Q & A
A 1993 Interview With Pittsburgh's Legendary Pianist
Q: When did your collaboration with Fred Rogers begin?
A: On the day I graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1951, I began work as musical director of KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. I played the piano on every program that required music, including "Meet Your Neighbor," "Funsville" and "The Wonderful World of Johnny Costa."
During the production of "Children's Corner," which featured Josie Carey and Fred Rogers, Josie introduced me to Fred. He offered me $5,000 to do 100 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." I accepted Fred's offer immediately because that was the exact amount I needed to pay my son's college tuition.
Q: Did you ever consider working elsewhere?
A: During the 1950s, I traveled the MCA circuit with the Johnny Costa Trio (Jim DeJulio, bass; Chuck Spatafore, drums). We played in Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New York several times a year. For a short time, I worked as musical director on the "Mike Douglas Show." But I never wanted to travel; I wanted to be with my family. So by the end of the decade, I decided that my traveling days were over. I'm glad I stayed with Fred. He's brilliant and he really knows music. What he has done for children has been wonderful. We've had a good time putting shows together.
Q: The jazz you play includes classical music. Who has influenced your musical style?
A: Art Tatum and Fats Waller. When I studied musical composition in college with Nicolai Lopatnicoff, he encouraged me to study Hindemith and Stravinsky. But I don't use too much of what I learned about classical musical in college anymore. I seldom use polytone harmonies. When I play "Embraceable You," I don't want it to sound like Shostakovich. Now I integrate the music of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. Bach really drives me crazy; his music is so metrical, rhythmical, and mathematical—and fun to play.
Q: Do you practice?
A: Not as much as I should. Lopatnicoff said, "You must practice the scales," so I practice the major scales and exercises I invented. I still try to practice them daily, but I don't practice enough. But when my fingers feel weak, I force myself to do the scales. Afterwards, I usually feel wonderful. When I'm practicing seriously, I'll play a few Chopin etudes, a polonaise, and often parts of "Rhapsody in Blue" to maintain my fingerwork and dexterity.
Q: Why didn't you record during the past 35 years?
A: During the 1950s, I recorded for Coral, Dot, Savoy and a few other labels. But after I returned to Pittsburgh for good, I guess record producers forgot about me. In 1990, Dick Hyman, unbeknown to me, mailed an audiocassette of some of my recordings to Hank O'Neal at Chiaroscuro Records. He listened to the tape and asked me to sign on with him. The audiocassette was released as "Classic Costa." Since then, I have recorded two other CD's: "Flying Fingers" and "A Portrait of George Gershwin."
Q: What's next for Johnny Costa?
A: I'll continue my work on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," perform a concert now and then, and record more CD's. Last September, for the fifth consecutive year, I played a concert for music students at Carnegie-Mellon. I don't remember every playing any better. If I could have played the university's Steinway all the time, I'd never had had to practice.
Hugh Glenn, Webmaster