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 spent 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 early 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