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John Cocuzzi, vibraphone, piano, drums, vocals
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Chicago, IL – 2002
 

John Cocuzzi sizzling on vibes

He had [the crowd]
singing choruses of
“Hey Baba Rebop”
at the top
of their lungs.
He returned
to his vibes,
like a snake charmer,
to change the
pace of the set.
At that point,
I didn’t know
whether he was
a musician
or a magician.

— NICKI MODABER

   

The Day John Cocuzzi’s Band
Almost Blew the Roof Off the Glendora Ballroom
By Nicki Modaber

Tony Ventura stepped up to the microphone and faced the crowd. “Today, we’re going to hear John Cocuzzi play vibes. We haven’t heard him before, but he’s supposed to be good,” he said. The stocky Ventura stepped down from the small stage and weaved through the tables to stand in the back of the room as the lights dimmed.

Cocuzzi looked to be somewhere in his forties. With his long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, he looked more like a modern jazz musician than a guy who would play in front of the Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz.

It was the club’s monthly Sunday afternoon concert at the Glendora Ballroom in Chicago Ridge. It amazes me that hundreds of people drive past this ballroom’s uninspiring façade at 102nd and Harlem, across the street from a Wal-Mart, without a clue that hot jazz is happening inside. The building looks structurally sound, but inside it feels like some old cartoon where there’s a party and the walls of the house sway in time with the music.

Some 200 people came to hear this vibes player “prove” himself. He wore a suit and tie. I like it when musicians dress up for their audiences. It shows respect. Most of the members of this jazz club have gray or white hair, and their generation dresses for concerts. Many were dressed up like the musicians. Others came in their July casual attire.

John Cocuzzi lives in the D.C. area. He and his drummer, Big Joe Maher, flew in for the gig at the behest of the club’s officers. He introduced the afternoon’s combo. “These are my old friends,” he said, gesturing toward Maher, who sat like a hulk behind the skins and cymbals of his trade, and Chuck Hedges, a local favorite clarinetist. “And these are my new friends, Nick Schneider on bass and Don Stille on piano,” he added.

The makeshift combo was almost ready to begin. Cocuzzi apologized for starting late, explaining that the vibes [vibraphone] and drums were borrowed from local musicians and arrived later than expected.

The concerts last from 2 to 6 p.m. Some of these retired people have too much time on their hands and they show up very early for these affairs. I arrived at the club at one o’clock, because with cabaret style seating, it’s every jazz lover for himself.

The band started out with a slow tune. By the end of the second one, any remaining cynicism in the audience was melted away by the warm tone of the vibes. The band was fully warmed up by the middle of the first set. Hedges’ fluid clarinet runs meshed perfectly with Cocuzzi’s swinging mallets. And Maher, Schneider and Stille as the rhythm section were like pillars of sound for the front line to lean on.

By the second set, the crowd and the music somehow became glued together. It was as if the music were pulling couples onto the dance floor. I had never seen that many people on the floor before. They had to move to the music. And, after 40 or 50 years together, they knew each other’s moves very well. Dancing couples don’t change partners at this club. It seems to promote long marriages and reduce brawls.

I think it was when the band played “Lady Be Good” that all hell started to break loose. Cocuzzi got “drunk” on his own solo and couldn’t stop playing. People in their sixties through eighties at surrounding tables started yelling and screaming and cheering before the solo was over. While Chuck Hedges was wailing away on clarinet, he tapped his right heel so fast that his baggy pants billowed like a wind was blowing up his leg.

“I’ve got stomach cramps,” my friend, Sandy, whispered to me. “This music is so intense!”

I told Sandy that she had to come to this concert. Her boyfriend, Hugh, was drafted to attend as well.

Each table at the Glendora House has a small tent sign on it. One side asks smokers to reduce their indoor smoking so as not to kill the musicians. The other side asks patrons to refrain from talking while the music is playing. I tried to get Hugh’s attention. When he noticed my stare, I gave him a “thumbs up” gesture and a “thumbs down” one. He returned the thumbs up. Later, he told Sandy that if he could have played clarinet as well as Chuck Hedges, he would have been dead by now, due to appreciative patrons offering to buy him drinks.

About midway through the concert, Cocuzzi announced, “I’m going to play some songs from my CD. It’s for sale here,” he hinted. He stepped up to the old Everett console piano that is part of the ballroom’s furnishings and let Don Stille take a break.

“Here’s an old Fats Waller tune,” he said, lapsing into “Curse of an Aching Heart.” He swung a boom microphone toward him and sang as he played in a bouncy, percussive style. I don’t know if he was formally trained in voice. Maybe one day he just decided to sing. The crowd didn’t seem to care. The next thing they knew he had them singing choruses of “Hey Baba Rebop” at the top of their lungs with him.

He returned to his vibes, like a snake charmer, to change the pace of the set. At that point, I didn’t know whether he was a musician or a magician.

“This ballad’s on my CD, too,” he noted. “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You.” The audience cooed in recognition of the title. He turned on the vibraphone’s motor, which spins discs inside the metal resonator tubes of the instrument to simulate a “vibrato” effect. The vibraphone’s tone literally shimmered as the dancers did a slow swoon across the parquet floor. The mirrored ball suspended from the ceiling isn’t used during daylight hours, but it would have matched the moment perfectly.

The band took a fifteen-minute break about every 45 minutes. It seemed like the break was as much for the audience to rest as for the musicians. It’s not a big drinking crowd at these concerts. Those that do stocked up on their supplies for the next set. Others perused the jazz recordings for sale, or the jazz novelty table to buy coasters, scarves and pins and the like that have been “jazzified.”

I stood in line to buy Cocuzzi’s CD. “Whatcha doin’ on piano up there?” I asked, trying to glean a pointer or two for my own fledgling technique. He wouldn’t say, but he did autograph my CD…

A few months ago, I asked a friend who composes classical music how he felt about jazz. He replied something about jazz being as much a way of life as a style of music. “You know, they don’t want the music to end,” he observed.

As that Sunday afternoon waned, I started to look at the band in the same forlorn way my dog looks at me when she knows I’m leaving her alone in the house. Sandy and Hugh had to leave before the last set, as did a quarter of the audience who try to avoid some of the traffic.

The band played on to an even wilder finale: “Bennie’s Bugle,” an old tune from Benny Goodman days. Cocuzzi hunched over the vibes, tapping adjacent notes with his left hand as he swung his right hand back and forth over his head to hit notes at opposite ends of the instrument. Neither the audience nor the band wanted the song to end. I didn’t want one of the most joyful afternoons of my life to end. The musicians played chorus after chorus while the audience cheered them on with their remaining energy. As the last notes faded, the audience rose to give Cocuzzi and the band a standing ovation. After all, he was supposed to be good.


Nicki Modaber not only wrote the above article, she also took most of the photographs and provided the spiritual driving force behind [John's first Web site], to the extent of spending Labor Day 2002 emailing photos to a hamburger stand in Fox Lake, Illinois.

 

 

 

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