In Memoriam: Frank Strazzeri

Reports that the veteran pianist Frank Strazzeri had died began circulating a couple of weeks ago. They were impossible to confirm until now. Strazzeri died at 84 on May 9 in his hometown, Rochester, New York, but he Frank Strazzerispent most of his career in Los Angeles. He moved back to Rochester in late April following a final engagement at the Glendale club Jax, where he often played in his final years.

After attending the Eastman School of Music, in 1952 the 22-year-old Strazzeri worked as house pianist at a Rochester nightclub, accompanying visiting performers including Roy Eldridge, J.J. Johnson and Billie Holiday. He moved to New Orleans in 1954 and played traditional jazz in bands led by Sharkey Bonano and Al Hirt, but his main interest was in bebop. Soon, he went on the road with Charlie Ventura, then Woody Herman. At Herman’s suggestion, he settled in Los Angeles in 1960. Like many L.A. jazz musicians, Strazzeri used his skills to work in recording and television studios while also playing with a cross section of jazz artists, among them Bill Perkins, Art Pepper, Terry Gibbs, Bud Shank, Louis Bellson and Chet Baker. When filmmaker Bruce Weber was producing the Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, the trumpeter designated Strazzeri to supervise the music.

I was extremely surprised when I was asked to do the film,” Strazzeri told Bill Kolhaase of The Los Angeles Times in 1993. “(Baker) played with hundreds of piano players. But I think he felt an alignment with me, a buddy thing, that made him feel comfortable. I used to break him up quite a bit. He lived on the sad side of life, you know, the doom-and-gloom thing. So I’d crack jokes and make him smile.

Strazzeri also played for Joe Williams, Maynard Ferguson, Les Brown and—Elvis Presley. Surprised? He toured several times with Presley in the early 1970s and struck up a friendship with him based on a mutual interest in karate.

When I brought it up, Strazzeri told Kolhaase, he said ‘Wait here.’ He came back in his karate outfit, and we spent the whole night talking about it. He showed me how he could kill me. And when I got up the next day, there was an envelope with $300 in it tucked under my door. Every time I talked with him he’d give me money.

Strazzeri’s primary source of income, however, was from his music, which continued long after his work with Presley. Among the colleagues with whom he worked most closely was saxophonist and flutist Bill Perkins. They recorded together on several occasions in, among other settings, Strazzeri’s sextet Woodwinds West. For the liner notes I wrote for their album Somebody Loves Me, Perkins told me,

His choruses are classics in melody. When we were playing together at Dino’s in the earlyStrazz & Perk days, I taped most of what we did. I’d go home and listen to the tapes. My intention was to listen fox myself; that’s human nature. But I would find that I was riveted to his solos. I kept thinking of the early Lester Young because, like Pres in those days, Frank never repeats himself. He has the gift of beautiful melody. I never get tired of listening to him.

There are few videos of Strazzeri. Here’s one. He has the first solo on his composition “Relaxin’,” filmed at Spazio in L.A. in 2010 with trombonist Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy. George Harper is the tenor saxophonist, with Jeff Littleton, bass, and Kenny Elliott, drums

From the 1973 Strazzeri album View From Within, this is his classic “Strazzatonic.” The all-star sidemen are named on the album cover.

Trombonist Johnson reports on his blog, Strazzeri told him that following the death two months ago of Jo Ann, his wife of 63 years, it was his dream to return to Rochester and be among family members.

Frank Strazzeri, RIP

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  1. Terence Smith says

    Frank Strazzeri can be heard and seen in an Art Pepper Quartet in a 1964 Ralph Gleason Jazz Casual TV episode. The entire half hour episode is currently on YouTube under the title Art Pepper Live: The Trip video. Frank is there, going wherever Art of that moment wanted to go, and setting up some swinging, apt, grooves.

    Very nice tribute from Doug Ramsey, with some surprises! Frank could provide whatever the situation called for, for such a wide variety of creative musical settings.

    • Cat Strazzeri says

      What an absolute gem of a find… thank you for putting this video up. It means a lot to us, God bless you..

  2. David says

    A lovely distillation of the Perkins/Strazzeri relationship can be found on their 1991 duo album, Warm Moods. It includes four originals by Strazzeri who sticks to acoustic for the whole date, while Perkins concentrates on bari with occasional clarinet or bass clarinet.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The Fresh Sound label, which recorded that entrancing album, says on its website that it is out of stock. Follow the link in David’s comment above and you’ll see that Amazon has one copy. How is such a gem allowed to virtually disappear?

  3. Don Conner says

    To echo others—a fine tribute indeed, Doug. Thanks for the nice videos. Frank was somewhat unsung wiith very little output under his own name, but he was a warrior who captivated every scene he made. RIP.

  4. don frese says

    A man whose work I like very much–those Pacific Jazz dates with Carmell Jones and the Mitchell-Land Quintet early on, and his later work with Bill Perkins, and two wonderful trio recordings for Fresh Sound. One of the greats to come out of upstate NY (Mel Lewis, Joe Romano, the Mangiones, J.R. Monterose, Don Menza, Sam Noto, etc.)

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Some of those upstate etceteras: Sal Nistico, Gus Mancuso, Dena DeRose, Roy McCurdy, Ted Brown, Bobby Scott, Bill Triglia, Frankie Dunlop, John Coppola, Johnny Richards, Peanuts Hucko, Teo Macero, Gerry Niewood, Joe Magnarelli, Bobby Privite. Not to mention the many graduates of the Eastman School of Music who got their starts in and around Rochester, among them Jim Pugh, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider, Joe Locke, Steve Gadd, Lew Soloff and Alan Vizzutti. Maybe there’s something in the Lake Erie and Genesee River water.

  5. Jim Brown says

    Upstate NY also produced Mark Murphy, Scott LaFaro (born in NJ, but grew up in upstate NY), Chuck and Gap Mangione, and Larry Combs (principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony and a regular member of the Chicago jazz group “Ears”). And during the 50s and early 60s, there was always great late night jazz on WHAM (clear channel AM-1180) with jocks Bill Artis and Harry Abraham.

    Frank did a tour with Carmen McRae in 1975, and they played Ratsos, the club where I was doing sound “for the love of it.” (I had a solid union day gig, but convinced them they need a sound operator when I heard they had booked Carmen). Something Frank did pissed her off, and she dressed him down in front of the audience. It wasn’t pretty. I worked with her many times, and it was the only time I saw this real nastiness in her. Obviously, Frank had a thick skin, and survived it.

  6. Bruce Davidson says

    Beautifully written, Doug. I grew up listening to Strazz while working at a small club in Balboa, Ca. called the Studio Cafe. We worked Sunday brunch together for years. When I was young and learning about jazz, I would ask Strazz the name of a tune and in the beginning he would always respond with, “It’s a standard, kid.” I learned to love jazz from this great man and player. I think he learned how to play the French Horn on that gig.

    RIP, my brother