Billy Triglia, 86, passed away on Feb. 3, closing a lovely chapter in my life. He was a jazz pianist born in the Bronx, who lived most of his life in Bergen County, New Jersey. I met him soon after I became a bass player in 1950, when he asked me to play with him in a little club in Nyack called the Paradise. Tony Fruscella was the trumpet player on that gig, and through Bill and Tony I later met and played with Dave Schildkraut, Frank Isola, Jimmy Knepper, Don Joseph and Red Mitchell. All these musicians liked their jazz soft, mellow and melodic, with a lot of swing. I learned a lot from being around them.
Billy was a good piano player, and a sweet person. His enjoyment of the music and of the musicians he liked was infectious. He would find places to play around New Jersey and in New York, usually for very little money, and I would happily go wherever it was just to be in on the fun.
You can find Billy on a few recordings that he made with Fruscella, Schildkraut, Hank D’Amico, Sam Most, Jackie Paris, Charles Mingus and Zoot Sims, and there are a couple of recordings of radio broadcasts done from Birdland when he was with Lester Young’s quintet. Like many of us, he put in some time on the road with big bands like Les Elgart, Alvino Rey, Sam Donahue and Georgie Auld, but he spent most of his life in anonymity with small jazz groups and club date bands.
I saw Billy for the last time about a year ago at a rehearsal of Dick Meldonian’s band in Emerson, New Jersey. Billy came to visit, and though I could see he wasn’t well, the old smile and the delight in being with other musicians was still there. His enthusiasm for the music during his lifetime was a great gift to those who knew him, and it made hundreds of what would have been ordinary gigs into something special.
From time to time William Zinn has sent me stories for this column. I recently received another Zinn story from Susan Rosenberg:
When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he instituted free concerts in nursing homes in Queens. The free concerts took place under the title “Project Sunshine,” and were made up of volunteers. Bill Zinn’s “Ragtime String Quartet” played gratis in nursing homes all over Queens.
During one concert, Zinn noticed an elderly man keeping time to the music by tapping on the armrest of his wheelchair. While packing up the stands and sound system after the gig, Zinn struck up a conversation with the man, and suddenly a nearby nurse began to yell, “He’s talking!”
The man, a Long Island physician, had been in an automobile accident, was in a coma for months, awoke with a loss of memory, and had been incommunicative for about a year, just sitting in his wheelchair all day staring at a blank wall. The ragtime beat of the music played by Zinn’s group somehow jolted him back to awareness. When Zinn was offered a reward, he said, “I’ve been already compensated by the smile on the face of the doctor in the wheelchair.”
Art Baron told me that, when he was on the road with Duke Ellington, the pianos provided for Duke were usually good instruments. But once in a while the maestro would find himself at a piano with some severely questionable notes on it. Maybe a new string that hadn’t been retuned, or a pin that had slipped a bit. Art said that, instead of avoiding the dud notes, Duke would play around with them, building up a solo to a climax and then inserting a dreadful sounding note, while looking impishly at the band. He managed to turn a sad situation into entertainment for his musicians.
While visiting in Puerto Rico, trumpeter Mike Lewis heard a band playing in a hotel lobby, led by a flute player who Mike thought looked a lot like Dave Valentin. Mike took a seat at the bar to listen, and noticed that there was another flute player sitting next to him, waiting to sit in. Mike asked him if the band leader was Dave Valentin. “I don’t think so,” said the visiting flutist.
When the band took a break, the musicians came to the bar and greeted the visiting flutist with such respect and acclaim that Mike took a better look at him and said, “Oh, you are Dave Valentin!” To which Valentin replied, “No s__t!”
The late Les Paul was known in the music world as a brilliant guitarist, an electronics genius, a charming personality, and a crusty bandleader. When he had a steady Monday with his trio at Fat Tuesday’s, John Arbo was sent in to sub one night by Les’s regular bassist, Gary Mazzaroppi. John told me that, at the end of the first set, Les acknowledged the two musicians who supported him: “So let’s have a round of applause for the great Lou Pallo on rhythm guitar!” (Cheers and applause.) “…and let’s have a hand for our bass player. On bass, we have… uh, …we have… uh, ” (and still on the microphone,) “what the f___ did you say your name was again?”