Up to the first of the year, one sure bet for jazz in Southern California were the monthly nights at Jax where pianist Frank Strazzeri held court. Though seldom acknowledged nationally, he was one of the reigning masters of jazz piano, with a wealth of composition and arrangement background that informed his playing. A quiet giant, there were few jazz greats of the past 60 years with whom Strazzeri hadn't crossed paths. He died quietly on May 9 in Rochester, N.Y., at age 84.
Trombonist Steve Johnson, a Jax fixture like Strazzeri, will lead a tribute to his mentor on Friday at the Glendale club. Johnson's Jazz Legacy quintet has functioned as a kind of living homage to Strazzeri's music: Its book is mainly derived from the pianist's voluminous library of compositions. "The highlight of my career," Johnson emphasizes, "has been playing with Strazz. I would observe him writing arrangements for the band and I'd learn."
"It was all about the sound to Strazz," Johnson points out. "He'd give note clusters a chord name, but he'd start from the sound first, then notate it. For the tribute show, we'll be playing just his music."
Strazzeri was born in Rochester and studied at the Eastman School of Music. His job as house pianist at a local jazz club saw him backing giants like Billie Holiday and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. He played traditional jazz in New Orleans and led the resident rhythm section at the Black Magic Club in Las Vegas for years before settling in Los Angeles in 1960. His playing and arranging abilities made Strazzeri valuable to TV and recording. His choice playing made him a favorite pianist to vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, alto saxophonists Bud Shank and Art Pepper and trumpeter Chet Baker among many others.
"I like melody," Strazzeri stressed in 2011. "Everything I write goes into all kinds of styles. I'm inspired by anyone who writes a good song and I want to be part of that scene."
That love of melody came with a capacity to pull it out of the air for the pianist. Jeff Takiguchi, who holds down the bass chair in Jazz Legacy, played for eight years with Strazzeri in a duo at Chez Nous in Laurel Canyon. "I was in my early development," Takiguchi offers, "and it was the greatest musical education. He was from the old school — he'd just start playing and I had to figure out the key and follow him. He played things in odd keys and time signatures. It was an unbelievable workshop and the experience raised me on several levels: I learned a bunch of tunes, their correct chord changes, and I learned from his harmonic sense."
"His playing had the essence of bebop," the bassist clarifies. "He used the hippest chord changes and harmonies, but his right hand was so melodic. He was like a combination of Bud Powell in the left hand and Bill Evans in the right. And I've never heard anybody do that the way Strazz did. But aside from his playing, his tunes were really great."
Johnson was drawn to Strazzeri's compositions before he played with him. "They're a great mixture of emotion and structure — inventive but not crazy. Always full of emotional content, but his music has fantastic structure. Strazz was always reaching, always trying in his work."
Reminded that a working knowledge of classical music underpins Strazzeri's writing, Johnson elaborated, naming a favorite Russian composer: "He loved Alexander Scriabin and there are a lot of colors — bright and muted — with spaces in Frank's music."
"Strazz was a jazz samurai," Johnson pronounces. "He lived second by second in the music. He was so quick — he could transpose saxophone parts from the piano with ease, yet he would hone his compositions over time. He could be distracted by pain, but he really was happiest being totally in the moment within the music."