Jazz elegy

A remembrance of legendary pianist Joe Piscatelle

Joe Piscatelle: a player of great passion and authority
Earlier in my jazz career, singing in front of a trio of formidable players, I was appropriately intimidated. One night, Joe Piscatelle, the brilliant pianist, sat at a front row table. On the break, he read me the riot act.

"What the hell kind of half-assed thing are you doing up there?" he said in that gruff, Cagney-esque voice. "When you sing, you need to take command."

"But I'm not the leader."

He dismissed my protest with a wave of his ever-present cigarette. "You're the damn singer - deliver the damn song. You owe it to the music. You owe it to the audience. They didn't come here to watch you sleepwalk."

He was right, of course. That authority he spoke of, born of passion, is one of the characteristics that sets the truly great players apart, and Joe was one of the best. His playing was in-your-face, impossible to ignore, with melody lines that sang like Caruso and harmonies that took you to wild and unexpected places. And he was always in command. Everyone who played with him would say the same thing: when you play with Joe, there's no question who's driving.

Joe Piscatelle passed away last week after a long, eventful career which included 37 years playing jazz in California, working in Europe with the likes of Art Farmer, performing with the USO during the Korean War, and teaming with George Prado, Cecil Carter, and the Regency Jazz Band in San Antonio.

He seemed to remember every tune ever written - at least, every tune worth remembering. Music lived and breathed in him; playing was as natural as talking. If he walked into a house with a piano, he immediately sat down and started playing. It wasn't a bid for attention; it was simply his way of joining the conversation.

Uncompromising, cantankerous, and stubborn, he was a willing and generous mentor to those who shared his passion. "These young players are always wanting lessons from me," he would complain. "Hell, they should pay to hang out with me. They'll learn everything they need to know."

Joe liked those sweet drinks with a caffeine kick, and what riches could be bought for the price of a Bailey's and coffee during the break: head-scratching jazz theory, mind-blowing alternate chord changes, obscure lyrics for which you'd been searching for years jotted down on a cocktail napkin. It would buy the real lowdown on the diva he'd accompanied in Los Angeles whose name is a household word, or anecdotes of poker games with Chet Baker on the train through Europe in the wee hours of the morning.

I know it sounds corny, but I'd like to imagine Joe on some heavenly train with all the great jazz players who've gone before. Perhaps he'll wander into the club car in his Armani suit, sit at the grand piano with his Bailey's and coffee, and begin one of his fabulous, open-ended Gershwin or Cole Porter medleys, chain-smoking like a film noir detective. Perhaps he'll be joined by Dizzy or Bird, who he used to hear on the radio from Birdland when he was growing up on the East Coast. Perhaps when he takes a break, he'll join Chet Baker for another hand of poker.

Hell, no. Knowing Joe, he'll probably be driving the damn train. •

By Bett Butler

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