From There to Here: a musician's tale
Try, Try Again
Mancini's musical journey has been far from a walk in the park. His first experience with any formal musical education came in the form of a wayward and, to say the least, non-supportive drum teacher. "At the beginning of my third and final lesson with this … guy, he turns the book to the last page and says, 'Wake me up when you're done." DEVASTATION!!!
Had it not been for the constant musical nourishment that Mancini received on a daily basis from his bass playing brother Frank and elder sister Joyce, a multi-instrumentalist and super creative force, this biography might well have read as a job application for a CPA instead. "Of course, at the time, I had no clue how important their contribution would be. I just knew I liked the feeling that came from making music with someone. I remember as far back as second grade and the amazing friendship I shared with Jerry Carron. We used to sing the theme to 'Greatest American Hero' and make very accurate drum noises with our mouths."
7th grade and the whole game changed. Enter Mark Orapallo, a cocky, handsome guy who was the finest rock drummer and natural musician Mancini had been exposed to. A fellow student of Lynch Middle School, Orapallo was single handedly responsible for reigniting the fire for percussion in Mancini's heart. "I'll never forget going to his parent's basement after school one day and seeing this enormous drum-set before me. I sat down, played a few things and was like - oh yeah, this is what I need to do". The suspicion that with the drums came chicks ran a distant second in the youth's mind. But that story will have to be saved for, "Mancini : A Retrospective".
GET INTO THE SCHOOL BAND! Too late for 7th grade. An excellent teacher and many hours of practice would come long before that ever happened. The sights were set on 8th grade band. But Mr. Gerbino was no push over. In fact he even said to the aspiring Gene Krupa, something along the lines of, "I can't imagine that you'll pass the audition, but come talk to me at the end of the school year." Apparently, he had no clue who exactly he was talking to. Of course, there's no way he could have known that the one thing young Mancini needed to succeed was a challenge. More aptly, a doubt on any other person's mind that it could not happen. Had he been able to fast forward life and see the young man throw himself off of a 40 foot waterfall, or navigate his skateboard up and over various objects, with no hands, he might have changed his tune.
Pat Andrjiewski was a great local bass player. "A real natural musician", recalls Mancini. Later when I had gotten my stuff together, I played a dozen or so gigs with him. You know, he used to play the bass lines using just his left hand on the fret-board, comp chords on a keyboard and sing in harmony. Never had to search for a funny thing to say either. I Loved that guy" Years before (back to 8th grade), Pat had introduced Nick to Phil Carlson. Another very natural musician and drum teacher. Phil would come to Mancini's house for 3 hours at a time, for an undisclosed and very small amount of pay for Nick's lessons. "The lessons would be comprised of Phil sitting at the kit and playing for a n hour or so, while I just sat on the end of my bed and watched. Sometimes I would hover around him." He was so gracious with his wisdom." Right around that time, brother Frank returned home from college to find a new baby brother, brimming with musical insight and a bucket full of chops. Immediately he plugged in his bass and the real lessons began.
"Oh, for sure this is where I learned to make music", waxes Mancini. "I mean, he was ten years older than me, knew a couple hundred songs and taught me all the spaces where the hi-hat opens and closes on 'Tom Sawyer' by RUSH. Which came in handy on moving-in-day at SUNY Potsdam years later. It's the song that most people are blasting out of their window while everyone arrives. Something about the message of that song, it becomes everyone's moving away from home anthem".
The next four years, life was idyllic for Mancini, aside from being assigned crash cymbals for his entire first year in High-school marching band. "It's cool", Mancini reassures himself. "I mean, sure, I had to hold the cymbals for the snare drummers to play on and they used to like to hit my knuckles real hard with the sticks, and those upstate fall football games get damn cold. But it was all for the best. You gotta learn how to eat a shit sandwich to appreciate steak." He went on to be the first freshman to play the drums in the jazz band, was awarded the John Phillips Sousa award and voted most popular senior man (in band), played tons of music, rode his skateboard during the summers and snowboard during the winters, enjoyed countless hours of palling around with "some of the greatest friends a guy could have" and relished in his share of a few mind-expanding experiences. He was even spared a dreaded summer school session cause someone was kind enough to steal and post the answers to the New York State Regents Exam in Chemistry. "Yessssss!!!!", muses Mancini.
Water, Water Everywhere
Schenectady County Community College (SCCC, affectionately SCC) is a small community college located in Schenectady NY, home of GE, and featured a convenient travel time of 20 minutes "in traffic" Mancini's home in Amsterdam. Amelia (Mrs. Mancini, and Mom to most who knew her) convinced the budding Mancini that this would be a good place for him to start. "Dip your toes into it. Be among your own kind". She always wished she had continued with higher education. It was affordable, some old friends attended, and for a young, unsure kid who just wanted to skateboard and play drums, it seemed a decent compromise. Mancini recalls, "I had no clue what I was getting myself into." He and his mother went to the spring percussion ensemble concert. "I was blown away!" Complex, beautiful music, precision performances, unknown instrumentation". For someone so in love with music, you would think this must have been a virtual playground. "No! I was scared out of my mind!" Mancini reminds us. "It was the first time I truly doubted my ability to … do anything at all." He catches is breathe, But I had made a promise and put it in writing that I would on this endeavor." (Half a year earlier, Mancini nearly threw in the towel to be a chef) "I knew It was time to leave the kid behind … for the time being."
"Your audition was deemed marginally acceptable."
Read the first line of his acceptance letter into the program at SCC. "It's true really. I'm not sure I would have accepted myself into that program based on my present ability to play any of those instruments. But that's not what education is about. It's about seeing the potential in a student and guiding them toward the realization of their capabilities." A trait Mancini stands by today as a dedicated educator of all ages and ability levels.
The proportion of graduates to students in his class the year Mancini received his diploma reads something like the stats of the second wave at Normandy. 8 out of 80! Turns out little ole' SCC was an intense and rigorous program. "My percussion studio teacher employed the most dysfunctional teaching style I had ever encountered." Once the man made a comparison between himself and Nick, saying he was a bird and Mancini was a cow. "I'll never forget it. He threw in that I had come from cows and would remain a cow. I hated him. But one thing … It made me practice. I forced myself to be comfortable focussing for hours and standing all that time. I developed little patience for anyone who did not 'put in the hours". Those three years proved to be some of the most formative time for Mancini as both a person and a musician."
It was during his SCC years that he found a lifelong friend and musical companion in bassist Lou Smaldone. Smaldone was from neighboring Cobleskill NY. Music is his life-blood. He would often kidnap Mancini from his dutiful practice to run through tunes in a practice room. "Louis was there as a trombone major, but he was a jazz bass player through and through, you know? I mean a cat would see him on the street and ask what kind of bass he played. It just oozed from him."
Mancini and his new found cohort, along with some others from the program would amble their way over to the Van Dyck, a historic site around the corner from SCC and the home of a resident jazz jam every Thursday night. "Some nights were abysmal, then some were absolute magic. I distinctly remember not even realizing that they were using the form of the tune on which to base their improvisation. I was so lost in the wood about jazz. I knew my arpeggios and some scales but had no clue how to speak the language".
Up the street from the Van Dyck was a little club owned and operated by Joe Mann, a jazz aficionado and supporter of the young rash of jazz musicians suddenly flooding the scene. Joe's a Navy man. No bullshit. Ran a tight and clean ship. Using the same intuition as the folks who accepted Mancini into the program, Joe gave Nick his first gig as a band leader. "Oh man, I always was the band-leader anyway. I could never seem to find anyone with the same amount of initiative and vision. So naturally I gravitated to the position. I had been playing jazz less than a year and had one of the few steady "gigs" in town", Mancini beams.
A quick study, he began booking gigs all over the place with help of a local guitar player and businessman who prodded Mancini to fulfill this destiny.
As a bandleader, Nick has written, produced, and recorded Nick Mancini Quartet, "N:OW", Nick Mancini Quartet "Live at Cafe Metropole", Silver Standard, "Horace of a Different Color", Kitchen Sink, "Everything But The…", the Nick Mancini Collective, "Live: New York" and Type II, "Flexible Plan", which Cadence Magazine described as “full of drive and lyricism...music with pizazz and finesse....There is a sense of another era embedded in this music; yet it is not dated. The style is given fresh life in the hands of this band with sparkling improvisations and fine interactivity.”
Waaaaaaaayyyyyyy, waaayyyy, way up New York State's picturesque 87 freeway is a small town that plays host to several higher learning institutions, namely Clarkson Universitiy and SUNY Potsdam. The town, Potsdam, is about as remote a location in northern New York State you can find before finally buying beer at a reduced cost in Canada. It was once referred to as (to quote Star Wars) the Ice Planet Hoth.
Upon arriving for his audition, Mancini immediately imbibed the true collegiate atmosphere and was instantly hooked. A beautiful campus, friendly students and very funny, very charismatic Dean of the Music Department. Dr. Becky Covell. A southern Belle, Dr. Covell administered Mancini's ear-training portion of the exam. After unsuccessfully trying to stump him by having him resign long melodic passages played on the piano she turned to him, and with a stern eye asked, "Are you sure you're a drummer?" Needless to say the countless hours in the practice room and the rigorous stint at SCC paid off and Mancini was accepted into the program, graduating two years later summa cum laude with honors. Of course it helped that attending alongside him was bassist and soulmate Smaldone and a long-time friend and pianist from High-school, Jamie Schmidt. "Jamie and I became real good friends in high school. We were both square pegs that still managed to keep many people from many different walks of life as friends. I remember all-night study sessions led by Jamie's dad for final exams. Thank all that is good for that!"
It was through the awesome tutelage of Brett Zvacek at the Crane School that Nick finally began to hone the multitudes of information he possessed into the language of jazz. "It was gratuitous how I played before I really understood what I was to do. I mean, I knew all the sounds individually and I had a knack for good rhythmic phrasing, but beyond that, I was lost. Mancini auditioned for the drum seat in the jazz band. Instead, Zvacek granted Mancini a role as vibraphonist. Mancini looks back, "It changed everything. I thought I was a drummer with some skills on percussion. This was a whole different thing. Most of the time I was creating my own parts based on the piano and guitar chart combined. But I got to solo - a lot!" It seemed anytime an arrangement called for a solo, Brett would throw it my way."
Through this experience, Mancini was thrust to the top of his class both academically and socially. The very thing Amelia had foreseen for him years ago. "It was probably the best couple years of my life at that point in time. I was playing all the time, I had gigs in town with the couple of pros that lived and taught there. Louis and I would spend hours learning tunes. Every Thursday he and I would co-lead a jam session (which still is an institution among students there today) and EVERYONE would reconvene at my suite for a weekly party that got so out of control, the swim team who lived beneath us had to transfer out of the building. It was the stuff of legends".
Mancini was nearing the end of his two years at the Crane school and was being faced with the decision to take his life to the next step. His band 444, featuring Smaldone on bass, Matt Cremisio on drums and tenor sax phenom Lee Russo was doing well and playing all around town. Professor Zvacek (A North Texas State grad and bad ass trombone player) was hiring Mancini regularly as either a drummer or vibes player whenever he played out things were cooking along. But it was obvious that this was not something that could be maintained on any high level. Potsdam was a small college town and a ghost town during the summer. Right about this time , Zvacek invited the New York Jazz Quintet up from NYC to give a series of lectures, masterclasses and performances. The drummer was an alum of Crane and the rest of the guys were of the highest acclaim in NYC. Bassist, Bim Strausberg, trumpeter John Magnarelli and legendary tenor player Ralph Lalama. "Oh yeah, these guys were so smoking. And they were playing the real shit. No B.S. One of us students got up on stage to play a tune with them." Mancini reminisces, "I remember being so jealous that I was not selected and then so relieved when they got royally gouged for turning the beat around and trying to play so hip that they literally got lost on 'Softly'. Man I was cringing for these cats".
It was the nudge Mancini was waiting for. NYC. Of course! Why had he not thought of it before? It always seemed like something in a dream. 4 months later Smaldone and he loaded up Mancini's Chevy wagon and set sail for Manhattan School of Music where he had scored an audition for their masters degree program in jazz performance. "Oh yeah, now THAT was a road trip! 8 hours or so one way. From blustery Potsdam to NYC. 200k + miles on my wagon (affectionately dubbed the Bell X-1). My grandfather found it and bought it for me for $1200! That man was a wizard when it came to machines. The only one who could start my mini-bike made from an old lawn mower engine." That car never let Nick down, and this was no exception.
They pulled up to the school, "Parking right in front. The first and last time THAT ever happened!" rouses Mancini. He reported upstairs to the 6th floor where they were calling people for auditions. "MSM (Manhattan School of Music) is the same building as what used to be Juilliard so the walls were paper thin and it had the funky old school feel of a real conservatory. Some serious bad asses have come from that joint." Mancini shakes his head slowly, looking at the floor. "The piano player that was accompanying all the auditions was super bad, we later became friends., russian cat real nice. Anyway, I stood on the other side of that wall and listened while this guy played stuff that I couldn't even recognize over tunes I had played a hundred times. And whomever it was that was auditioning sounded real good too. I was out of my element. Real concerned. That old feeling of watching the percussion ensemble concert crept back into my head. I felt beaten already. I had been dicking around in upstate NY for all my life, I never knew anything about jazz. I just thought to myself, well I hope I got something to give that I don't even know about, or else this is gonna be a real short visit.
Retiring to a room allocated for auditionees Mancini broke out his mallets, on the brink of dejectedness and began warming up. Faithful Smaldone broke out his upright and they began playing. Soon Nick began to feel more like he was where he should be. A half-hour or so into it, a knock at the door, it was a faculty member who was one of the audition adjudicators. Mancini remembers fondly, "The knock brought me out of a daze. He said, 'You know, students aren't allowed to use these rooms during auditions, they're for warm-up for those auditioning."
That was all the ego boost Mancini needed. Smaldone smiled, they retired their instruments, went across the street to the deli that Mancini would soon come to know so well and had an early celebratory bagel and coffee.
"We are happy to announce that you have been chosen to receive the President's Award. A prestigious award given to promising students dedicated to and equalling 50% of your tuition."
One hell of a giant leap from "… marginally acceptable."
NEW YORK, NEW YORK...
Please continue to check back for more tantalizing tales from Nick's adventures in NYC - such as when he fell asleep at 3am in his car at a fire hydrant because there were no parking spots available and woke up with a parking ticket for $95 on his windshield. Oh, it gets out.