Art Mineo ~ Piano,
Bill Ramsay ~ Saxophone
Bellingham Herald - 28 July 2010
Rosemary Ponnekanti , Staff Writer
Tacoma music legend Art Mineo dies. Composer, player had national recognition
A Tacoma jazz musician and local musical legend has died at 91.
Art Mineo died Tuesday after suffering from pulmonary fibrosis. He is survived by his wife, Toni, 83, and his son Gene, 61, both of Tacoma.
“He died peacefully,” says Gene Mineo. “He was ready to go.”
Mineo was born Aug. 28, 1918, in Brooklyn. From a Sicilian family, he grew up in his parents’ boardinghouse for fellow immigrants.
His mother gave him a love for Italian opera, but the young Mineo turned to jazz and became a top-notch musician, playing with Buddy Raye and arranging for the U.S. Army Band in the 1930s.
During World War II, Mineo was posted to Fort Lewis, where he met his future wife, Toni, also a musician. He stayed in Tacoma and became the jazz pianist, bassist and arranger for the New Yorker club on Sixth Avenue, now gone but then the top place to go.
“Art was … wonderful, very tolerant of us young guys,” said Bill Ramsay, 81, a former saxophonist for Mineo’s band, in a News Tribune interview last year. “One guy would actually fall asleep on his chair. Art would just say, ‘Let him sleep.’ He was very patient.”
Through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Mineo played in town and toured, arranging for greats such as Paul Whitehead, collaborating with Skitch Henderson on a commission for Jackie Kennedy and writing the music for the Bubbleator at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
He recorded for Columbia Records and hosted visiting musicians such as the young Oscar Peterson in his home, and helped local bands like the Ventures and the Wailers get started.
“Here was a man who knew Jacqueline Kennedy, Al Capone, Frank Sinatra, Babe Ruth, not to mention all the musical greats of the 20th century,” said Barry Johnson, a local opera singer and good friend of Mineo. “He was like a walking musical encyclopedia.”
Mineo also collaborated extensively with his wife. They wrote a suite featuring the well-known Tacoma saxophonist Corky Corcoran, which was recorded at the old Century Ballroom in Fife.
Yet throughout his jazz career, Mineo’s love of opera remained.
“My mother would take me to the Met in 1928, 1929,” he remembered in an interview last year. “We’d sit in the balcony for 25 cents. (Over the years) I got to liking Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, listening to those beautiful melodic lines. And I thought, maybe I could write one.”
And so, at 77, he did, writing operas in Italian (which he spoke fluently) based on Italian history and romantic episodes from the Mineo family boarding house.
Mineo also wrote operas about the Mafia, though he made clear he wasn’t part of the official organization.
“Around 11 years ago, Art called me out of the blue,” Johnson said. “He said he was an opera composer, he wanted me to critique his work. He took me out to lunch.”
Johnson remained good friends with Mineo, whom he says “always wore a coat and fedora,” and last February staged an evening of the composer’s opera arias – described by Johnson as ‘southern Italian, great music’ – as a community tribute to him.
His father used to regale his friends with stories of Brooklyn street life, remembers Gene Mineo.
“Towards the end he was like the Pied Piper of the Tacoma Mall,” the younger Mineo said. “People would follow him because they liked his stories of his childhood, his time in the Army and the early jazz days in Tacoma.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568