Previn, famed pianist, composer, and Manhattan's gifted pianist, composer,
and then conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was introduced to the pianist
performing in the lobby of the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.
During their conversation, Previn said, ''I heard an incredible pianist
on a children's television program this week. Do you know him?"
Johnny Costa smiled. Previn didn't realize
he was talking to that incredible pianist nor that he was watching the
ending of an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which
according to Branford Marsalis, is "the best jazz show on the air
anywhere." Since 1967 when the show first aired,Costa has served
as the show's musical director. Opening and dosing the program, Costa
also arranges all the program's music, accompanies guest performers, and
contributes original (and unrehearsed) background themes in almost every
Many Neighborhood viewers tune in just to
hear Costa play. Mel Powell offers this description Costa's technique:
"As with Art Tatum there are at least 20 iron fingers involved at
top speed; or possibly it's all being done with mirrors. . If Costa had
been known in the 1940s, many us would have wanted him placed under house
arrest.'' Costa applies this nonpareil technique to performing American
standards (i.e., the music of Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and Rogers
& Hart). Dick Hyman, Manhattan's gifted pianist, composer, and arranger,
says succinctly: "Johnny Costa is a phenomenal pianist."
Born in 1922 in Arnold, Pennsylvania, a
small town on the Allegheny River 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Costa
still lives within a few miles of the house in which he was born. His
son and daughter, John Costa Jr. and Debbie Elwood, and his lifelong friends
When I visited Costa's hometown in August
1995, almost every person I met during my 8-day stay knew him, including
the owner of the service station near my hotel and food servers in the
hotel's dining room. Eating lunch and dinner each day at different restaurants
with Costa and his wife, Helen, I was amazed by the number of persons
who greeted himwith words, smiles, or waves. At one luncheon I met
several of his octogenarian friends. The world of Costa made me feel as
I were in a time warp: To know so many neighbors has almost become an
anachronism in America.
For 35 years, Costa has performed largely
within Pittsburgh's city limits. A recording career that flourished during
the 1950s ended when he decided that neither fame nor fortune would substitute
for the full-time companionship of his family and friends. It was happenstance
I ever met him.
One spring evening in 1992, I found a Savoy
CD at a local record store in El Toro, California, a remastered LP produced
in 1955. Loaded with standards from the American songbook, I would bought
the recording regardless of the performer. Returning home, I played the
CD. I had never heard pop standards played so beautifully or brilliantly.
If this pianist were still performing, I knew I wanted to meet him.
Costa wasn't difficult OT find: Since 1960,
John and Helen Costa, married for almost 55 years, have lived in the same
house and have had the same telephone number. (Before that, they lived
across the street.) Shoveling snow when I telephoned, Costa stopped long
enough to talk for a few minutes. But nothing I said was more important
than asking this question: "When is your next concert?"
On Friday, June 12, 1992, I flew from Los
Angeles to Pittsburgh. The Mellon Jazz Festival was in full swing that
week; jazz events were happening throughout the city. The Johnny Costa
Trio (Carl McVicker, bass; Bob Rawsthorne, percussion) was scheduled to
play at 6 p.m. at the amphitheater of the Carnegie Museum. Arriving at
6:05, I was lucky: The concert had not yet begun. Spotting Costa on the
way to my seat, I said in passing, "Johnny, your friend from California
Costa, genuinely delighted to see me, greeted
me warmly: ''I cant believe you came all this way just to see me. You
must meet my wife."
Further delaying the beginning of the concert,
Costa led me into the audience to find Helen. After introducing me, I
reminded him of the time. ''I should begin the concert,'' Costa said,
heading for center stage. I told Helen I would talk with her after the
concert and left to find my seat.
Two hours of uninterrupted music later, the concert
ended. Thirty minutes later, Costa, having bid his fans and friends good-bye,
returned to join Helen and me. His first words really surprised me: ''I
worried about you all through the concert. I was afraid I wasn't playing
good enough for you. You came such a long way. I didn't want to disappoint."
"You played magnificently, I reassured
him. "Seeing you play has made this day one of the most memorable
of my life."
Costa mentioned a few songs he had intended
to play before suddenly blurting out, ''I forgot to play 'Chicago.' Here,
let me play it for you."
Insisting that I return to center
stage with him, he played "Chicago" just for meand a half
dozen more for good measure. I hugged him good-bye and then
watched the Costas walk hand-in-hand across parking lot until they were
out-of-sight. I knew there was a lot more to learn about Johnny Costa,
an extraordinary pianist and an even more extraordinary person. And since
that first meeting in June 1992, I have.
Costa's father, a poor Italian immigrant,
was a coal miner who worked harder than he ever wanted to work, so he
made sure they wouldn't follow in his footsteps. He sold the family home
to buy his son a $500 accordion when Costa was 10, one a neighbor taught
him to play. But during high school, Frank Oliver, Costa's music teacher
(with whom Costa still lunches regularly), urged him to discard the accordion
and learn to play the piano, an idea that made sense to Costa: ''In those
days there were pianos everywhere I went. Besides, I didn't have carry
Costa had developed a fine technique for playing
the accordion, although his left hand was accustomed only to pushing buttons.
But it didn't take long for him to improve his left hand. And after hearing
an Art Tatum record, Costa knew he wanted to play the piano. Listening
and learning from Tatum recordings, Costa soon became '"The White
Tatum,'' dubbed later by Tatum himself.
Costa's first Piano teacher was Martin Meissler(also
Oscar Levant's teacher). Eventually, Costa studied music composition at
Carnegie-Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) with Nicolai Lopatnicoff,
a major composer in central European avant-garde. Influenced by classical
composers, particularly Bach and Chopin, and by Tatum and Fats Waller,
Costa's style began to emerge. Costa earned two bachelor's degrees, in
music composition and music education, the latter degree so he could teach
music ''in case I was a flop as a professional musician.''
In 1951, Costa began a 16-year run at KDKA-TV
in Pittsburgh, playing live music for all of thestation's programs that
required music, supplementing his
income by recording for several labels: "Johnny Costa Plays Piano
Solos," "Johnny Costa Plays for the Most Beautiful Girl in the
World," "A Gallery of Gershwin" (Coral); "In My Own
Quiet Way" (Dot), "Introducing Johnny Costa"and "The
Amazing Johnny Costa" (Savoy). Costa also appeared on the ''Tonight
Show," then starring Steve Allen, and toured with his trio, regularly
playing Chicago, Detroit, Miami, and New York. But by the end of the 1950s,
Costa's traveling and recording ended when he decided to return to Pittsburgh
full-time. His lifelong collaboration with Fred Rogers began when he offered
Costa $5,000 to arrange, conduct, and play the music for 100 episodes
of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"I'm glad I stayed with Fred. He's
so brilliant, and he really knows music. What he has done for children
has been wonderful. We've had a good time making shows together."
An important component of Costa's style
has always been classical music. In his rendition of "My Funny Valentine"
(the most beautiful I have ever heard), listeners
hear Ravel, Debussy, and Rachmaninov. The sounds of Beethoven are unmistakable
in Costa's arrangement of "Just One of Those Things." To classical
themes, Costa adds key and chord changes, breakneck tempos, and lines
that sometimes seem to include too many notesall applied to grand
Costa appreciates the compliments he has
received from his peers. He was thrilled after a performance at the William
Penn Hotel when Dizzy Gillespie
came to hug him. Teddy Wilson told a friend traveling to Pittsburgh: ''Go
hear Johnny Costa. He's a monster.'' Costa is even admired by musicians
he has never met. When I talked with jazzmaster Benny Carter in August
1994, 1 told him of my upcoming trip to Pittsburgh to visit Costa. Carter
said, ''Tell Johnny I love him.'' (Johnny was appreciative of Carter's
words.) And Paul Smith, another pianist in the Tatum tradition and accompanist
for Ella Fitzgerald for more than 20 years, told me:
'"Costa has all the technique. I have never met him, but we talk
on the phone and exchange recordings."
Since meeting Costa, I have taken Wilson's advice,
flying to Pittsburgh several times a year. In May 1993, 1 attended a special
tribute when City Theater honored Costa as the first recipient of its
Performance Award, presented to an outstanding performing artist from
western Pennsylvania. (Costa was unanimously selected and the only person
nominated.) The tribute included two hours of music performed superbly
by Dick Hyman, Peter Nero, and later by Costa, who performed piano solos
and played with his original and current Johnny Costa Trio.
Hyman is also responsible for resurrecting
Costa's recording career. In 1990, Hyman sent an unlabeled audiocassette
of Costa recordings to Hank O'Neal at Chiaroscuro Records. O'Neal listened
to only a few tunes before he knew he wanted to produce a CD from the
DAT masters, sign Costa, and produce more recordings. (O'Neal has done
That audiocassette became "Classic Costa,"
a CD followed by "Flying Fingers." In October 1993, Costa recorded
"A Portrait of George Gershwin" (recording
sessions I attended). It is a perfect pairing: timeless Gershwin tunes
and poignant Costa arrangements.
During my Pittsburgh visit in August 1994, I
accompanied Costa to the studio to begin his next CD: a collection of
Johnny Mercer tunes. Two hours later, Costa had laid down more than 50
minutes of that CD, almost all of the tracks first takes.
On August 19, 1994, 1 watched Costa in concert
at St. Clair Park in Greens-burg, Pennsylvania. His performance was remarkable:
Johnny Costa was
20 again, playing energetically and brilliantly before the several hundred
persons who sat on the slopes surrounding the amphitheater stage.
In September 1994, for the fifth consecutive
year, Costa played a concert for music students at Carnegie Mellon University.
During a telephone conversation afterward, he told me' ''I don't ever
remember playing any better than I did for those
students." He attributed his performance to the university's Steinway
grand piano: "If I had played that piano all the time, I'd never
have had to practice.''
Johnny Costa is a Steinway superstar. But
the man himself is also extraordinarycaring, loving, warm and witty.
Rege Cordic, a Pittsburgh radio personality, touchingly described Costa
during the May 1993 tribute at City Theater: "I have always envied
the talents of Johnny Costato be able to play
like him, to allow those wonderful feelings to flow through that extraordinary
instrument. Not the one with the 88 keys, but the one with the one
with the graceful fingers, heart, mind and soul."
Cordic's words reminded me of what Helen
Costa said soon after we met: "Johnny is as beautiful a person as
the music he plays." Helen was so right.