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Jazz great's legacy preserved on Brand

December 04, 2011|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Veteran jazz pianist Frank Strazzeri in his home in Sun Valley on Monday, November 28, 2011. Over Strazerri's 60 year career, he has played with Elvis, Bob Hope, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, the Lighthouse All Stars and many others, and currently plays once a month at JAX club in Glendale. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
Veteran jazz pianist Frank Strazzeri in his home in Sun…

The Friday night jazz series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art draws a large and varied crowd. Some are there to hear the music and some — as Duke Ellington observed about the clientele of Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club — to fulfill their social aspirations. Pianist Frank Strazzeri led a band there last summer and a curious thing happened. Sound problems, a restless audience, and tentative musicians plagued the opening set. Strazzeri’s piano was under-miked, but by the second set, his piano — at once swinging and full of harmonic beauty — quietly brought the crowd to order and coalesced the rough spots on the bandstand. It was a subtle display of mastery by one of the great jazz masters in our midst.

The 81-year-old Strazzeri has been known as one of the great band pianists and singer’s accompanists in Los Angeles since his arrival in 1960. A Rochester native, he was trained at the Eastman School of Music. His tenure as leader of the house band at a local nightclub saw him accompanying visiting headliners like singer Billie Holiday and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Strazzeri was 18 when he took the job.

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After a stint with the Woody Herman Orchestra and an unsatisfying residence in Las Vegas, Strazzeri came west. He succeeded Vince Guaraldi in the Lighthouse All Stars and became a favorite pianist for singer Ruth Price. “He’s one of my very favorite accompanists,” she declares. “One of the things I love about Frank is that he never played for me as he would a singer: leading me with chords. He played for me as he would an instrumentalist; I always appreciated that he trusted me that way.”

Among musicians, Strazzeri’s original pieces hold a special place. Trombonist Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy band convenes at JAX on Brand Avenue in Glendale one night a month, and they only play Strazzeri’s material. It’s the most consistent and extended showcase of the Strazzeri book anywhere. His songs have an innate swing, yet they’re imbued with harmonic intrigue and lyrical beauty.

As a student at the Dick Grove Workshop, a great jazz academy in Hollywood in the 1970s, Johnson encountered Strazzeri’s published musical manual, “Strazzophonic.”

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