Costa Biography (Jazz Journal International)
Note: The spelling and puncutation in this February 1995 profile published
in Jazz Journal International (London) conform to conventions of British
Art Tatum visited a Pittsburgh nightclub
in 1948 at the urging of a local journalist who wanted him to meet a young
pianist. The piano sounds Tatum heard as he entered seemed very familiar:
'Oh, good,' he said. 'You've got my record on.'
Tatum was wrong he was not listening to
a recording. He heard Johnny Costa, whose blending of classical and American
popular music has enthralled audiences for more than 50 years.
Costa, the son of Italian immigrants, still
lives only a few miles from the house in Arnold, Pennsylvania in which
he was born 73 years ago, and that's the principal reason national prominence
has eluded him. During the fifties, the Johnny Costa Trio, with Jim DeJulio
(b) and Chuck Spatafore (d) travelled the MCA circuit: 'We lived and died
together,' Costa recalls. But before the decade ended, Costa abandoned
ideas about fame, quitting a brief stint in Philadelphia as musical director
of Mike Douglas's weekday television programme and returning to Pittsburgh
for a professional life near his family and friends. 'I never wanted to
travel,' Costa said. 'I wanted to be with my family. That's why I've been
stuck in Pittsburgh all my life. I never had a manager, and I've had the
same telephone number for 30 years.
People who want me to play just call me.'
Despite the limited geographic scope
of his live performances, millions of childrenand many adultsrecognise
Costa's music, even if they don't now his name. Each weekday on PBS stations
throughout the United States and parts of Canada, Costa plays jazz piano
on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a programme Branford Marsalis describes
as 'the finest jazz show on television anywhere.' Costa opens and closes
the show, in between accompanying guest artists such as Ellis Marsalis,
Wynton Marsalis, and Mary Lou Williams, and performing background themes
in almost every segment. Pianist and musical director of Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood since the programme first aired in 1967, Costa also arranges
all of its music. Fred Rogers, who writes the music performed on the Neighborhood,
treasures Costa, knowing how important his music is to the show's success.
Fans throughout the world often write or
telephone Costa at Family Communications in Pittsburgh, wanting to know
where to buy his recordings. Costa's albums of the fifties are out of
print: On Coral there were Johnny Costa Plays For The Most Beautiful Girl
In The World and A Gallery Of Gershwin., the latter album also featuring
Eddie Costa (no relation), Hank Jones, and Dick Marks. On Dot there was
In My Own Quiet Way, and on Savoy Introducing Johnny Costa and The Amazing
Johnny Costa. The latter album, reissued on CD as Neighborhood, is now
out of print. Until recently, Costa could be heard only on Johnny Costa
Plays Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, an audiocassette of familiar Neighborhood
tunes (available from Family Communications).
But thanks to Dick Hyman, Costa resumed
recording in 1990 after a 35-year break. Unknown to Costa, Hyman mailed
an unlabelled audiocassette of Costa recordings produced by Pittsburgh's
Bill Hillman, a long-time Costa admirer, to Chiaroscuro's president, Hank
O'Neal. Over the telephone Hyman described the pianist to O'Neal only
as a 'very special' musical talent.' After listening to the audiocassette
for a few minutes,' O'Neal recalls, 'I knew I wanted to produce a CD from
the DAT masters, sign Costa, and produce more recordings.' He has done
Hillman's ' hometown production became
Classic Costa, and O'Neal subsequently produced Flying Fingers (both Chiaroscuro
CDs), introducing John Costa to a new generation of listeners.
There is nothing not to like about Costa's
music: beautiful melodies, creative arrangements, exquisite harmonies
and voicings, dazzling rhythms, and a two-handed technique that intimidates
many peers. 'Many things come to mind while listening to Johnny Costa,'
says Mel Powell. 'They include the belief that, as with Art Tatum, there
are at least 20 iron fingers involved at top speed; or possibly it's all
being done with mirrors. If Costa had been known in the forties, many
of us would have wanted him placed under house arrest.'
David Newell, Costa's friend who portrays
Mr. McFeeley on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, has often seen the genuine
awe of professional musicians when they witness Costa's keyboard skills.
'When Johnny began noodling during a rehearsal for a Johnny Carson Tonight
show,' Newell remembers, 'Costa's playing shocked Doc Severinsen's musicians,
who didn't expect to hear such an exceptional pianist. One by one, each
player stopped warming up, turned his head, and listened quietly.
Costa seems born to breathe music: 'I've
always had a fascination about music I couldn't resist. I remember as
a five-year-old and the wonderful feelings I had listening to songs like
"Ramona" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" played on
a neighbour's Victrola. I also heard a lot of music when visiting relatives.
I remember how much music touched me.'
At age five, Costa began playing the violin,
although he didn't like the instrument very much. At 10, Fred Petri, a
neighbour who played the saxophone, began teaching Costa to play the accordion.
'Playing by ear, I developed a wonderful right hand,' Costa says, 'but
the left hand received no training.' Costa's father, not wanting his son
to work in the coal mines as he did, sold his house so as to buy Costa
During high school, Costa changed instruments:
'When I saw so many pianos wherever I went, I thought I should learn to
play the piano. Besides, I didn't have to carry them.' Frank Oliver, Costa's
high school music teacher (with whom he still lunches regularly), remembers
the adolescent Johnny Costa. 'He was small but very talented, playing
his accordion at all school assemblies. I told him to switch to the piano.'
It was Oliver who also discovered Costa's perfect pitch.
Listening to Art Tatum recordings, Costa
began learning to play the piano, mastering many Tatum arrangements: 'I'd
listen to the same passage, sometimes 50 times, until I could do what
he was doing.' Costa played backstage for the jazz immortal during a Tatum
visit to Pittsburgh. 'Tatum and I eventually became good friends. He even
called me 'The White Tatum''.'
Costa eventually studied piano with Martin
Meissler (also Oscar Levant's teacher), who travelled from Pittsburgh
to Arnold twice a week to teach young pianists: 'Meissler was very strict,
though he didn't hit me on the knuckles like he did other students because
I really practised. He introduced me to Bach and Chopin. When he told
me ''Learn to do the scales,'' I did. I practised the major scales and
exercises I invented. I still try to practise the scales daily, but I
don't practise enough. But even today, when my fingers feel weak, I force
myself to do the scales. Afterwards, I usually feel wonderful. Any great
pianist has some classical training and practises scales and exercises.
All the accomplished pianists. Even Tatum was familiar with classical
music and incorporated it when he could. When I'm practising seriously,
I'll play a few Chopin etudes, a polonaise, and often parts of Rhapsody
In Blue to maintain my fingerwork and dexterity.'
Johnny joined the Tommy Reynolds band after
graduating from high school, principally because he liked its theme song.
Although based in New York City, the band didn't work much. Costa returned
to Pittsburgh soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanting to marry
before leaving for military service. As a member of the 90th Division,
Costa landed on Normandy's beaches on D-Day afternoon, but within a few
months rheumatic fever confined him to hospitals in Scotland, New York
and Mississippi for a year: 'The pain was excruciating, particularly in
my wrists and fingers. I remember thinking I would never play again. But
when I touched the piano for the first time after many months, even though
I was weak. I could play as well as ever.'
Discharged from the army, Costa applied
for admission to the music department at Carnegie Institute of Technology
(now Carnegie-Mellon University), which included an audition before the
music committee. After Costa played a Taturnesque version of Humoresque,
a committee member said, 'That was not Humoresque, Mr. Costa, but what
you played was wonderful. Of course, we'll accept you.'
Costa studied composition with Nicolai
Lopatnicoff, a major composer in central European avant-garde: 'Lopatnicoff
was a kind, caring man. He taught me so much. But my compositions sounded
like his.' It was during his years at Carnegie Tech that Costa's style
began to emerge, influenced by classical composers, and by Erroll Garner,
Fats Waller, and, of course, Tatum. Costa earned two bachelor's degrees,
one in music composition, and another in music education: 'I completed
a degree in music education just in case I was a flop as a professional
On the day Costa graduated from Carnegie
Tech in 195 1, he began a 16-year stint as musical director of KDKA-TV
in Pittsburgh. He learned to play the organ so as to play the music for
Meet Your Neighbor. For another programme, Funsville, which starred Josie
Carey, he created Indian Mary, a character who played the piano, but never
said a word. Instead of wearing a suit or tuxedo, Costa borrowed garb
and items from the station's prop room, which included a straw hat with
a huge feather in back, two braids of hair hanging over each ear extending
to his chest, and a cigar. 'Indian Mary never talked because they never
knew what I'd say,' Costa says. 'But children loved that character.' Costa
also starred on his own show, The Wonderful World of Johnny Costa, aired
semi-weekly, during which he discussed composers and played heir compositions.
During the fifties, Costa recorded on several
labels, appeared on the Tonight show and toured with his trio, playing
in Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New York several times a year.
Costa's lifelong collaboration with Fred
Rogers began five years before Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began airing.
During the production of Children's Corner at KDKA-TV, the predecessor
of the Neighborhood featuring Josie Carey and Fred Rogers, Carey introduced
Costa and Rogers to one another. When Rogers began planning the Neighborhood,
offered Costa $5,000 to arrange, conduct, and play the music for 100 episodes,
a job Costa accepted without hesitation: At the time he needed exactly
that amount to pay his son's college tuition.
Costa never considered playing traditional
children's music for the Neighborhood: 'Children understand good music.
I would never play piddling nursery rhymes.' When not taping television
programmes, Costa plays concerts and club dates close to home, either
solo piano or with the latest Johnny Costa Trio, with sidemen Carl McVicker
(b) and Bob Rawsthorne (d), both of whom perform with Costa on Neighborhood.
Costa's early style combined the rhythms
of Waller and Tatum with the
sounds of Hindemith and Stravinsky, the latter two influences the result
of prompting from Lopatnicoff. 'I still use some of that training,' Costa
says, 'but not too much. I've gotten away from using polytone harmonies;
I don't like distortions or changes used for effects or to modernise beautiful
melodies. I want to honour the composer. When I play "Embraceable
You," I don't want it to sound like Shostakovich. I'm a product of
everything I've learned. Now I integrate more of the sounds of Bach, Beethoven
and Chopin. Bach really drives me crazy: His music is so metrical, rhythmical,
mathematical and fun to play.
One element of Costa's style that hasn't
changed is his use of classical music. In Classic Costa the listener hears
the sounds of Beethoven in Just One of Those Things, and Ravel, Debussy
and Rachmaninov in "My Funny Valentine," two tunes he plays
regularly during concerts. Other elements have remained the same: key
and chord changes, breakneck tempos, lengthy phrases that sometimes seem
to include too many notes, and two melodies played simultaneously, one
with each hand. And always first-rate melodies.
Besides classical music, Costa treasures
the big bands, particularly those of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, David
Rose and Artie Shaw (although Costa himself prefers performing with small
love to imitate a big band at the keyboard. Of course, the piano can't
sound like saxes and brass, but I can play Shaw's "Begin the Beguine"
exactly like on his record.' (Costa recorded a version of Shaw's arrangement
on The Amazing Johnny Costa in 1955.)
When selecting the songs for Flying Fingers,
Costa considered including Tatum's arrangement of "Elegy," which
Costa played perfectly in the studio. 'I was going to record "Elegy,"
but doing so was a problem. Nobody can play that song as well as Tatum.
I can't imitate an original, so I recorded a different tune. But I played
"Elegy" pretty good. I was very close to what
Tatum did. Very close. If I could honour Tatum, I would record it, even
though I wouldn't play it exactly as Tatum did. I would put some of my
ideas in it.'
Costa cherishes the musicians he has known.
He fondly recalls a set he played at the William Penn Hotel in downtown
Pittsburgh: 'After I finished, Dizzy Gillespie came up and hugged me.
That was a thrill.' And on another day, Andre Previn stopped to talk.
Previn said 'I was flipping channels this week and I heard this incredible
jazz pianist on a children's programme. Do you know him?' Costa remembers
jamming all night in a New York club with Tommy Dorsey, his band, and
Jack Teagarden two weeks before
Dorsey died. That night Dorsey said, 'Here's my card, Johnny. Call me.
I want to help your career."' And Costa feels proud knowing Teddy
Wilson once advised a friend travelling to Pittsburgh: 'Go hear Johnny
Costa; he's a monster.'
On the first two days of October 1993,
Costa recorded his third Chiaroscuro CD, A Portrait Of George Gershwin.
It is a perfect pairing: the timeless tunes of Gershwin with the heartfelt
interpretations of Costa playing music representative of the scope of
Gershwin's compositions. Observing the recording sessions were Helen Costa,
John's wife for almost 55
years; Debbie Elwood, their daughter; Hank O'Neal; and me. Each of us
felt privileged to observe these sessions during which the melodies that
Gershwin described as dripping endlessly from his finger flowed poignantly
and effortlessly from Costa's fingertips.
Costa will record more CDs. After completing
the Gershwin sessions last October, Costa laid down a few Johnny Mercer
tunes, and his Mercer CD will be released soon.
Johnny Costa is an extraordinary pianist,
one of America's finest. But more important than the music is Costa himself,
a very special person. ''Johnny is as beautiful a person as the music
he plays,' Helen Costa told me the first time I met her. 'Costa is a phenomenal
pianist and a nice man,' says Dick Hyman. Johnny Costa will continue his
lifetime gig as musical director and jazz pianist on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
And he will play an occasional concert not far from home, an event that
means another flight to Pittsburgh for me and one more unforgettable visit
to Mister Costa's neighborhood.