Tony Monaco still vividly recalls early interactions with idol Jimmy Smith. Local organ newcomer Kevin Coelho tells similar storiel of mentor Monaco.
By: Brandon E. Roos
Tony Monaco still vividly recalls the moment that shaped the rest of his life, when his father’s wedding band mate handed him a Jimmy Smith record he wasn’t very fond of. He recalls taking off the 45 spacer and slowing the speed down to 33, dropping needle to vinyl, and the epiphany that soon followed.
“When I heard that Jimmy Smith record,” he remembers, “I wanted to switch from the accordion to the organ. That was what I wanted to do!” he lovingly shares when thinking back to that day when he was just 12.
He began learning Jimmy Smith on accordion, recording tunes with the B-3-sounding cordovox, then sent the tapes to Smith (he found an address on one of his records) He had no idea the organ great would actually call him, but he did just that on his sixteenth birthday. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack at 16,” Monaco fondly recalls.
In 1980, he had a chance to play Jimmy Smith’s Supper Club with Mr. Smith and his wife Lola seated front and center. Monaco vividly remembers the moment, even 33 years later. “I can close my eyes and see him and Lola right now. How could you forget that?”
Just as he remembers first hearing Jimmy Smith, one of his brightest students felt a similar experience when he first heard Monaco’s grooves.
“Tony was just one of those organ players that really struck me,” explains Kevin Coelho. The licks he heard on the radio inspired him enough to email Monaco in 2010 to ask if he was willing to mentor the aspiring organ player. After hearing back, he was on a plane to Columbus, Ohio for a week-long intensive at Tony’s house.
Coelho recorded the sessions on video to study later. Monaco even let him sit in on gigs with his band, a key part of his training, according to Monaco. “There’s theoretical and there’s practicing by yourself and then there’s getting into the real groove.”
“We really connected that first week,” says Coelho of that initial trip. He was happy to soak up personal lessons from a master, and Monaco was happy to engage a curious pupil. “He did the homework – that was the key,” states Monaco. “With a lot of people, I tell them what to do, but they really don’t listen. Kevin was listening.”
During a return trip, Monaco gave Coelho points to improve upon with a plan in place to cut an album in six months. When he came back, Monaco deemed him ready and helped him produce Funkengruven – the Joy of Driving a B-3. Produced by Monaco in his studio with the help of his band, the process reflected the help Monaco received on his debut from contemporary Joey DeFrancesco.
When DeFrancesco was slated to play recently-opened 501 jazz club in Monaco’s hometown of Columbus, Monaco hadn’t been behind an organ in two years. He asked the event promoter if he could take DeFrancesco out to dinner, and when he stopped by to pick him up at a clinic DeFrancesco and his band were teaching, a crowd member recognized Monaco and mentioned he played the organ. Petrified and put on the spot, Monaco reluctantly sat down. The notes started rolling, and as Monaco retells it, “I could see Joey’s eyes opened up and his jaw dropped.”
DeFrancesco asked him to fly to Phoenix and offered to produce his record. “My original intention was just to record so that the grandchildren could have something,” says Monaco, yet DeFrancesco and his band liked it enough that it was released on Summit Records in 2001. Burnin’ Grooves effectively launched Monaco’s career on a national stage.
“A lot of the classic organists – Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes – those cats were big influences to Tony, so he comes from that classic organ school” notes Brad Stone, award-winning jazz program director at KSJS. “In turn, he feels a strong calling to mentor the younger generation.”
Through a process that started with a random email and culminated in the cutting of a debut album, Kevin Coelho and Tony Monaco have moved past the formalities of student and teacher to stand on even ground – colleagues in groove. They now call each other family. Coelho has celebrated Christmas in Monaco’s home and Monaco affectionately reveals that his once-student is now like a second son.
When asked to state the importance of Monaco’s role in the jazz organ landscape, Coelho makes a case for why his mentor is the best.
“Stylistically, I think Tony is just unmatched and unparalleled in any way,” states Coelho. “He just has this incredible sense of musicianship. When he’s playing, he’s got licks, but they’re always in the right spot. They come exactly with perfect timing. In terms of developing a story when he’s playing music, I think Tony’s just the best there is.”
When I relay the response to Monaco, he’s overcome with emotion by the kind words of a teenage talent he’s helped cultivate. I recall a sound bite from the start of our conversation that informs his mood shift: “I enjoy teaching because it’s sort of the reciprocal of giving and receiving – the more I’m willing to give, the more I receive and learn from it.”