Play It Again, Joe  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

Normally, you're free to read or ignore any blog you like, and you'd likely skip a long one like this. However, I'll ask that you read this one entirely, just because it’s a way for me to pay tribute to an important figure in my life who just passed away. You didn't know him, but you missed out.

You wouldn't guess it to see the jazz scene in Orange County these days, but there used to be a hey-day for it that began back in the 1940's when the Woody Herman Band made history at the Balboa Pavilion. By the 1960's and 70's there were some truly amazing musicians who were filling the local club scene with great jazz. I was fortunate enough to get in on the tail end of it. In 1984, within a month after graduating high school, I was frequenting jazz clubs and found myself surrounded by these great musicians who had made their lives in OC. Some of them were celebrities to me before I met them, and to this day I haven't lost that sense of awe when I realize I got to play with them. Many of these older, seasoned musicians took me under their wings - a young kid with barely the talent to stand on stage with them. They let me play with them, taught me things about music and the business (and life!), challenged me, encouraged me. Jam sessions would happen nightly at various venues and you could play with great musicians until the wee hours of the morning.

By the late eighties and early nineties, this once vibrant OC jazz scene all but died away, and many of these great musicians retreated back into the empty lounges and wedding bands that helped pay their bills. There are good jazz clubs that have sprung up in the years since, but the "scene" that once was is long gone.

The center of the OC jazz scene in those years was the Café Lido in Newport Beach, and its owner was Joe Sperazza. Joe died on March 8, and I spent this afternoon at his memorial, seeing many from this old crowd. I saw some musicians I hadn't seen in 20 years, all looking much older (me too, I guess), some on canes, some with health problems, and many just looking tired from living, but just as enthusiastic about music as they were back in the day. We spent our time together reminiscing, and, even better - playing jazz.

So, after that long intro, this blog is about Joe.

Joe was the quintessential New Yorker - sweet as a teddy bear and tough as a mobster, and you never knew which one you’d get. He happened to grow up as a musician in Rochester, NY, pals with one of my early heroes, Chuck Mangione. He came west and opened the Café Lido in 1981. It immediately became the place to play jazz in Orange County. In 1984, when I was 17, I came by the club. My plan was to just sit outside and listen from the parking lot because I was too young to get in. After being introduced as a trumpet player to Joe by one of the other musicians, Joe snuck me in (at great risk to his liquor license), gave me a seat and fed me a great meal on the house, and let me listen all night. He gave me an open invitation, and I started going every single night I could. Eventually, I would start sitting in with the bands there, thrilled to be playing at the already legendary Café Lido. Finally, I started getting hired to play (I think once I turned 18 there was a law that I could perform but not 'partake', although maybe he just made that up to make me feel safe).

Café Lido started out as a tiny club, but by 1988 he moved up the street to a new, larger and swankier location. The club became a very elegant New York style Supper Club - the kind you imagine the Rat Pack at. And, to my great surprise, that year he invited me to have my band take the Friday and Saturday night slots. I had made it, as far as I was concerned. The couple years I held that spot were, perhaps, the most important in my development as a musician, performer and artist, as he gave me an audience for my music that few musicians ever get. In fact, I've never had the same kind of regular experience in all the years since.

While his generosity towards me could fill pages, I want to share two short stories about him that are among my favorites:

1. One of the all-time great jazz trumpeters was the legendary Shorty Rogers. Shorty became famous as one of the leaders of the "West Coast Jazz Sound" in the 1950's. He was a hero of mine and I learned he was coming to play a special concert at the Lido. Unfortunately, I had to be somewhere three hours away that day! I told Joe I was going to race back in time to hear him. Before I got there, Joe had told Shorty all about me. By the time I walked in to the club, 5 minutes before show time, Joe had Shorty waiting for me at the front door, and the moment I walked in, Shorty opened his arms and said, "Tony Guerrero, my friend!" We'd never met, but he embraced me and welcomed me as if we were lifelong pals, with Joe in the background smiling.

2. I learned a great lesson about show business and humility from Joe. One particular Friday night, the club was packed. I felt pretty proud of a full house for my band and leaned over to Joe on a break and said, "Hey Joe, pretty packed house tonight…" expecting some form of 'congratulations' or 'thanks for the business'.
"Kid," he said, "any a**hole can fill a club on a Friday night."
Not only was he right, but I realized later that his decision to give me Fridays and Saturdays was not because I was such a "star" that I deserved the prime spot, but because he wanted to help me develop as an artist and musician, and he could give me nights when he wouldn't have to worry about drawing a crowd - it'd always be full on Friday and Saturday nights with or without me. It was a gift to me that had profound effect on my development. In later years, I learned to appreciate this lesson, gauging success by full houses on off-nights like Mondays or Tuesdays, not Fridays and Saturdays when the house would be full anyways.

The Café Lido closed in 1994, and the last remnants of that great OC jazz era died with it.

Thank you, Joe, for your truly amazing encouragement to me and so many other musicians. You will be missed.

1.Joe & Shirley Sperazza
2. Cafe Lido 81-88
3. Cafe Lido 88-94
4. The night I met Shorty '92
5. w/Trumpeter Ron Stout at today's memorial

Sorry you're young.  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

I just saw a clip of the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Don't you miss him? Oh, what's that? You're too young to have watched him? Well, I'm sorry for you. I'm glad I grew up in a time when Carson was still on the air.

Actually, now that I'm thinking about it...

I've always been into older entertainers - from classic jazz musicians to the classic comedians like the Marx Bros., Jack Benny, George Burns, etc. I feel like my life was made richer by not limiting myself to just the entertainers and musicians who were popular with my age group. Of course, all the acts that were big when I was in high school and college are now considered old and largely irrelevant (although some, like U2 and The Police, still elicit awe). But that's kind of my point here. I think anyone who isn't aware of stuff that was once 'cool' in the past - before their own 'era' - is missing out (and may be in for a shock when someday their own faves are considered passe).

Carson, for example, was a class act. All the guys doing it now at varying levels of success (Letterman, Leno, Conan, Ferguson, Kimmel) really do pale by comparison - that's not just my opinion, as they'd agree with me. And while there are great bands out there now, none have matched classics like the Beatles. And while there are funny comedians working today, few can actually hold an audience and sustain a career without resorting to foul language and offensive material like the old masters did.

I'm glad I learned at an early age not to focus on just what was 'cool' for the moment and to check out acts from the past. If that's not you, I encourage you to start checking out stuff that predates your usual tastes - from the 80's on back to the 20's. Lots of it is 'cooler' than you may think.

I challenge you to go rent a Marx Bros movie and sit through the whole thing (I like "A Night At The Opera"). Anyone else have some old faves people should be checking out?

Can't figure it out...  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

So, I spent much of my life trying to be a good jazz trumpet player (the jury is still out), but it turns out my biggest recording ever (multi-platinum seller!) was playing piano on a bubble-gum pop song for Disney's High School Musical.

Then, I spend much of my life honing my songwriting chops so I can contribute something meaningful to the American Songbook. Well, it turns out the Hallmark Channel has chosen a church-worship song I co-wrote as their new station ID. But they did away with the entire song except for one line, and as a one-line ditty it has instantly become my most profitable song.

Am I trying too hard? I'm not the first to think so, but the music business is weird.

Saturday Morning, 7:00am  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons.
Now I watch my daughter watching them.
Much better.

This blog's for you...  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

A little post for a friend, no explanation given.
(Now quit crying!)

Morris Follow Up  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

A couple posts ago I told you about my friend Morris CHapman. I just heard a new story about him that made me think about my own's the story that was sent to me first:
- - - - - - - - - - -
Last weekend, there was a nice man who came to church and made a point to come up to me after the service. He had the church bulletin and a photo of Morris was on the cover.

He asked me, "Does Morris Chapman attend this church?" (he was a first timer).

I said, "Yes, he does lead worship here once every other month or so."

The man asked "Is he from Las Vegas? Did he used to be a custodian at a school in Las Vegas?"

I said, "Yes."

The man said, "Well, I was a student in the school where he worked and I can remember him sweeping up the hallways and always smiling and singing and giving encouragement to us kids. It made a lasting impression on me."
- - - - - - - - - - -

So, my thoughts. Morris hasn't been a school janitor since 1978 or so, and he certainly wasn't a "famous" janitor that people would notice him. Truthfully, few people ever do notice their school janitor. But Morris' actions towards those he came in contact with back then have resonated to this day, thirty years later. Imagine some simple, banal interaction you had with someone today - at work, at the store, wherever. Now, imagine someone mentioning that moment to you thirty years later.

Sometimes, we never know the impact we can have on someone's life, even in the most unexciting moments. I've always thought that we really spend much of our lives scripting our own funeral - what will people say about me when I'm gone? He was generous, he was funny, he was kind - or - he was a jerk, he was greedy, he was rude. Our eulogies are written everyday, in even our smallest actions.

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes. Here, Martin Luther King, Jr. is really referring to how we do our job, but coupled with Morris' example, it is a good reminder that we all have influence, no matter our station:

"If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well."


Posted by Tony Guerrero

I watched a movie tonight where an old man with no family asks to adopt a young man as his grandson so that he will have some legacy to leave. And just the other day, I was thinking about the thought of my own kids having kids, and how incredible it would be to hold a grandchild (no, this isn't another rant about my increasing age).

I've never really had grandfathers. Well, I had them, but one died while I was still very young so I have no real recollection of him, and another died long before I was born, so I basically grew up "grandfatherless". Its interesting how disconnected you can feel to family members you don't know or have never met, but honestly, sometimes I look at these pictures and they are much more strangers to me than family. Yet, these men were not just some distant people in my lineage - they were only one person removed from me. They had the same relationship to my mom and dad that I have to my kids. They would have loved me as much as my parents love my kids. These men are so close to me, and yet I never knew them. Their decisions - who to marry, where to live, how to raise their kids, etc. - had direct impact on not only who I am, but on my very existence. Not to mention who I'd end up marrying, who my kids are, what I do for a living, etc. My daughter is here because of them. These men are important in my life, and, I am their legacy. So are my kids. I have an obligation to 'strangers'. Wow.

So, I have nothing real profound to say, just taking a moment to acknowledge them and maybe even thank them.

(Pictures: Me on my maternal grandfather's lap, late 1960's, and my paternal grandfather as a young man playing guitar in an orchestra in Mexico, early 1900's)


Posted by Tony Guerrero

I'm conflicted by American Idol. The 'cool musician' in me thinks its a travesty, and yet I watch it every week. The 'paying your dues' part of me believes that stars shouldn't come from cheezy talent shows like this. But then again, many past greats (Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday for example) were discovered at talent shows just like this (albeit it much simpler versions). I see contestants on there who I know are nowhere even close to being among "the nation's top 24" singers, as they are introduced, especially when people I know who showed up to audition and outsing the heck out of many of the contestants never made it past the 'stadium'. But then, the show has churned out some truly talented artists - who can deny Chris Daughtry or Carrie Underwood or Jennifer Hudson or Kelly Clarkson or...? And while I tend to agree with Simon about 99% of the time and appreciate his honesty (which I believe is the only real helpful advice the contestants get), I find myself grateful that Paula is there because I feel so bad for these kids - even though her comments are useless, she shows them some sympathy. I'm confused by the show's (and the judges') insistence that the singers show constant variety (50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, Beatles, Rock, Country, etc) when once these singers get signed the industry will not care a lick about their ability (or lack thereof) to cross boundaries and will pigeonhole them into the one style that can hopefully be marketed.

I must admit, I do see more actual 'artists' in this season than in previous runs. Maybe the worst part is that these days, with the industry as bad as it is, even talented artists have resigned themselves that opportunities like this are all that's left. (Although I do believe we have only scratched the surface of what the internet has made possible to artists.)

Maybe I'm just jealous they don't have a flugelhorn player's category. Although I have no doubt Simon would hate me.

The Second Half  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

Tonight I got to be part of an evening paying tribute to this man, Morris Chapman, on his 70th birthday. If you know Morris, enough said - his name is usually followed with sighs and superlatives...everyone loves him. If you don't know him, I'll just say he is a legend in modern worship music.

Lately, I've been wondering about what will happen in the second half of my own life. Having just turned 41 last September, and having accomplished many of my dreams early in life, I wonder if, aside from raising my family, the rest of my life will be just kind of 'coasting'. I have my little corner of the world carved out: My family is growing and happy, I have good friends, I have a little recognition for my work, I make a living. All good, right? Just ride it out now...

But that thought makes me shudder. I'm a creative person at my core, and the thought of not being creative, not pursuing new things, new projects, not "mattering" - it keeps me up at night.

And then there's Morris. Morris is truly a legendary singer and songwriter in his field. And guess what - he didn't even start his music ministry until he was 40! Before that, he was a school janitor in Vegas. So, here's a guy who's most significant creative years happened pretty much where I'm at now. His legendary status was established during years I have yet to visit in my own life.

Sure makes me think - maybe I need to relax on this issue. Just do what I do, be who I am, and trust God for the rest. Maybe my best creative years are ahead of me. Then again, waxing philosophical like this may just be a sign of early senility.

Happy birthday, Morris!

Order In The Court!  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

So, I had Jury Duty today. I spent the whole boring day sitting around a room with nothing to do but surf the web. I didn't get picked for a court case, even though I had decided I would do the honorable thing and not try to get out if it. So, I have been excused, having done my civic duty. I get home, all proud of myself for doing the honorable thing, painting a picture of my exciting day in the justice system, only to find out that my wife received notice today to be a witness in a criminal trial (yes, she witnessed a crime)! Geez, can't I get a break? That's so much more exciting than my day! Anyone out there serve any interesting time on jury or as a witness?

Thanks, Elmo.  

Posted by Tony Guerrero

These days, I am forced to watch a lot of children's TV. No, we don't let her watch a lot, but when she does, its not like she's watching the news. Anyway, it amazes me how bad some of the kid's shows are - bad stories, bad animation, bad music. It makes me really appreciate the good shows, and I must admit, I really like Elmo. He makes us all feel good about absolutely everything ("Guess what Elmo's thinking about? That's right - buttons!"). There are other shows that are decent, too. Curious George, for example. And while I first thought Teletubbies was the most bizarre, drug-induced show since Gumby, it helped reading on Wikipedia about their origin and the reasons behind what they do - suddenly they made more sense (still a little freaky though). But really, Elmo is king. Thanks, Elmo, for making the loss of my own TV privileges more fun. I could just tickle you.