The Joel Schiavone I Knew

Joel Schiavone: The one and only. (photo by Eric Devine)

I’m writing this month’s column on my birthday in the UK in the shire of Derby (pronounced like “Barbie,” not like the hats worn by Laurel and Hardy) in Ashbourne Civil parish in a village called Kniveton in an AirBnB called “Upper Bank House.” I only mention this because for the past 30 years—other than the Covid “coffee break” of 2020 and 2021—I’ve celebrated my birthday in my adopted country rather than back in the states.

The tone of each natal anniversary has varied. For several years, I was serenaded during the Keswick Jazz Festival by 400 jolly Brits in sold-out shows at the Theatre by the Lake (the lake not actually being a lake; there are ironically no lakes in the Lake District of England—the large bodies of water are referred to as just that: “waters.” So TBTL is on the shores of Derwentwater). One year, I forgot it was my birthday until my pal Jim Fryer, while quaffing strong cider with me in Cornwall around 4 pm, happened to ask how old I was. I started saying “29” and then realized that had been my age the day before. Having been rudely awakened to how old I’d become, I guzzled my pint and three more just in case life ended at 30. This year, I’m enjoying a quiet day with walks, a beautiful haddock-and-egg breakfast courtesy of my private gourmet chef Anne, and a dinner of vegetarian Indian dishes, once again created by my genius wife.

Red Wood Coast

I share this to introduce the real theme of this month’s offering. Long before I even knew England was a real place (as opposed to the fictional setting of tales about King Arthur, Robin Hood, Arthur Treacher, and Margaret Thatcher), I celebrated a birthday in a, for me, new fashion that would shape my world for decades to come. In 1979, I turned twelve on a Thursday. As a birthday gift, my dad took me the following Sunday to the Millpond Tavern in Northford, CT, where the Galvanized Jazz Band (GJB) had weekly residency from 6-10 pm.

I’ve written on many pages of this august publication about the band and its influence on me, but this time I’m concentrating on one member of that band. I’d been to the Tavern to see the GJB with my dad prior (I believe my first time there was at age 10) but this night was special, because Dad had arranged that I’d be invited to perform during the break between the third and final sets of the night with the banjo player, who loved—as did the crowd—doing sing-along to “liven things up.” That banjo player was Joel Schiavone, and from him I had a taste of playing in front of an attentive audience and “working the crowd.”

Joel passed away last month. I’m sorry I never wrote about him or how much he meant to me until it was too late for him to read it. I believe there are other tributes/commemorations to him in this issue of the TST, but this one is personal rather than historical. I’ll never be able to put into words what his confidence meant to me. Dad had been not-so-subtly hinting “My son plays piano—he’s pretty good,” for the past couple of years when he’d occasionally bring me to hear the band.

Hot Jazz Jubile

(NB: In a previous column I painted my dad out to be a total jock with no appreciation for my piano playing; by the time I’d reached age twelve he’d come around to seeing it was okay his son was a musician. He still wanted me to play sports, though. In hindsight I should’ve tried harder; that way I’d be able to walk across a room without falling over!)

Jeff and Joel’s House Party (photo by Eric Devine)

Finally, Joel said (perhaps if only to shut Dad up), “Okay, let’s see what the kid can do.” He invited me to play a couple of tunes during the break between the second and third sets. I can’t remember everything I played, but I imagine “The Entertainer” and “Hello, My Baby” were included. The audience responded the way they always do when a pre-teen kid can do anything onstage except pick their nose, and Joel told me, “Kid, your dad’s right; you’re not bad. Sit in with me during the next break when I do some tunes to get these folks singing.”

It went so well, Joel gave me an open invitation to sit in during his sing-along segment whenever I came to the Millpond on a Sunday night. So of course, I got my dad to take me more often. We’d sit as close to the front row as we could get, and I’d be torn between wanting to hear more hot jazz from the astounding band playing fourteen minutes from my house and wanting to get up there and play with Joel. Finally, my turn would come. For the first couple of months, he’d say “Do you know this one, kid? No? Sit it out.” Then it was “Don’t worry, kid, this one’s easy. You’ll find it.” Then it was (to the audience), “You want to hear that one, but you’re afraid the kid doesn’t know it? Tough! He’ll learn it!”

Jeff and Joel’s House Party (photo by Eric Devine)

I was too young and self-focused to know with whom I was playing or what he had done (and would do) for good time jazz throughout the world. I didn’t know then that Joel Schiavone was equal parts Puck, Pied Piper, P.T. Barnum, and Peter Pan. Or that he was locally known as New Haven, Connecticut’s “Don Quixote” for his lifelong efforts to improve the city he so loved. All I knew is that this man who could make people laugh and feel welcome, who stuttered so severely he’d sometimes not be able to finish a sentence (UNLESS, like Jim Nabors or Mel Tillis, he was singing), who emceed the GJB show as cornetist Freddy Vigorito chose the next tune while reminding the band how it went, was asking me to accompany him on the tunes of the audience’s (or their parent’s) youth.

As the years progressed and I matured as a musician, Joel would eventually invite me to play the first tune of the final set with the band. Pianist Bill Sinclair was gracious about this, and also took the time to give me invaluable pointers on how to more effectively back a soloist. This was heaven for me. By the time I was sixteen, I was on the list of subs if Sinclair was away (he toured a lot in Germany back then) and played the entire evening with the band, but Joel never let me forget WHY I was on the bandstand. “Kid,” he’d call out as I was getting up after the third set, “no break for you! Sit down and let’s make people happy!” Having just successfully navigated “Copenhagen,” I was back to pounding out “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” And that was more than fine.

Evergreen

Little research is needed to discover the ins and outs of Joel’s quixotic efforts to bring a convivial, musical joie de vivre to the masses with his international chain of “Your Father’s Mustache” restaurants and bars (reaching as far as Japan). On YouTube, Google “Ed Sullivan, Your Father’s Mustache” and see what happens when multiple banjos, a tuba, and trombone meet go-go dancers: Then, read the hysterical comments!

Less well-known is that the Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival—still inarguably the best fest of OKOM ever produced east of the Mississippi—survived past 1990 only because Joel assumed directorship after an explosion of anger and diverging viewpoints saw founder Dave Greenberg stepping down. The original site of the festival on the Essex (CT) Steam Train grounds no longer available to him, Joel took it to the Sunrise Resort in Moodus, CT and continued the tradition of bringing classic jazz bands from around the world to Central Connecticut to celebrate the international draw of American music from the 1890s-1930s.

Jeff and Joel’s House Party (photo by Eric Devine)

Anyone who has entered “Jeff and Joel’s House Party” into YouTube is aware of the most lasting legacy of Joel’s and my partnership. Thanks to fan and inventive cinematographer Eric Devine’s work, the results of eight years of intimate weekend events are on display in hundreds of videos. The House Party concept was Joel’s answer to the increasing unsustainability of multi-venue multi-band jazz festivals. I was honored when he approached me to partner with him, and a bit shocked when he suggested my name go first. “You know everyone we want to invite, and everyone knows you,” he reasoned. “I’ll take care of the logistics, volunteers, meals and location.”

Nauck

We began in his 1804 farmhouse in Guilford, CT, moving (when he sold that) to two Elks Clubs, first in Guilford then finally in neighboring Branford. At each weekend event, we and our legion of volunteers featured the best musicians from (primarily) the New England and Tri-State areas in largely unprecedented combinations, always delivering the finest in spontaneous, hot jazz.

I’ll always remember Joel with fondness and gratitude. Throughout the many phases of our relationship, he’d never fail to turn to me at the conclusion of one of our adventures and comment, “Y’done good…kid.” Looking back at the smiles, the connections, and the joy Joel provided to the musical world, I’ll close by saying, “You done good, Joel!”

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Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online atwww.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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