Jazz man keeps on rolling
Jazz musician Tony LaVorgna has had his hand in a lot of musical pies over the course of his long and prolific career, but that doesn’t mean he’s finished making his mark.
Earlier this year LaVorgna got his own station on the Internet music provider Pandora. Achieving it was a roundabout effort that eventually proved successful.
“Pandora is extremely picky,” he said of the vetting process. It involves sending in one track of music which he said is analyzed through a computer. LaVorgna sent an original composition called Nightcrawler, which was on his CD titled BeboPman, released in 2012. It was rejected.
“BeboPman is my greatest hits CD,” he said, adding that “it gets played around the world. It really shocked me. … Jazz is such a human thing, how can you use a computer? It’s like trying to judge a beauty contest.”
Undeterred, he tried again. This time he sent a recording of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird Suite by the Tony LaVorgna Big Band & Combo.
“It’s the fastest thing we played” on a CD coincidentally titled Nightcrawler. That was accepted, and now, La Vorgna said in an ironic turn of events, Pandora plays Nightcrawler “like crazy.”
Asked why he set his sights on a Pandora station, he replied, “All my friends in New York and Connecticut, they’re all excellent musicians, they’re all on Pandora. I was getting pretty restless, and then they rejected me! Instead of sulking,” which is what he said he’d do in his younger days, “I sent another and then got on it. It felt so good.”
In a reflective mood as he spoke to The Bulletin last week, LaVorgna said “there are two main disappointments in life. One is not attaining your life’s dream. The second is attaining your life’s dream,” because after you’ve succeeded, “eh,” he shrugged, “you still have the gas bill.
“It’s nice to be recognized as an artist. You like your art form to be recognized. You play, you record, but then you’re alone in your room. If you’re not out there playing, you’re not happy.”
Now 68, LaVorgna has been playing an instrument since he was 5, when his mother taught him the piano at their home in Orange, Conn. By the time he was 12 he was playing ragtime, “which blew my teacher away.”
Then his father bought him a saxophone, “because he played the saxophone as a hobby.” That gift started LaVorgna’s “romance” with the instrument that changed his life.
“I don’t know how my parents put up with it,” he said of his constant playing, particularly since he was drawn to bebop and “my parents liked Lawrence Welk.”
“I neglected my social life, my academics. I could only think about the saxophone.”
By the time he was 17 he was playing with professional bands, but he was facing a lot of pressure at home to not go into music. After graduating from Amity High School with the third-highest math SAT score in his class, he attended the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland (now part of Case Western Reserve University) to study engineering.
“But I kept going downtown to play saxophone,” he said, and he wound up leaving school to tour with the Jimmy Dorsey band. At this time Dorsey was dead and the man who bought the band “was cheap.” Tiring of the touring and feeling he was not getting recognition, LaVorgna left the band and wound up playing in different parts of the country.
He wound up back in Cleveland, where he got married, and then moved to Atlanta with his wife, who died of cancer after only four years of marriage.
He stayed in Atlanta for four years but then got the itch to move to Chicago, where he stayed until his father became ill. With his mother gone, LaVorgna moved back to Orange to take care of his father until his death in 1992. It was then he moved to Wilton and pursued a more traditional job — at The Bulletin’s sister paper the New Canaan Advertiser.
“Then I started my next life,” he said. From 1992 to 2000 he took up writing big band music, studying with Bill Finegan, an arranger who worked with Glenn Miller in the 30s and 40s, in Monroe, Conn.
There was more touring — this time with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra — and he started writing a musical about his life called Sentimental Journeys, featuring the music of the 30s and 40s.
LaVorgna explained he played bebop as a young man, which he described as highly intellectual, irreverent music, but by his 40s, he said, “I had changed emotionally.” When the show ended in 2000 he worked a while for Perkin-Elmer, and then played in a rehearsal band.
It was at this time he met a man who suddenly gave up his music teaching business and handed LaVorgna his 60 students. Seeing what a good “gig” it was, he held on and has been teaching students piano and woodwinds for the past 17 or 18 years.
But he wasn’t done with his big ideas, and he sat down to write a graphic novel about his life. He connected with graphic novelist Harvey Pekar, who was also a jazz critic for Downbeat magazine. That led to a connection with artist Gary Dumm and writer Lois Gilbert.
LaVorgna was 55 when he started Bebopman, stories from his life, and 60 when he was finished and looking ahead again.
“When it’s over, it’s over, and you move on to the next thing.”
That next thing is a gig at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, N.Y., where he plays clarinet with pianist David Budway every Sunday at 5.
“I’m 68, still out there, still doing it. My fingers are fast, the tone is good.”
LaVorgna said life is good, right now. “I feel really comfortable in Wilton,” he said.
“I wouldn’t change much. … No other jazz musician has written a graphic novel. I have lots of great students and friends. I play Benny Goodman-type clarinet once a week. It’s been a good life. I’ve had a lot of fun.”