VAIL - Tony Monaco steps up to his Hammond B-3 organ and miracles pour out.
Monaco himself is something of a miracle, and for those of us who occasionally walk in harm's way because it's fun, here's the best part: If he hadn't spent most of his formative years sneaking out of school and into a Catholic Church to play a Hammond B-3 in the choir loft, he'd still be running the family concrete business.
So, like so many jazz and blues greats, Monaco started in church - sort of.
"The place was empty, so I didn't have anyone trying to chase me out," Monaco said.
When we caught up with him, he had left his ranch in Columbus, Ohio, and was following Horace Greeley's best admonition, "Go West, young man."
Monaco plays the Vail Jazz Festival every year, so you've heard him before. He's worth hearing again. He plays at the Fitz Lounge in Manor Vail Lodge Thursday night as part of the second annual Vail Winter Jazz Series.
'A raucous time'
Local musician Allan Finney will join him. He's spent 20 years or so playing all over the valley. You've seen him play the guitar and sing, but Howard Stone asked him to play drums when Monaco comes to town. Stone is the Vail Jazz Foundation executive director, so the correct answer is, "Yup," or words to that effect.
Bob Rebholz will play tenor saxophone and Bill Kopper will play guitar.
They perform Wednesday at Dazzle in Denver, then head to Vail for tonight's show. Friday and Saturday they're at the Little Nell in Aspen. Finney played Tuesday at the Grouse Mountain Grill with Tony Gulizia, so he's been busy this week.
Finney played with Monaco before. He, Tony Gulizia and a couple other local musicians were playing a brunch in Vail when Monaco spotted an accordion behind Tony G and stormed the stage.
"We had quite a raucous time," Finney said.
Rebholz just returned from the Grammy Awards where he was nominated. He's recently back from tours with Tom Jones and Al Jarreau.
"These guys are the real deal. It's going to be an amazing evening," Finney said.
Downbeats and bouncebacks
Monaco was 8 years old when he started on the accordion. When he was 12 he heard B-3 legend Jimmy Smith. He was in his mid-teens, already an outstanding player, when he started wandering into jazz clubs to play hear the great masters: Hank Marr, Don Patterson, Jimmy McGriff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Charles Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Jack McDuff.
He was 15 when he contracted a rare disease, neuralgic amyotrophy, similar to polio. Nerves in his right arm, shoulder and triceps were hit first. Six months later it attacked his left side.
It was too painful to hang his accordion from his shoulders, so his father bought him a B3 organ.
Smith called him on his 16th birthday, and soon became his mentor/teacher, sharing jazz organ secrets and instruction, and Smith invited him to perform at his California club.
Before long, Monaco was running the family business, Monaco's Palace Italian Restaurant, while performing in the lounge. He landed a management gig with Sysco Foods and later migrated to an ad agency.
He finished college in 1989 and took over Monaco Concrete, another family business.
He was 35 when neuralgic amyotrophy hit him again, this time in his vocal cords, ankles and forearms. After surgery he could walk and talk, but he had to retrain himself to play.
He built his ranch when he was in the construction industry, and made sure to include a recording studio.
People do all sorts of things for a living, but Monaco finally is living the life he loves.
Joey DeFrancesco produced Monaco's debut CD and he hit the road. He never looked back. These days his music ranges from sax-combo blues and shuffles, to acid funk, to jazz-infused big band tunes. You should hear what they do with "Luck Be a Lady."
"It's been my life-long passion," he said. "I'm happy because I love what I do," Monaco said. "Music has carried me through everything because music is everything."
He's 53 now and has raised his children. He's been playing music since he met Smith when he was 12 years old. He's learned a few things along the way, such as: You don't mess with a man's Harley, his hat, his honey or his Hammond B-3.
Stick with those facts of life and you'll live a long and happy life - like Tony Monaco.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.