Russ Kassoff, a member of Local 802 since 1970, is an accomplished jazz pianist, conductor, music director, composer, orchestrator and arranger, whose career has taken him to every height of the music industry. Frank Sinatra tapped Russ to tour with him for 11 years and told him simply, “You’re the best.” On Broadway, he played or conducted countless shows, including serving as the music director and conductor of Twyla Tharp’s tribute to Frank Sinatra. “Come Fly Away.” Russ collaborated with Liza Minnelli (with whom he toured for 18 years), Rita Moreno (as music director), Charles Aznavour (as conductor and pianist), Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Vic Damone, Carly Simon, Lainie Kazan, Debbie Gravitte, Luciano Pavarotti, Bucky Pizzarelli, Tierney Sutton, Marilyn Maye, Tony Danza, Rebecca Luker, Red Norvo, Chris Connor, Mimi Hines, Rod Stewart and Sylvia Syms, among other top names in music. In fact, Russ’ credits are simply too large to fit into this small space and we encourage readers to check out his official bio here. Russ grew up in Brooklyn and Merrick, New York, began working professionally in the Catskills at the tender age of 13, and eventually earned a bachelor’s of music degree from the Crane School of Music at SUNY (Potsdam). Now, after a long and successful run, he’s turning 70 this August.
Bob Pawlo recently got the chance to sit down with Russ and ask him about his life in music. (This is Bob’s 61st interview for Allegro!) Since Allegro is now digital (with no constraints for space) and since Russ’ musical life is a literal saga, we’re pleased to present an extended format: a word-for-word transcription of a 30-minute interview with Bob and Russ. We hope that readers will immerse themselves in Russ’ story and enjoy learning about his life in detail.
BOB PAWLO: Good afternoon, Russ Kassoff. It’s a privilege and pleasure to be here. When and how did your journey in music begin?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, my folks bought me a toy piano when I was three years old. I still have it upstairs. It’s a bit moldy! Would you like to see it?
BOB PAWLO: Not really!
RUSS KASSOFF: (laughs) I learned how to play by ear from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
BOB PAWLO: Hard stuff.
RUSS KASSOFF: In one cartoon he sat down at the piano and just played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2, but it was in C minor. It wasn’t until I started taking lessons when I was four years old that I realized the original key was C sharp minor.
BOB PAWLO: Playing along with Bugs! And what happened from there?
RUSS KASSOFF: Yeah, I was playing along with Bugs, and my parents recognized that I had some talent. They were not very musical but very supportive. They loved the music of the 40’s — big bands, Sinatra, etc. on WNEW. My mom was a Glenn Miller junkie! Recognizing my talent, they got me lessons. We were a low-income family, my father worked very hard. We lived in a traditional Brooklyn apartment before the age of exterminators. It has since been renovated and is now a multimillion dollar co-op in the middle of Flatbush in Brooklyn. Around the corner there was a guy named Charles who had a music studio. We don’t know to this day whether or not that was his first or last name. He gave piano lessons. I may have been his first student!
BOB PAWLO: How old were you?
RUSS KASSOFF: I was 4 years old. He started me with the John W. Schaum books. I still have them — each a different color. Very quickly I outgrew his teaching prowess, and being honest, he told my mother, who was paying $5 a lesson, that he would recommend me to a renowned teacher in the classical world. Her name was Rose Cion. She lived around the corner from Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn — quite the schlep. Unfortunately, I was really bored with classical music because I liked improvising. Nonetheless, I got to the point within six months, I was playing the Kabalevsky Youth Concerto in a competition at WQXR for people like Jasha Zayde, and I made the quarter finals — I didn’t get past that — but in my performance I was to play one of two parts. The second part, which was the accompaniment, was to be played by a professional accompanist. And he was so…give me a good word, a substitute for bad…
BOB PAWLO: Difficult
RUSS KASSOFF: He was so difficult that I told him in the middle of the performance to stop playing, and I played both parts.
BOB PAWLO: This is on the radio?
RUSS KASSOFF: No, no, not yet. This was a live performance in a recital hall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, wherever WQXR was. We’re only covering one day of my life right here.
BOB PAWLO: So keep talking.
RUSS KASSOFF: I didn’t make the next round. I still have my quarter finalist certificate! I used classical music as a way to audition for things. I really wasn’t a big fan of classical music because I had a hard time always playing other people’s notes, being restricted in harmony and always being forced to practice the technique of certain pieces, which I later came to love because when you go to college and piano techniques is required your chops have already been developed. You learn the technique that’s actually in the pieces. I am a proud alum of the Crane School of Music – part of the State University College at Potsdam NY, Class of ‘74. I was a rare music performance major. At that time most students got degrees in education. I got to play much more and took full advantage of what was available to me at the time. One of my professors was the renowned Dr. Arthur Frackenpohl — composer, educator., and a very supportive and wonderful teacher. I had a heated moment with him in his piano techniques class. He tried to make me do stuff like play an F-sharp arpeggio against a C. I said, “when am I ever going to use this — C against F-sharp?” Well did you ever hear of Petrushka? The Rite of Spring? But you’re only going to need it in the piece. So why don’t you just practice it when you’re working on the piece, not before then? I was convincing enough to test out of the class. (Not have to actually attend it!)
BOB PAWLO: What happened between WQXR and 12 years later at Potsdam?
RUSS KASSOFF: Let’s see…WQXR I’m 4 or 5 years old…and Potsdam I was 16. I graduated high school at 16. Earlier in Brooklyn I was in an SP class so about 35 of us skipped 8th grade together.
BOB PAWLO: So in between what happened? What was the next thing after WQXR and you’re practicing…
RUSS KASSOFF: I was able to learn songs by ear. “They” say I was talented. I could play the Star-Spangled Banner in grade school! I assimilated a lot of songs, and when I got into high school, I tried out for the JV baseball team, and a fly ball was hit, but it was slicing away from me, and there was no way I was ever going to catch it; it was just a horrible play in the outfield. Next day, I’m in the choir! The Calhoun Choir in Merrick, Long Island. I became the student conductor in my 2nd year — the critically acclaimed Calhoun Choir, which was always 6A+ in New York State NYSSMA competitions and I loved it. I mean everybody in that room, it was like family, although I had to take off from the family to do gigs from time to time. It was directed by S. Talbot Thayer “Tal” who was a 1953 Graduate of Crane (SUCP). He worked miracles with High School Kids. Quite a memory to cherish.
BOB PAWLO: What was your first gig?
RUSS KASSOFF: My first gig was at the age of 13. It was New Year’s Eve at Our Lady of Peace Church in Rockville Center under the direction of Charlie Levine, the father of Local 802’s Dan
— an excellent all-around musician! Charlie
was my first band leader. Steve Danenberg — of Local 802’s recording and music prep departments in recent years — his wife — was in that band! Such a small world.
My father would drive me to the rehearsals where we played the usual stock arrangements.
BOB PAWLO: So how was the first gig?
RUSS KASSOFF: It was New Year’s Eve. It was late. I was asleep early. I was 13.
BOB PAWLO: Okay
RUSS KASSOFF: I do remember being nervous and having a great time. Soon after that, somehow my name went to the legendary impresario Samuel Maslin, (aka Maslansky) who lived out in Seaford, Long Island.
BOB PAWLO: Seaford, yeah.
RUSS KASSOFF: Seaford. And he called me out of the blue. He asked me if I wanted to go to the Catskills for a couple of weekends in June and then the summer in a hotel where the average age was deceased, and with the added bonus of an epidemic of incontinence!
BOB PAWLO: O.K…
RUSS KASSOFF: He asked me if I wanted to go up to the mountains. I Still have my paychecks from those years upstairs. $17 for a weekend! I had to take the Short Line bus up to Monticello. I auditioned for a couple of guys, a sax player and a drummer, who were both — well, the best way to put it is potheads. And they kept their stashes inside a 45 rpm Victrola, they would unscrew the screws unveiling a plastic bag. Did they have plastic back then? It was 1966 or 67, and because they called all these tunes at my house — in Merrick, Long Island where I was in the Calhoun Choir, living near Sammy Maslin — any tune they called I knew. Passing the audition, being able to play just about anything on any broken or unpainted piano, I got the gig. I knew all the hip tunes at the time because I had book seven! It had “Up, Up, and Away”, “Didn’t We”…you know, all the 5th Dimension stuff and even some Beatles tunes in it. So we went up to the mountains together. I was 13. They were like 17, 18 — seniors in high school. We were in different worlds, but since I knew all the tunes and read music pretty well, I also took the gigs on the winter weekends. In the summer at The Pine Lodge Hotel on the road to Monticello Raceway, Sammy said to me, the gig pays 35 bucks for the week. That’s a five-night week. And then he said to me, don’t tell the other guys in the band. And I said why? Are they making more? And he knew that I was going to be a tough cookie as he hired child labor all over the Catskills to play shows and grow up. And grow up we did.
On Friday and Saturday nights, we were off because it was a Kosher hotel and we were booked to play the late shows in two bungalow colonies, Carol House — on the other side of Monticello, and Rocky Mason’s Bungalow Colony. Very long story short, it was my first experience with adult entertainment. It was all over the place; the late shows were teeming all over the Catskills. The place was smokin’, it was swingin’. And you had to be able to play for strippers. A very select repertoire.
One of the first strippers that we played for was a lady who introduced herself as Miss More. I don’t think she gave me her real name because I’ve checked all the social media Web sites and I can’t find a stripper named Miss More anywhere, and you know, I’d like to track her down if she’s still alive. Probably not.
Anyway, this is the God’s honest truth. I’m standing there. The other two guys in the band are not exactly coherent for the late show, and I’m thinking to myself, how am I going to get from this to Sinatra? I was just in the right place at the right time going forward. And backwards of that, when I was probably 11 or 12 years old, I was a paper boy in Brooklyn and I took all my money and bought Sinatra albums — they were like 8 or 9 dollars an album back then, and the first album I bought was September of My Years – in mono!. I also got to play all the Sinatra albums when I was a babysitter for my father’s friend around the corner, and they had all the Capitol records. So I said, man, there’s something really special about Sinatra. I felt the magic from the beginning! When I was about 4, I was just starting to play the piano. My father needed to get out of the house because my mother was pregnant with my brother, and he got tickets to the live Steve Allen show at the Millennium Hotel in New York. I was in the audience with my father and they had these black and white monitors up high. It was 1957. I’m looking up there. We didn’t even have TV’s yet! Everybody’s all excited. You may remember if they put the camera on your face and people looked up, they would say “Oh my God, I’m on camera!” Well, now everybody has a camera, and everybody could take every photo and video of everything including sound. Back then, it was a really big deal.
So Steve Allen is in the front, the band is live. Skitch Henderson was the bandleader. I recall that Steve Lawrence came out to sing “In the Still Of The Night.”.
I’m enthralled at him and I’m looking at the band and they’re playing cards! At this point I said to myself, “this is what I want to do!”. Four years old, the band is playing cards, and there’s a singer out there singing supposedly live — a great singer, by the way — and so I was hooked, and I soon decided that I had three goals in life. to play for Sinatra, to somehow play with The Tonight Show Band, which I got to do with Liza.
BOB PAWLO: We’ll get to that.
And the third goal was to have my own big band and write all the arrangements based on my lifelong education listening to The Great American Songbook with Mr. Sinatra as the chairman of course. I started the big band in the year 2000. I achieved all those goals. And I really have nothing to live for at this point! Except to create new goals!
BOB PAWLO: Well, to recap. So, you play classical piano, you’re playing club date style stuff, you’re playing singers, you’re in the choir in high school…
RUSS KASSOFF: That’s an acquired taste, by the way.
BOB PAWLO: The choir, absolutely. And what led you to SUNY Potsdam?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, I wanted to get as far away from my parents as I possibly could and still be in the state of New York at a low price, and I wound up winning scholarships for the tuition, which at the time, believe it or not, was $400 a year — $200 a semester.
BOB PAWLO: We just skipped something. Had you gone to the union at that point?
RUSS KASSOFF: Yes, I did.
BOB PAWLO: You joined 802 at what age?
RUSS KASSOFF: Sammy Maslin made me join the union at the age of 16 or 17. I took the Long Island Railroad to the city from Merrick, Long Island, and I went upstairs at Roseland, and there were windows that had bars like cages. There was a guy there that kind of looked like Groucho Marx, and I went up to him, you know, a nervous kid. I was joining because I was going up to the Catskills and had to pay my work dues to Meyer Rubenstein for local 809 and learn about the no pension and no welfare for the special situations of every gig I did until about 1980. To the fellow behind the cage, I said “I’m here to join the union, and he looked at me and obviously I wasn’t 21. I think you had to be 21 then. I’m not sure, but I do remember that to join it was about $162 to become a member. My father gave me the money for that, I said to him, I’m here to join the union. He looked at me and he said, you got cash? (whilst smoking a stogie) I said yes, and he looked at me and he says, “you’re in!”
So that’s how I got into the union, and I’ve been a faithful member all these 57 years.
BOB PAWLO: It’s been a couple of years. When did you go to the fabled union floor for the first time?
RUSS KASSOFF: I believe that I had been going there already to get club dates in Brooklyn, like Sheepshead Bay for these odd, weird offices where they wore white suits and wide lapels and the strangest frilled shirts for weddings and bar mitzvahs — a lot of bar mitzvahs. There were two things that were the measure of a successful bar mitzvah. One was to bring home a 10-pound tin of potato salad, and the other was to do overtime or a preheat and actually get scale. Anyway, the advanced club date career emerged after college pretty much, because I wasn’t in New York very much. I spent about six summers in the Catskills.
BOB PAWLO: So you’re on the union floor, you’re doing gigs, you’re studying, you’re playing. And then SUNY Potsdam.
RUSS KASSOFF: OK, so I arrived in Potsdam in September 1970. The night before I was at the Grand Mountain Hotel, and I packed up my 1966 Plymouth that I bought for $35. I had 2 giant JBL speakers and all of my stuff, went up to Potsdam where I had a real advocate in Dr. Ron Tarr, my major teacher, who got me a scholarship. I didn’t have to pay the $400 tuition. He had an unwritten agreement with me that even though it wasn’t a jazz school and Berklee had not emerged yet, that I would be able to play jazz on my recitals. I was one of only 7 performance majors. Everybody else was there for education degrees.
As soon as I got to the school I was called down to the assistant dean’s office. Her name was Genevieve Bowman and looked exactly like that. Quite a matronly lady. Most students dreaded having to visit with her. I go to into her office and she says to me, “young man, I understand you play THE JAZZ. We’ll have none of that here.” And I said, “well if you’ll have none of that here, I’ll go right back to the Catskills and play for singers, comics, and strippers”. I went upstairs to Dr. Tarr and told him that he’d have to work something out because I’m not going to stay here if I can’t play jazz. Not knowing if they even had any jazz on campus, I came to find out they had a good jazz band and a couple of great jazz players — like Local 802 legends Gary Keller and Glenn Drewes. He worked out a deal where’d I’d equally perform classical and jazz on my recitals while matriculating. I wrote jazz charts, and I put little groups together, and I played “The Jazz”. I also worked very hard on classical music for the performance part of my degree.
BOB PAWLO: What were the things that they stressed at Crane that helped you later on?
RUSS KASSOFF: Don’t get a music degree! Get something that’s worthwhile in the world, and I’ve used that in many master classes. It doesn’t go over very big because they ask me what I would have done if I didn’t get a music degree, and I say that I would have been a shepherd. You certainly have to have a good business sense with direction to want the life of a professional musician. And a lot of luck. Take it from me — talent only holds so much sway.
BOB PAWLO: During your time at Crane, you were doing gigs in the mountains, local north country gigs and other stuff, right?
RUSS KASSOFF: Yeah, I worked my way all the way up to an “A” hotel, the Laurels Country Club. The first year I was a side man. The second year I was the leader. I was conducting all these shows. I mean, you may have heard of Freddy Roman and Mal Z. Lawrence and the Catskills on Broadway folks. On July 4th, we’d have really big names like London Lee, and on Labor Day, we’d have Billy Eckstine, and of course, the old people thought he was Jewish, with a name like Eckstine. But you know, that’s what they talk about at the midnight buffet in the coffee shop where you can get a really good Danish and an egg cream.
BOB PAWLO: You music-directed for many people, many acts, many different situations. What skills and what things do you need as the accompanist and conductor to come in, rehearse a band, and do the show not soon after? What has to be accomplished in that rehearsal, as a music director?
RUSS KASSOFF: You got to get everybody to laugh first. That’s the Mel Brooksian way that I live by. Most often, there are ridiculous things you have to do in a show. You would never pick the repertoire. You would have no idea what the singer is trying to do…or the comic or the dance team or whatever. And you have to come in prepared. You have to know what the show is going to be, and you have to know the spots that need to be worked on. There are people that are in bands all over the place — well, at least in the Catskills, which is no longer in existence unfortunately. Growing up in that situation, you really were playing for your life. You were being judged by the people that had the so-called power of being able to get you subs on weekends at the Raleigh and the Pines and, you know, keep you working, That’s pretty much the same today with a lot less work.
BOB PAWLO: What were the musical skills you absolutely had to have cold?
RUSS KASSOFF: You had to be able to read fly excrement. Most of the charts put in front of you really came with a beautiful assortment of insect life! You had to be able to follow everything that’s on your piece of paper, because that piece of paper came through all kinds of different bands with great skills or lesser skills, and people write things in there that you have to decipher, and you have to figure it out. It depends on the show. If you’re in the A hotels during the late 60s and early 70s — those were The Concord, Grossinger’s, Kutshers, the Laurels, Neville, Fallsview, you’re going to get the better acts. And they all work for the same people, and they all have the same arrangers and copyists. It’s about as professional as you can get up there. Their ultimate goal is to work out a chart, a new chart, come have you play it up there, and then do it on The Tonight Show, or something like that. Most of them didn’t get that far, but some of them did. You certainly had to be able to play your instrument. Most of the cats up there did. They were all in competition with each other. Like I said, you were playing for your life. Everybody’s listening to you and figuring out what you can or cannot do. And you have to have the skills as a music director to be able to draw a bridge between the act, each different with all their intricacies and personalities, and the band. Some of them are really hardcore. They must rehearse, kind of like on Broadway. But others are like cool, like, say the wonderful Cavril Payne, sister of Cecil Payne. She could tell in the first tune whether or not the band was good and hip and ready to play jazz. She always knew what needed to be rehearsed in her book and the house bands loved to play for acts like hers.
BOB PAWLO: You’ve accompanied hundreds of singers in your career, from the lower rungs to the very top. How do you approach coming in as the accompanist?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, is the accompanist also the leader or part of the band?
BOB PAWLO: A solo piano working with a singer.
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, you have to learn how to partner, collaborate and make the singer as comfortable as possible. Every singer is different. Some have mucho mishegas, some have problems, some are totally cool. Some can’t improvise, some are uncomfortable when you try to improvise when they’re used to something very specific. They’re artists. They all have their own thing. Some will share the light with you, even though as an accompanist — and I love accompanying — you are not in the light. You are there to provide the musical bed for the singer so that they are completely comfortable in every moment that they’re on stage performing. Now, there are other singers who will share the light with you, mostly jazzier singers. And they’ll give you solos, and they’ll let you play a whole solo up front or somewhere in the middle of the show while they go offstage and take a break or change costumes or whatever. But a lot of the theatrical people are not like that. They want you to play their show pretty much exactly as they had intended, which is pretty good too. As a general rule the older school of performers were better at improvising within the context of their shows and when it was time to take care of the specific business of the music everyone knew it.
BOB PAWLO: You’re on stage, you’ve got the band, the act’s about to come out. As a music director or piano player, a minute before we start, what’s going through your mind that has to be in place?
RUSS KASSOFF: Who is that blonde in the third row? (laughs) What show is it? Is it Sinatra? Is it somebody in the Catskills? They’re not all the same.
BOB PAWLO: What’s your checklist before you’re going to give the downbeat?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, if there’s written music involved, you have to make sure that your music is in order. You have to make sure that you know the cues or the segues, whether or not there is a speech, whether the singer is going to talk in between songs, or not. Some direct segues are so fast that guys in the band can’t change their music — that’s one of the things you have to go through in rehearsal. You got to make sure that they know its bang, bang, bang.
BOB PAWLO: Transitions and flexibility! That happened after school?
RUSS KASSOFF: I moved to Long Island with my girlfriend, and I started working in New York, club dates. Back in those days, which was the mid-70s, I’m still doing some of the Catskills. Word got around, and there were a lot of offices. There was a ton of work. There was more work than could go around, and the union was not strong. Most of the work was nonunion, so that was a drag. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I was recommended to the legendary Tony Cabot, who booked the music at a brand-new restaurant called Windows on The World, the top of the World Trade Center, and I became the highest piano player for 2 .5 years in New York! 5 nights a week, 5 hours a night. You never knew who was going to visit there. It was really the place to go. It had a six-month waiting list to get a reservation in the dining room, and I played in a room called the hors d’oeuvre. They were so busy that they had their own public relations person who would come up to me every night and give me a list of who was coming in to have coconut shrimp and sushi.
One night it was Leonard Bernstein, and one night it was Imelda Marcos. She was often accompanied by Van Cliburn (on the dance floor!) and he generously tipped the musicians. That fact was known all over the high society haunts of New York that always had sophisticated music. On one of the nights that I was leading the trio, subbing for the legendary Judd Woldin, composer of “Raisin” and “The King of Schnorrers”, it was the end of the night, Ms. Marcos and Mr. Cliburn were still on the dance floor — and one of her people, a man in a black suit came over to me at the piano, unaware that we were done. He bent down to me and said “next you will play “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. After about a half hour of that, I looked up the steps catching the eye of the VP and general manager of the restaurant, Alan Lewis, waved to him to come down. I said, “can we get a break soon?” And he said, “do you want to get shot?” Those were the best gigs in New York. Ah the good old days!
BOB PAWLO: So 2.5 years at the top of the world as a solo pianist. Did you choose the repertoire according to the crowd you saw?
RUSS KASSOFF: I took requests, and I learned a lot from their requests. There were a lot of regulars there, and they would request tunes, and if I didn’t know them, I would research back in the days when you had to go to a library or a music store. You couldn’t pick them up online. There was no line to be on! You needed a quarter or a dime to go to the pay phone just to get scores of sports games.
BOB PAWLO: After Windows on the World, what happened?
RUSS KASSOFF: At the same time that I was doing Windows On The World, I was working…I was off on weekends, believe it or not, and I did a lot of club dates up there on Saturday and Sunday, but I also did a lot of club dates for the Ray Bloch office. One night in 1978, a fellow came up to the piano, and he said: “I’m enjoying listening to you”.
I thanked him. And he said, my name is Nick Perito. Well, I was 25 years old, and I did not know who he was. I still had my goal of Sinatra, The Tonight Show, and my own big band, and he looked at me puzzled, like how is it possible that there’s anybody in the music world who doesn’t know who he is? And I said, well it’s so nice to meet you. I also didn’t know that there was a whole bunch of marvelous Italian musicians, kind of like a musical mafia that included people like Joe Malin, Dominic Cortese, Don Costa, Tony Mottola, Jerry Bruno, Bucky Pizzarelli and many many more. If anything happened in the music world like the emergence of a new kid on the block, they knew about it. If somebody came along and you encountered any one of these masters, they really took you under their wing and they did everything they could to help you out because back in those days, there was a lot of sharing, a lot of mentoring and a lot of work. For me that’s how my name got around and I give great tons of credit to Jerry Bruno and Bucky Pizzarelli.
Nick apparently was so taken aback by me not knowing who he was that he told me to write down his name and say hello for him to Tony Cabot, who was the contractor for Windows On The World. Tony came in every Tuesday night to give us our paychecks that had union dues deducted from it, but no pension and health paid from it — because they had a “special agreement” with Max Aarons back in those days until the restaurant got off its feet. You needed six months in advance for a reservation, but it was not long enough…I guess you needed seven to have a pension!
And so I sent regards, and Tony said to me, do you know who he is? And I said no. He’s Perry Como’s conductor. I said, well isn’t that great? I’m very happy that Perry Como’s conductor enjoyed my piano playing. All right, so what could hurt? What could be bad?
In the summer of 1980, I was working for the Ray Bloch office. Ed Sullivan’s well known maestro Ray Bloch sold his name to a corporate entity who used the name to book corporate events all over the world called industrials. Having the IBM account, and since I was the first call, I got the call to go to Bermuda. The contractor for Ray Bloch was Johnny Amoroso who sang “Marie” in the Tommy Dorsey orchestra back in his day. He was a fine entertainer, trumpet player, a wonderful musician and was hysterically funny. But he did not have the wherewithal to book a proper string section. The featured star that year was Perry Como.
I went to the Bermuda gig and immediately at rehearsal encountered none other than Nick Perito along with world class guitarist Tony Mottola. Some of the boys were gathered — Sonny Russo, Joe Malin, Tony, etc. and Nick was holding court. I went up to him and being the brash young lad that I was at the age of 27 and said, “do you remember me? Windows On The World?” And he goes, yeah. yeah! He proceeds to tell the story of how he came up to me and I didn’t know who he was! All of his pals were laughing at me and with him!
When the laughing subsided, I went over to Joe Malin, took him aside and said, “I don’t need the money. I don’t need the music — (I did need the money), I didn’t need the music — But if you ever need someone to play for Frank Sinatra, please give me a call.” At that time in 1980, I had not started with Liza yet. I was just doing a lot of club dates, a lot of first work, and I had just done a world cruise where I played for the likes of Myron Cohen, Steve Allen, Lynn Redgrave, Patrice Munsel, Yvonne Constant and met Mimi Hines for whom I conducted in subsequent years. I had a lot of show business experience, and Joe is looking at me like, who is this kid?
BOB PAWLO: And Joe was a major guy, man.
RUSS KASSOFF: Joe was the string contractor for this gig, and he was the contractor for Frank Sinatra in the eastern corridor of the United States.
Now I’ve met all these guys. They know my name and my pianistic abilities. Now they have my number. Unbelievably a couple of weeks later, unfortunately, the great Bernie Leighton fell ill. He was doing 42nd Street on Broadway, and he wound up not able to do the orchestral piano chair for Frank Sinatra for the next coming gigs. Joe called me. It was in Atlantic City. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
BOB PAWLO: When you got the call, what did you say?
RUSS KASSOFF: Yeah, I said hello. But you know, there wasn’t caller ID back then. Hello, this is Joe Malin.
I go, Hi Joe! and please mail the check to, you know. And like I had a bunch of work working up to that gig. I was playing for Mimi Hines at Wolf Trap. And…I don’t know how much you want of this story.
BOB PAWLO: And the Temple and the Oranges.
RUSS KASSOFF: That’s the end of the story. You want the story?
BOB PAWLO: Absolutely. It’s classic.
RUSS KASSOFF: Alright, so I packed up my car. It was a ‘73 Toyota station wagon. This was 1980, the end of August. And I loaded a custom bottom with two fifteens, a plush head, a very heavy Wurlitzer electric piano, and I put it in the back of my car, and I drove down to Wolf Trap, where I was music director and pianist for Mimi Hines on a show that featured the likes of Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and Roberta Sherwood. I was Mimi Hines’ straight man at the piano bar.
BOB PAWLO: That’s a giant venue, folks.
RUSS KASSOFF: And I even gave Mimi a line. I said, “who designed this place, Romulus and Remus?” And she used it and got a big laugh. We’re still good friends. Anyway, my equipment hadn’t left the car yet. Then I drove from Virginia to Atlantic City, brand new Resorts International, room was built for Frank Sinatra. The 40 or so piece orchestra was living on the same floor. We had access to the new health club and all the restaurants. I’m on the stage at the Bösendorfer Piano, and in walks Frank and Dean, and it’s a good thing they had already invented Depends! It was magic. It was absolute magic. And we hit it off very well. Vinnie Falcone was the conductor then, which meant that he played the main accompaniment pieces, like “One For My Baby”. Bill Miller was not on that gig. He had taken a sabbatical, but he was to come back, and I admired him very much. He was one of my gurus. And I did about 11 years off and on of going around the world with Sinatra.
BOB PAWLO: What was that first gig like? Must have been amazing!
RUSS KASSOFF: My God, it was unbelievable. It was Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin!. They sang a couple of medleys together and I got to play Frank’s show — the orchestral piano part. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, Plink, Plink, Plink. I didn’t get to play One For My Baby or do any individual accompanying until the “Together Again” tour with Frank, Dean and Sammy in the Pacific Northwest in ‘88. And when I started talking to Frank, he came over and said, “Hey kid, how you doing?” He called me the kid. Here’s another part of what it takes to be a music director. You have to find everything you can to make the singer or performer comfortable and not overstep any line. It’s not about you. You have to check your ego at the door. You’re not a jazz player on this gig. You’re trying to find out what they need to be comfortable. Especially in the case of Frank Sinatra!
BOB PAWLO: That’s why you’re there.
RUSS KASSOFF: That’s why you’re there. Apparently Frank recognized that right away,. If he respected you, he really loved you. You were like part of the family. He went over to Joe (Malin) on the first night and said, anytime we need somebody on this chair, get “the kid”. I’m still the kid. Everybody else was 30 years older than me and most of them are gone now. But I’m still here.
BOB PAWLO: What was your next gig after that?
RUSS KASSOFF: We did a full week at the newly renovated Resorts International in Atlantic City ending on a Saturday night. Sunday night, I’m driving back to New York. I lived in Brooklyn at the time. And on the way I stopped at a Temple in West Orange, New Jersey. I had to schlep all my stuff down a flight of stairs encountering a well-known club date leader. As I’m setting up, knowing that I had just come from the Sinatra gig, he looked at me and he said, “Frank Sinatra, and now me — same tunes!”
BOB PAWLO: So that begins Sinatra. You’re also doing club dates, accompanying singers, etc. What led to your long working relationship with Liza Minnelli?
RUSS KASSOFF: The very first time I met Liza was at the opening night party for “The Act” on Broadway in 1977. Danny Leroy contracted the club date band for the party. Liza, who I didn’t know at the time, had the reputation for being very generous with sitting in at jam sessions or making magic at private or public situations. I was at the piano when she came and sat down next to me and she said, “let’s do a tune”. The tune was “My Shining Hour”, and she loved it, we had a good time. We talked for a brief moment and then she disappeared into the crowd amongst her adoring guests and cast and all that kind of stuff.
Fast forward to 1982 on my birthday. I never expected to get this call, but I got a call from Bill LaVorgna, Liza’s music director and drummer, who was in the recording studio with Joe Malin doing a jingle date. Remember those things? Record dates and jingles and stuff like that.
BOB PAWLO: A bygone era!
RUSS KASSOFF: Bill knew that his pianist with Liza who had just done about a year with her; Ben Aronov, really great player, great musician — needed to take off for three months because the musical Cats was going to open. Back then you couldn’t take off for…there was a frozen period allowing no subs. I don’t remember what the length was.
BOB PAWLO: A couple of weeks.
RUSS KASSOFF: At least all the rehearsals and a certain number of previews. It conflicted with Liza’s next tour, so he needed a piano player. Joe Malin called me up and he said, “I hate to lose you, but we’re not working that much with Frank, so I gave your name to Bill LaVorgna, and he’s going to call you.”
He called me, and he said, “Liza wants to meet you”, even though she had already met me, but this is a couple of years later, and I went up to her apartment and I sat down at the piano, and she says, “what do you want to play?” I said well, how about “My Shining Hour”?
Before I got to the end of the tune, I had the gig. (laughter) And so I went out on the road, and it was booked for three months. My very first gig with her was at the Ford Theatre for Reagan in 1980, and it was on CBS TV, and I recall…if you remember the late, great Joe Wilder, trumpet player extraordinaire. He was a wonderful photographer. He was in the house band, as was John Glasel — it was his last actual gig before he became 802 president.
BOB PAWLO: Wow.
RUSS KASSOFF: They were all on stage, and I went to Washington D.C. just to play for Liza. I’m sitting at the piano and I watched it on TV a couple of months later. You could see Joe Wilder picking up his camera and taking pictures of everybody from the bandstand on national television! It was pretty cool.
So that was my first gig. Then we went to South Africa, a tour of Italy for 17 days and we wound up in Bad Gastein, Austria for New Year’s Eve. I taught her how to play Auld Lang Syne on the piano so it would coincide with the stroke of midnight. It was on television, live TV. The TV went black exactly at midnight, and if you looked out your window, you could see all the fireworks in the air when the new year started. It was spectacular.
I was saying goodbye and thanking everyone for their support and a super tour experience as I was hired for the three months. Bill LaVorgna took me aside and said, what are you doing? I said, well I’m just thanking everybody. Everybody was great to me, and they, you know, gave me as much help as I needed. I had a great time, and I loved playing for her and all that kind of stuff. He says, well, wait a minute. You’re not going anywhere.
I said, well, I haven’t been hired to do anything else. And Ben was firmly ensconced in Cats. He was reading his French novels in French while the show was on. I didn’t know Ben. I had not met Ben. The entire band loved him, as did the crew. I didn’t know what to do, but what would you do if you get called for a gig that has nothing to do with anybody else’s business? I said, all right, I’ll continue. So I continued, and I wound up subbing for Ben at Cats! That’s how wacky this world is. That lasted 18 years, and I did a lot of rewrites of arrangements and much accompanying, which is my favorite thing to do.
BOB PAWLO: You must have played every venue in the world with her. I mean my God.
RUSS KASSOFF: Well not every, but we toured all over Europe, Japan, Australia, the U.S. of course and she was part of the Frank, Liza, Sammy Tour, which was in ‘89 after Dean left, and I did all of those too. So…
BOB PAWLO: What was that like? That was the height, right?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, that was the end of the great years for the two older guys. That would be Frank and Dean. It started in 1988. Billy May was the arranger, orchestrator, and I got to meet him up in Vancouver. We did a west coast tour. It had nothing to do with the east coast. Dean and Frank were on it, and I was just there to play for Frank. I played all of Mr. Sinatra’s incredible charts with piano accompaniment features. The conductor was Morty Stevens, who had taken over for George Rhodes on the Sammy Davis Jr. gig. Sammy had his own piano player, George Genna — really great! And Sammy had his own rhythm section, but when there were medleys like the Guys and Dolls medley, and the Style medley and medleys of standard tunes of the mid ‘60s, I was at the piano for that. Talk about the world falling right into place — Dean’s pianist on that part of the tour was none other than Nick Perito! Liza had not yet joined the tour. It was Frank and Dean and Sammy…we wound up in Chicago at the Chicago theatre. Dean didn’t realize how hard the gig would be. It was like almost a three-hour gig. It was like a Springsteen gig.
When Dean was leaving, serendipity had us both going down the elevator at the Palmer House. He said to me, “see ya kid”. He got in the limo, and he left the tour in Chicago and the next thing I know Liza’s on the gig. Joe Malin is contracting it and we go around the world — Japan, Australia, Hawaii, 13 countries in Europe, and we wind up at the Fox Theatre in Detroit for a video, which you can see. It’s called “The Ultimate Event. “The last gig I did with Mr. Sinatra was in ‘91. I continued with Liza until 2000. I was the music coordinator, assistant conductor at the Palace Theatre for Minnelli on Minnelli in ‘99. I became her music director when Bill LaVorgna retired, and that lasted about 3 weeks. It was a week in San Francisco and a week at the Kennedy Center in D.C. During our S.F. run, Rita Moreno called me and asked me to join her for quite some time. And at the time I was booked with Liza, this is how the world works, for a whole year. But Liza wound up falling ill, and that was the end of my stint with Liza — 18 years, which was full of really great experiences too amazing to imagine! Working with Rita has also a great experience all the way through. Absolutely fantastic. She’s 91 these days, still doing a million things, and we’re still in touch.
BOB PAWLO: You’ve done a lot of writing over the years. What advice would you give to young arrangers and orchestrators?
RUSS KASSOFF: Listen and learn! Learn as much as you can about the limits of every instrument and how voicing matters in the different sections. Listen to the great arrangers like Don Sebesky, Rob McConnell, Thad Jones, Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Billy Byers, Marion Evans, Patrick Williams, et al. It depends on what kind of music you’re listening to. I’m leaving too many out. Maria Schneider is a superb composer and arranger as well. Devour the great classical composers. Orchestrating and arranging all comes from there!
Listen to the arrangements behind the great singers. For some reason, Nelson Riddle wrote better for Sinatra than he did for everybody else, including Ella. Don Costa became Sinatra’s guy from 1961 on. He was also the best friend of the late great Jerry Bruno who took me under his wing. Jerry told me lots of Costa stories, but the most prominent one that sticks with me was that Don could sit there with a pen. The TV would be on. Other music could be on. He would write a transposed score, oblivious to everything around him, and he wrote everything with heart, as did Don Sebesky. And one of the greatest of all time was Torrie Zito. He just came in with the perfect arrangement all the time. Billy Byers was a genius like that as well. Anyway…
BOB PAWLO: When somebody says, “Russ, I want a chart,” what are your first couple of steps?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, you’ve got to meet with the singer. The arrangement has to be created. That’s another term that is mostly on Broadway or in the cabaret. Back in the old days, the arranger was Nelson Riddle. He would get together with Sinatra and figure out how the tune was going to work, where the band was going to come in, what key and how he was going to change the melody when he made it his own, and how he was going to stick to the melody for the first chorus and honor the wishes of the composer. They created the roadmap.
That’s something that doesn’t happen too much today. Everybody’s stylizing, and some think they can do better than the composer’s original intent. But you know, that’s the way it goes. I would sit down with a singer unless the singer says to me, come back with something and I’m sure it’ll be great. And you know, usually you don’t have to make too many changes. I just wrote an arrangement of We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring and Roses of Picardy. And I wrote it in the style of Robert Farnon, and the singer that I’m working with absolutely adores it. It’s a beautiful arrangement, if I must say.
BOB PAWLO: You’ve also done some stuff with Broadway.
RUSS KASSOFF: I have been on Broadway. I played lots of subs on Broadway. I did 400 Miss Saigons, 200 Cats. Imagine how many the regulars did!
BOB PAWLO: What’s the key to being a good keyboard sub?
RUSS KASSOFF: Not being noticed. You have to do exactly what the person holding the chair does. The conductor shouldn’t notice you. If you get noticed, you’re out of there, because that’s kind of like taking away the light. But how are you supposed to know? You know, those things are hard. Keyboard books usually take a month to learn. And sometimes conductors just arbitrarily and capriciously don’t approve you, and that happened to me a couple of times.
But I got to play some great scores like Kiss Me, Kate, The Life, Victor Victoria, Chicago, I even loved the score of The Will Rogers Follies. That’s all I can think of, right now. The rest of the time…you know, I conducted on Broadway for Charles Aznavour. That’s whole ‘nother world. And he was magnificent. We had a 22-piece orchestra and gorgeous arrangements from France. I wrote one on Yesterday When I Was Young. I was also MD/Conductor/Pianist for Twyla Tharp’s love letter to Sinatra — “Come Fly Away” at the same theatre with the world’s greatest big band playing live to Sinatra’s voice in 2010 starring 17 of the best dancers in the world.
I write arrangements for my Big Band (Goal #3). I started that in the year 2000 because I was asked to be the featured performer at the Potsdam Norwood Village Green summer concert, where they had a big band made up of local professionals and retired teachers all the way from Saranac Lake to Watertown, Upstate New York. And I wrote some charts for myself as a piano feature. Those charts became the first six charts of my big band. I’ve been honored and privileged to have had some really great players in my big band. Most of them play in the top organizations in NY, Broadway and recording, and I’m very grateful for all of it.
BOB PAWLO: As a piano/keyboard player, what is your take on the whole explosion of technology over the years, and what advice would you give to young keyboard players now?
RUSS KASSOFF: I can’t really speak to the technology. I have played on Broadway on Kurzweil keyboards and other electronic pianos. I own several synthesizers and electric keyboards. I’m really old school. I believe that you should learn everything. You should learn all the elements from scratch to become an orchestrator, to become a player. You can’t rely on technology to do things for you that had to be done in the past. However, now with all of this AI stuff, if that comes into fruition where you just push a button and you can have any singer that ever lived sing a song, even your own songs, to music that nobody’s ever playing that makes everything you’ve ever done for your entire life moot. I’m pretty angry about that because being human is not moot. Your journey takes you from when you’re a child to learning as much as you can while you’re in a situation where you can learn. It’s called living! It all comes from listening to other people, playing with other people, playing with acoustic symphony orchestras. The synthesizer makes non-musicians into musicians and musicians into non-musicians, so I don’t know how much worse I can make that sound to my synthesizer-playing friends and programmers, but you know, certain things work, certain things don’t. One last thing here, I believe the ultimate goal of being a performing musician is to be one with every fiber of your being with every note you play. Having known the late great Jerry Dodgion is the perfect example of that. Your instrument is a part of your being. He was the best example and I was certainly honored to know him, play with him and laugh with him.
BOB PAWLO: It sounds like a heck of a journey from 13 someday hoping to do Sinatra, to do Sinatra and the thousand things in between.
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, I did get to play The Tonight Show!
BOB PAWLO: Tell us about that.
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, Liza was really, really big in around 1986. Top of the heap! She hosted the Academy Awards, and we were out there playing at the Universal amphitheatre. She was booked on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bill LaVorgna and I were to sit in with the great band. Bill had to sit in the back. He was, you know, Liza’s music director and drummer and great at it. You know, wonderful music. But he had to sit in Ed Shaughnessy’s chair, which was in the back, and the guys in the band couldn’t see him. So I wound up conducting the chart from the front at the piano. It was My Ship / the Man I Love. Arrangement by the great Ralph Burns. You could still see it on YouTube. Of course it was spectacular. It was really exciting, and there’s a funny story that goes along with it, but I can’t tell it here. The next time I played The Tonight Show was with Jay Leno. And you know it…it was just great to be there. I wasn’t in those bands. I just came along with the act who happened to be Liza Minnelli — like so many did.
BOB PAWLO: What advice would you give in this very unusual time that we find ourselves in, since you’ve been in so many genres and such a success at it. What advice would you give to young players starting their journey today?
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, one of the other extremely rewarding things that I do is being one of the music directors for The Great American Songbook Academy Foundation summer intensive — founded and led by Michael Feinstein. I’ve done it for five years now — forty of the most talented singers & performers, students from high school all over the country, are selected to… They don’t compete. They come, and it’s a total learning experience with the opportunity to perform. They learn as much as they can. We have five teams. There are mentors. There are incredible voice teachers. There are guest artists. And the students perform arrangements that the music directors write for them at the Palladium Theatre in Carmel, Indiana in the middle of July before 1700 people. Somehow they all go on to find their own way. They wind up going to college, they go to schools that specialize in the kind of music or the kind of theatre that they want to perform in.
For musicians, it’s just like we were when we were kids, although there’s much less of it now. You go down to the dinkiest clubs and play, and you wind up playing in better clubs, and you wind up playing in better clubs. And if you’re lucky, you’ll hook up with a group that continues and gets to work all the time and play together and be tight. And etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Just keep doing it.
BOB PAWLO: Tell us of a few special events that took place in Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall.
RUSS KASSOFF: Well, I played for both Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli at both. Sinatra did Carnegie about twice a year. I did a couple of those weeks, one of them with Buddy Rich as the opening act. I did the grand reopening of Carnegie Hall in December ‘86 under the auspices of Isaac Stern. It was redesigned. and renovated. Itzhak Perlman was on the gig. Isaac Stern was on the gig. A most amazing moment occurred when I was up on the second floor where the dressing rooms were, and I found myself standing with Mr. Sinatra outside the dressing room door of Vladimir Horowitz, who was warming up before his performance with his version of “Stars and Stripes Forever”. Frank looked at me, shook his head and just said, “Jesus.” And we were smiling with joy. It was an incredible moment.
My time with Liza involved “four year plans” (what I called them). I did four of them. She started out with a new idea. A new show was created. always great. The utmost attention to every detail was always made. We’d take it on the road, we’d do all that we could do with it, and then it was time for an extended break to retool. After one such break, she came up with the idea to play an extended engagement at Carnegie Hall in 1987. “Echoes of the Hall.” We played there for 17 nights. There’s a magnificent album on Telarc from it. It was spectacular. There were amazing arrangements, Torrie Zito, Walt Levinsky, Ralph Burns, only the best.
There was always a moment in Liza’s concerts called the chair section. She would sit in a director’s chair and do about 15 minutes with just piano, so that was part of the joy of my playing for Liza. I will always remember those moments, especially at very special places like Carnegie Hall, Radio City, Royal Albert Hall, and all the other great concert halls of the world. We played two extended runs at Radio City. She came up with the idea to bring 12 girls out of the audience seemingly impromptu. While Liza was singing, they would raise their hands, interrupt her, and then come up on stage. Susan Stroman’s choreography was unbelievable. It was quite the spectacular show. I got a chance to write a couple of arrangements for that.
I mean the magical places, they’re magical for a reason.
We played Royal Albert Hall several times. Played there with Sinatra, Liza and Sammy. But we also played at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. And then the big one that Judy Garland played in — The London Palladium. We always played in amazing places. Like in France, we played the Paris Opera, you know, in Italy we played La Scala in Milan. And the first gig I did with them in Italy, we were in Bari. We had to cut across Italy to go to Naples, and they were building this venue for us, and all of a sudden overnight while they were building the venue, somebody stole all the toilet seats. Police didn’t have a thing to go on — baada boom! I’ve had a really great career, and I’m most grateful for all of it. And that’s about it for now.
I realize that we haven’t covered much of the past twenty years. You’ll have to read my book.
I am extremely grateful for the contributions to my life from Bucky Pizzarelli who actually taught me to accompany and listen to others, Jerry Bruno who took me under his wing, performers Rita Moreno — who’s dreams and truths are without bounds who gave me endless opportunities in the past 20 to make a difference in people’s lives through story and song, My current recording trio — Jay Anderson on Bass and Dennis Mackrel on Drums and all the musos who have recorded with me. Tony Monte – stands alone as does Bill Mays as we work up a two piano classical concert in the nearness of time. All the bassists that worked with me as a duo at The Knickerbocker in NYC for 35 years, All the headliners we had at the 21 Jazz Festivals I coordinated and performed at under the production of Vocalist and Producer Catherine Dupuis, Charles Aznavour, Annie Ross, Mimi Hines, The late great Yvonne Constant to whom I was her confrere, The Holland America Line, Bruce Bonvissuto for coordinating the Russ Kassoff Big Band for over 20 years, All the cats who have played in the band!, WFDU.FM HD2 for broadcasting and streaming my “The Jazz Deli” weekly radio show every Saturday from 10-AM to Noon where our tongue sandwiches speak for themselves. Susie Siegel – coordinator for the incredible “Piano In The Park” Series in which I have played for about 15 years. For those I unintentionally missed, Joe Malin said it best — “I’d like to thank some of you — you know who you are!”
BOB PAWLO: What can you say about the importance of Local 802.
RUSS KASSOFF: It’s extremely important to support our union which provides the dignity and the area standards of being a professional musician. I would advise all up and coming folks who aspire to make their careers in music to investigate and learn about every opportunity that Local 802 affords you in the NY Metropolitan Area. I stress the word dignity because I believe it’s the most important element you can maintain as you go through life having to change, learn, perform and assimilate into a world that has no limits and plenty of roadblocks.
Learn about organizing, opportunities, the types of work you may aspire to obtain and the life you are going to have. Take advantage of every opportunity to play, rehearse, join groups, get your name around and learn about the business that only Local 802 can help you with practicing and experiencing. There are endless opportunities in these difficult times and having Local 802’s back is extremely important. Everyone finds their own journey somehow, there is no set formula. Just keep doing all the things you aspire to do and realize that the brothers and sisters who also belong to Local 802 are really a family that can help guide you through the journey.
You can reach Russ Kassoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.russkassoff.com. Russ posts live daily practices at https://www.facebook.com/russ.kassoff.1/ . See also https://www.facebook.com/russkassoff/