the
bandstand. Also the kitchen, the living room and several other places around our new
abode. She is kind and funny, patient and beautiful. Why she would be with me is a question
with which a lot of my friends have been struggling.

Through the years I’ve had the amazing good fortune to play in just about every
conceivable situation with some truly great musicians. I’ve travelled a lot in my life, but
Rome, NY has always been home. People often ask if I’ve lived here all of my life. I respond with “not yet.”

Well, I guess during this Corona-isolation period, I just wrote my own obit, which is
important because you never know who’s going to write those things. They may not even know you.

I’m happy to say it’s been an interesting life and with any luck it will continue.