Biography from Jazz Journal International (February 1995)
Editor's Note: The spelling and puncutation in this profile published in London conform to conventions of British English.
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 children—and many adults—recognise 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 - 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 producted by Family Communications and no longer available.
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 all three.
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 an accordion.
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 musician.'
On the day Costa graduated from Carnegie Tech in 1951, 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 Coral, Dot, and Savoy, 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, he
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 groups). He loved 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.
Hugh Glenn, Webmaster