John Colianni grew up in the Washington, D.C. metro area and first heard Jazz on swing-era LP re-issues (Ellington, Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Armstrong, etc.) in his parents’ home. A performance by Teddy Wilson in Washington attended by John when he was about 12 years old also left a strong impression, as did a Duke Ellington performance (more later).
In 2006, looking for an outlet for his high-velocity piano improvisations, John formed the John Colianni Quintet. In July 2007, the group recorded its first CD, “Johnny Chops” (Patuxent Records).
Les Paul offered the piano spot in his group to John in August 2003. Les had not used a pianist in his combo since the 1950s and, in looking for suitable candidates, sought the advice of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who recommended John. In Les Paul’s recent autobiography, “Les Paul: In His Own Words,” Les writes an appreciative description of John’s playing style and musical contributions to the re-vamped Les Paul Quartet. John is also seen and heard on the PBS documentary, “Les Paul: Chasing Sound.”
Showing keyboard aptitude, a suitable teacher for John was sought by his parents. Local musicians recommended Les Karr, who, in addition to teaching, was well known as an outstanding pianist. Weekly lessons began in the eighth grade, when John was 14. Les Karr himself studied under Teddy Wilson at Juilliard in New York. Les was also the first cousin of pianist Dick Hyman. For John’s lessons, Les emphasized technique and introduced studies of the Mathe’ System, a method that advances digital dexterity and maximizes the capacity for speedy, high-velocity piano playing. John, noted for fleet “chops,” often cites the important role these exercises play.
Still in high school, John began playing piano professionally in the Washington, D.C. jazz scene, which, during that period, included a number of colorful jazz clubs such as The Pigfoot, Mr. Y’s Gold Room, One Step Down, Blues Alley, The Bayou, The Famous Ballroom (Baltimore), Frankie Condon’s (Rockville), and other establishments.
These were John’s first performance venues, and he played among veteran D.C. musicians including Ella Fitzgerald’s bassist, Keter Betts, who recruited 16-year-old John for the revue “Jazz Stars Of The Future.” Jazz Studies Director George Ross recruited John, still in tenth grade, to play regularly with the University of Maryland Jazz Ensemble.
An event years earlier set the stage for John’s interest in music. Duke Ellington, originally from Washington D.C. himself, performed a 1974 concert at Georgetown University with his celebrated orchestra, attended by John and his family. John, still in grade school, was mesmerized by Ellington’s piano work, orchestrations, and bigger-than-life stage presence. Following the concert, John presented Duke, who was surrounded by awe-filled fans and admirers backstage, with the Ellington autobiography “Music Is My Mistress,” which Duke graciously signed with a personalized message. (Ellington is high on the list of pianists who have influenced John. Others include Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson.)
TOURING WITH LIONEL HAMPTON
The Coliannis relocated to the Jersey Shore during John’s senior year in high school. It was there that John caught the attention of Carlton Drinkard, former accompanist to the one and only “Lady Day” Billie Holiday. Drinkard (aka “Piano Man” in the critically acclaimed film “Lady Sings The Blues”) assembled John’s trio, and coached him in creating new arrangements and performing before live audiences.
Soon afterward, when he was 19, John visited Lionel Hampton backstage at an Atlantic City casino. He landed a spot in Hampton’s orchestra and traveled and recorded for three years with Hampton and band members that included tenor sax great Arnett Cobb, saxists Paul Jeffrey and Tom Chapin, drummers Frankie Dunlop, Oliver Jackson and Duffy Jackson, bassists George Duvivier and Arvell Shaw, and others. To read Hampton’s personal account of his association with John, visit the Reviews/News page at www.johncolianni.com
THELONIUS MONK PIANO COMPETITION
Not too long after the Hampton gig, John entered and won a cash prize in the first annual Thelonius Monk Piano Competition in 1987.
WITH MEL TORME’
In the 1980s, John played a variety of gigs, including a stint with the New Orleans-inspired band of movie director/clarinetist Woody Allen. Allen’s band played steadily at Michael’s Pub in New York, and it was there that John came to the attention of Mel Torme’, who was appearing at the same club. Hearing one of John’s recordings through the venue’s sound system, Torme’ promptly hired John as his pianist – without an audition. John worked for Torme’ from early 1991 to mid-1995, touring and recording six albums.