Andre 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 segment.
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 Costa Elwood, and many lifelong friends live nearby.
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 him—with 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 to 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 made it."
Costa, genuinely delighted to see me, greeted me warmly: ''I can't 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 me—and 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 it."
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 Art 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 the station'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," the "Steve Allen Show," 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 rendition 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 notes—all applied to grand melodies.
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 all three.)
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: "Dream," 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, I watched Costa in concert at St. Clair Park in Greensburg, 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 extraordinary—caring, 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 Costa—to 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.
Hugh Glenn, Webmaster