by Spencer Bruno
Harpist Eugene Bianco passed away suddenly of cardiac arrest on the morning of May 7, prior to leaving his home for a recording session. At age 80, Gene was actively working as a contractor and coordinator for various recording projects and concert events. He had been an 802 member since 1947.
Born and raised in a suburb of Hartford, at age 12 Gene began taking lessons from his grandfather Filippo Capobianco, who emigrated to America after touring Europe playing chamber music. Once Gene’s talents became evident, Gene’s father would drive him into New York weekly to study with the famous Marcel Grandjany. A 10-year student-teacher relationship ensued, culminating in Gene’s graduation from Juilliard.
Shortly afterward, he was awarded the position of first harp with the Radio City Orchestra where principal conductor Raymond Paige suggested he shorten his name to Gene Bianco. Gene often reported that he was sorry he did it, because it hurt his father deeply.
Later, Gene experimented in jazz harp. He was influenced by George Shearing’s piano style, which led him to double the right hand melody with the thumb of the left hand.
Gene began a solo tour, which brought rave reviews. His repertoire included classical pieces and popular standards which he arranged himself. He won critical acclaim, including a mention in the New York Times.
His next big break was on television. He made appearances on the “Ernie Kovacs Show,” the “Tonight Show” with Steve Allen, the NBC “Home TV Show” and the “Woolworth Hour” for CBS. Victor Young, the conductor for the CBS Orchestra, said that “Gene is one of the very few harpists who has a great conception of jazz.”
As time progressed Gene became one of the three busiest harpists during the 60’s and 70’s as the recording industry and opportunities for studio musicians flourished in New York City. He was the first call for any jazz recording; his name was to be found on dozens of great jazz albums with performers such as Paul Desmond, Gil Evans and Herbie Mann.
He was mentioned in Miles Davis’ biography, and his services as both harpist and contractor were used by pop recording artists such as Mary J. Blige, D Train, Stevie Nicks and Alan Lorber.
Gene himself was most proud of his solo albums recorded at RCA studios. But he also led ensembles; his album “Harp, Skip, and Jump” featured Mundell Lowe, Joe Venuto, Don Lamond, and Wendell Marshall. “The Rainbow Sounds of Gene Bianco, His Harp and Orchestra” was recorded with a 60-piece orchestra and 16-voice chorus.
Within the past dozen years when Gene stopped playing the harp, he remained actively involved as a contractor and music coordinator. He worked on the Broadway musical “Jane Eyre,” with Nelson Riddle, Natalie Cole and many others.
During his later years, Gene particularly enjoyed his friendships with Larry Hochman, Edd Kalehoff, Seymour Barab, Bryron Olson, Paul Buckmaster, Andy Kaploe, Dunn Pearson, Garry Sherman and myself.
To say the least, Gene was quite an extraordinary, colorful character. Even today, his intimate friends roar with laughter when gathering and fondly reminiscing about his antics.
Gene is survived by his children Lisa, Phillip and Tarryn.
All are invited to attend Gene’s memorial service on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 6:15 p.m. in the Local 802 Club Room. Please come and join us in celebrating the life and music of one of our own.
Spencer Bruno met Gene Bianco while both played a two-week stint with Steve Lawrence and Edyie Gorme in the mid-1990’s. They performed on recording sessions and concert dates contracted by Gene. Bruno is presently the music director and co-owner of the Lester Lanin Orchestra.