In the history of American Jazz, there were many
unknown, but great, talented musicians that have come and gone without having a wide audience. And we all
know that there are still many unknown and underrated talented musicians, and
only a handful people are aware of this fact. But fortunately, I finally got to
meet one who is still active playing jazz piano. His name is Ben Di Tosti. What is unfortunate was that though I
knew his wife through work for many years, I did not even know that she is
married to one of the greatest (but unknown) jazz pianists. Back in late 60’s, I was lucky enough
to purchase the Ben Di Tosti Trio’s album “Carnival” issued on Pacific Jazz (later changed to World Pacific
Records). I was impressed with his
pianistic approach – his contrapuntal style and his melodic approach - that
reminded me of Ravel, Debussy, and other impressionists. His piano style was so fresh and unique
to the ears of one who was used to listening to Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.
Now, the opportunity finally came to me after 40
years to interview Ben Di Tosti, whom I consider one of the greatest jazz
Ben Di Tosti - October 09
Q: Can you tell me about your early years?
BD: I was born and grew up on Long Island, New
York. My aunt was a piano teacher
who happened to live with our family, so I started taking piano lesson from her
at an early age. Of course, it was
classical music. But in listening
to jazz on the radio in those days, I started listening to jazz piano. So, at
first I was largely self-taught in jazz piano. Then, I started taking lessons from Lennie Tristano.
Q: Why did you decide to take lessons from him?
BD: Well, I heard great things about Lennie’s
teaching method. And he was also my favorite jazz pianist.
Q: Had you already made up your mind that you
wanted to be a jazz pianist?
BD: Yes. And I started going to Berklee School of
College (then Schillinger House) for one year before I joined the Air Force. I
was playing the piano in an Air Force Band. After I was discharged, I went to
the University of Texas to study music. After graduating, I decided to go to
graduate school at the University of Southern California, because I wanted to study with educator
and composer Halsey Stevens, who was the author of the book “The Life and Music
of Bela Bartok”. I got a master’s
degree in composition from USC graduate school. Around that time, I started writing music for films, and I
also started working with my trio in town.
Q: Usually, many musicians start working for
someone, and then became independent. But in your case, I hardly see your
credit as a sideman on jazz albums.
BD: There were so many requests for my playing at
private party functions that this tended to keep me out of the “jazz-loop,”
unfortunately. I regret this, but looking back I was very happy to be able to
play with other great musicians who did this type of work for famous clients.
Q: In recent years, I have not seen your name on
the jazz club scene either.
BD: As I said, I had been playing so many private
party engagements, often performing solo or with a trio, and this made me
unavailable for jazz club work. During the past twenty-plus years I have been
in demand performing for dinner at several prestigious Country Club/Golf clubs
in the Los Angeles area including the Lakeside Golf Club and Los Angeles
Q: I was very impressed with your solo piano
album. Are there any more new albums coming out soon?
BD: After the solo piano album, I recorded a duo
CD with my favorite trombonist, Roger Bissell. It is called “The Art of the Duo”,
and I have a quintet project, which is coming out soon.
Q: Your pianistic style is so unique and I was so
impressed with it. It deserves to
be heard by many people.
BD: My concept in performing jazz or otherwise
has always been to emphasize the melodic elements of each unique song and to
preserve and develop the motif when improvising. I was disappointed that this
was not being done universally back then, and I guess I did not find my
audience for this. I am still hoping that this will change in the future.
Meantime, I continue to study and enjoy attending concerts of not only jazz,
but classical as well. And I especially love listening to Prokokfiev, Ravel,
Satie, and Toru Takemitsu.
Q: Who were the early influences on your jazz
BD: Oscar Peterson. I heard him many times in
person. And of course, Lennie Tristano who I took lessons from. I also like Bill Evans.
Q: How did your first leader album, “Out of This
World” (on Everest) come out?
BD: I recorded my own trio and made the tape
myself. Steve La Fever, the bass player and Jerry D. Williams, the drummer,
were eager to do this album. Olga
James who was my manager at that time made the deal with Everest Records.
Q: After that
album, you recorded another album for World Pacific (“Carnival”) which I was so
impressed with. You recorded with
Steve Le Fever and Ray Price on drums this time. How are they doing now? I heard Ray Price, who played with
Oscar Peterson during the 70’s.
BD: Steve is no
longer playing the bass due to a physical problem, unfortunately. But Ray is
still active and living in Seattle.
Gary Taenaka - March
26,2009 Burbank, California
NOTE: for more information Ben Di Tosti recordings go to my CD page.