© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In 1962, the promising career of pianist Eddie Costa was cut short by a fatal car crash on the West Side Highway in New York City.
Jazz fans who knew his playing from the halcyon days of modern Jazz from 1945 to 1965 still talk about him, perhaps because of his singular style of playing piano which the noted Jazz critic and author Leonard Feather once described as “ … hard-driving, percussive and marked by an unusual octave-unison approach.”
Today’s Jazz fans who have discovered him in retrospect often express a keen interest in his work, perhaps because of the very uncommon way his piano improvisations are voiced and phrased. It is almost sounds as though Eddie attacks the piano while playing it.
Chris Sheridan, in his insert notes to the CD reissue of Eddie’s first LP, The Eddie Costa Vinnie Burke Trio [Jubilee LP-1025; Fresh Sound FS-129], further elaborates on Eddie’s distinctive manner: “Get Happy is a sharply-edged example of Costa’s predilection for driving inventions played almost below middle C; elsewhere the phrasing is stubbier, like necklaces of recast thematic fragments.”
Chris goes on to say that “Eddie’s style was in fact intriguing for its happy combination of swing-based rhythmic figures with a more ‘modern’ harmonic sense.”
Leonard Feather described Eddie style this way: “a modern approach to ‘barrelhouse piano in which Eddie Costa once more demonstrates the evocative power of the piano’s rumbling lower register.” [paraphrase, sleeve notes to Jazz Mission to Moscow Colpix CP-433]
Jazz author and columnist Burt Korall offered this impression of Eddie’s style in his insert notes to The Eddie Costa Quartet/Guys and Dolls Like Vibes [Coral CRL 57230; Universal Victor Japan MVCJ-19004]:
“An unassuming, quiet, even diffident person, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that there is an aggressive, apparently inexhaustible spilling forth of ideas whenever he plays. Rhythmic thrust nourishes melodic content as he creates long, striking lines that speak well for the organization of his resources, and his ability to remain integrated and flow inventively when soloing at length.”
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to revisit Eddie and his music by examining what has been written about him in the Jazz press, magazines and sleeves notes from his all-too-few recordings in order to post a profile of him on these pages.
Jazz critic and writer Bill Simon observed that “Eddie Costa is the first Jazz musician to win an important poll on two different instruments. The young, still relatively unknown Jazzman was voted New Star on both piano and vibes in the 1957 World’s Critics Poll, conducted by Down Beat. Eddie was born in 1930, joined violinist Joe Venuti at 18, spent two years in Service, and came to the critics’ attention when he clubbed with Tal Farlow in New York. He’s an unusually articulate Jazz voice, eminently resourceful, and he swings hard. Eddie is one of the new Jazz giants.” [insert notes to The Eddie Costa Trio With Rolf Kuhn and Dick Johnson, Mat Mathers and Don Elliot at Newport [Verve MGV-8237].
Also in 1957, and following on the heels of Bill Simon’s words of praise, was this introductory paragraph by Joe Quinn in the liner notes to The Eddie Costa/5 [Mode LP-118], one of the few recordings that Eddie made as a leader:
“The word ‘phenomenon’ as outlined in the dictionary, pertains to an exceptional person, thing or occurrence, and is frequently used in a banal attempt to give class and distinction to an otherwise colorless performer. Generally, the music trade is apathetic to such in accurate semantics, but once in a while they solemnly nod in agreement that some newcomer is fully deserving of such accolades. Eddie Costa, who recently captured the Down Beat International Jazz Critics poll on both vibes and piano, fits this select category.”
In his 1972 JazzJournal essay commemorating the10th anniversary of Eddie’s death, Don Nelson offers a perspective on Eddie significance with this quotation from the Jazz author, Stanley Dance:
“Stanley Dance has compared Eddie Costa to Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Dave Tough and Django Reinhardt in being one of the most talented of white musicians., viz: —
'They each had a genius, a flame, an in-born talent, and that kind of dedication which made them impatient of the ordinary way of living , .. Eddie Costa ought to be remembered as an original jazz musician who died before he was 32, much too soon'.”
In the 1992 insert notes to the V.S.O.P. CD version of the Mode LP, The Eddie Costa/5 [VSOP#7] James Rossi wrote:
“The preparation of these liner notes for one of Eddie Costa's few sessions as a leader consisted of research into old magazine articles and various reference books. As expected, not an abundance of printed material was to be found.Eddie Costa was just beginning to embark on a fruitful career as a multi-instrumentalist when his car careened off New York's West Side Highway on July 26, 1962, killing him at the age of 31. It was a loss felt by many, evidenced by the fact that the greatest wealth of information today concerning Costa comes from a steadfast group of individuals who continue to vehemently support him.
It seem that everyone with a cognizance of jazz dating from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s has attached him or herself to Eddie Costa's music. His truly individual approach to melody filled a void in his listeners which allowed them the luxury of experiencing certain emotions, whether poetic or rambunctious, that no other artist was capable of eliciting.
"Individual" is an oft misused, consistently overused word, however, 100% justifiable when describing Costa's relationship with jazz. Born in the rural coal mining town of Atlas, Pennsylvania, Costa's early musical background developed from his brother Bill's tutelage on piano, followed by lessons from a talented local woman of German extraction. First exposure to jazz came in the form of recordings by Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman. Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum.
Bill Costa was responsible for Eddie's first professional job in the band of guitarist Frank Victor, with whom Eddie stayed two years playing organ and vibes. When Victor received a call to join violinist Joe Venuti in Chicago, the eighteen year-old Costa was included on the engagement.
Two months later, Eddie rejoined his brother Bill in New York for a steady gig at the Hickory House, playing pop and standards, with a little ja// thrown in for good measure. In the October 31, 1957 issue of DOWNBEAT. Eddie Costa confided to Leonard Feather his feelings about jazz during this early period: "I enjoyed it without fully understanding it and never thought about being a jazz musician. Whether St. Louis won the pennant was more important to me than anything that happened in music." Again Bill Costa proved invaluable to Eddie's musical growth with on-the-job training in the use of harmonic variations to color standard chord changes.
It wasn't until Eddie was drafted in January of 1951 and sent to Japan (and later Korea), with the 40th Division band that he heard his first Bud Powell record. Taken at face value, this may not seem strange. But considering that Powell was already one of the most revered and well-known pianists, idolized by every musician who was fascinated by the bop idiom, it bring! into perspective the manner in which Costa was going about the business of learning jazz at his own pace and in his own manner.
In early 1953, Costa was back in New York, settling into an important job with guitarist Sal Salvador, that produced his first recorded sides on the KENTON PRESENTS series. The fact that he was equally proficient on piano and vibraphone led to an abundance of studio work (it often annoyed Costa that his fellow studio players were shocked that a jazz musician could read so well) and freelancing with Tal Farlow, Kai Winding, Woody Herman, Johnny Smith, the Bob Brookmeyer-Clark Terry Quintet, and with his own trio of bassist Vinnie Burke and drummer Nick Stabulas. At this time Jubilee recorded Costa’s trio and released two records, one with the addition of tenor Mike Cuozzo. Eddie Costa also recorded as a sideman on several important sessions of the day, playing vibes with Bill Evans on "Guys and Dolls Like Vibes" for Coral, and on "Jazz Mission To Moscow" for Colpix, and piano on "The House of Blue Lights" for Dot.
Eddie Costa has never mentioned in interviews who influenced his style. Many musicians were undoubtedly involved, but it is probable that Costa himself never consciously realized who was responsible for the many facets that are in evidence in his unusual approach. By the time of the Leonard Feather DOWNBEAT article and the recording date of the session on this album, Eddie Costa did not even have a record player in his New York apartment.
Mode's recording of the Eddie Costa Quintet, while exhibiting a true group effort, (if this all-star quintet had only had the opportunity to develop into a stable working group!) is indicative of the ceaseless imagination of Eddie Costa. Twisting lines of original melodic beauty, harmonically expansive, with meticulously placed accents that epitomize the evolving bop style were pan of Eddie Costa\s vocabulary. Dramatic use of the middle and lower range of the piano was the Costa trademark. His near refusal to cover the keyboard's upper two octaves shows his eccentricity, possibly a result of his extensive work on the narrower ranged vibraphone.
Writer Barry Ulanov summarized in the August 22, 1957 issue of DOWNBEAT: "[Eddie Costa] is a musician all by himself, a thorough individual, a meditative pianist with a splendidly deliberate style of his own.' One of Costa's unwavering fans relates some thirty-five years later, "You're destined to spend lots of time in used record stores or pouring over record auction lists. Good luck, Costa is worth it."
V.S.O.P’s release of Eddie Costa Quintet will surely prompt the reissue of the remainder of Costa's glorious recorded legacy, inspiring a new generation of listeners who will be touched by his endearing style.”
- JAMES ROZZI, 1992 V.S.O.P#7CD
In the August 27, 1957 edition of Down Beat, the highly regarded Jazz writer and critic Barry Ulanov wrote of Eddie:
“This is a remarkable time for pianists, no doubt about it. Not since the dear, not so dead days of swing, have there been so many of quality around at once, alive and kicking. And never, in my memory or historical records at least, have there been so many fresh keyboard thinkers around at once, creating new patterns in jazz and developing them.
Particularly remarkable then among a remarkable lot of musicians is the pianist Eddie Costa. He has to be to stand out in such company.
But stand out he does—for me, anyway. And not just because he has the vitality or the intensity, the bravura technique or ready supply of ideas which, singly or as a whole, typify the best of the pianists of this jazz era. No, it's something more he has, on top of these skills, besides these attributes, which I find so absorbing to the ear, so provocative to the mind, and not at all easy to spell out. …
Jazzmen always have been distinguished for their unselfish desire to play with the best, rarely concerned about how much less than the best he might sound playing alongside best.
The "best" are stimulating musicians to blow with, dedicated to the advancement of themselves and their music; ….
It s in his unassuming manner—almost a diffident one—at the piano, in the lack of fuss which attends his playing, solo or in the background: no extravagant gesture, no rolling, writhing, or other means of calling attention to himself. And his music never depends on the obvious crowd-pleasing crowd-teasing devices: no brave, bold display of dynamics, no conspicuous conservatory consumption, although, clearly, he knows his instrument very well.
Costa is a quiet musician, a restrained one, though not a notably icy one of the cool school.
He put his lines together with a deliberateness which demands the listener's attention. One must follow step by step along his thinking way if one wants to hear what goes on in the mind and feelings of this remarkably resourceful musician. That deliberateness, that quiet attention of Eddie's to the music at hand, is what makes him such a pleasant colleague for other musicians ….
His two hands work out striking different patterns now, delicately contrasting textures and accents and volumes. The next step, the logical the inevitable one, will be different measures of time against each other 7/8 or 5/8 against 4/4, or whatever combination makes sense to Edi after sufficient meditation on the meter.
It's not easy to spell out this technique of Costa's, but two of the words I used do add up to something like a summation of his special achievements - "meditative" and "deliberate." …
Eddie Costa is a musician who is thoroughly individual, a meditative pianist with a splendidly deliberate style of his own.”
A couple of months later in the October 31, 1957 edition of Down Beat, Leonard Feather wrote in article entitled Two Poll Winners: They’re Both Eddie Costa, Who’s Much Surprised By It:”
“It came as something of a shock to Edwin James Costa to learn, three months ago, that the voters in the Down Beat Jazz Critics' poll had elected him this year's new star both on piano and vibes. It was the first time anybody had won simultaneously in two categories.
What made it seem all the more remarkable to Costa himself was that the critics had not had much of a chance to hear him.
"I didn't think anybody had listened to me to that extent," he says, "I haven't made as many records as a lot of other guys. I have no agent, I'm not signed with any booking office, and I don't have a publicity man. I was very surprised, in fact, when I was invited to play at the Newport Jazz festival ."
Sadly, only five years later, Don Nelsen filed this Elergy for Eddie in the September 13, 1962 issue of Down Beat.
“On July 28, a Saturday morning, at 2:45, pianist-vibist Eddie Costa was killed when his car overturned on New York’s West Side Highway. He was 31 years old.
Born in Adas, Pa., Costa studied piano but taught himself the vibraharp. His first professional job was with violinist Joe Venuti when he was 18. There followed many jobs with such as Sal Salvador, Tal Farlow, Kaii Winding. Don IElliott, and Woody Herman. His talents extended to nearly every kind of musical expression.
His listeners, however, could have no doubt that he was first and most a jazz musician.
Seldom was one man so well loved. The tears on musicians' faces during the buriall attested to that. The tears also were for the loss of an immense talent.
Following is a touching reminiscence of Costa hy his friend, writer Don Nelsen. If was written shortly after Costa's funeraL
I first realized there was something different about Eddie Costa one night about six years ago. He was playing with Tal Farlow and Vinnie Burke at the Composer, a fine trio room now extinct. I had reviewed the group very favorably a couple of times before, but now I was walking in after putting them down. It seemed to me that, on this particular gig, inspiration was licking. Their music had sounded diffident, as though they really didn't feel like playing.
I entered ill at case, expecting a blast, Prior to that time—and since—my re-
ird tor such critical insolence had been a contemptuous sneer, a sarcastic thank-you, or a threatened punch in the nose. So when I greeted Ed, I mumbled some self-conscious foolishness about how I had lo call them as I heard them, etc., etc. He laughed and said:
‘Man, you have to write what you have to write, and I have to play what I have to play.’
Immediately, we sat down over a couple of drinks and proceeded to tear apart my review and his playing. There was no animosity. He just wanted to find out what my judgment had been based on, what qualifications I had to make it. His questions were sharp and to the point. I did not resent them. How could I when a man faced me honestly and simply asked why I had said what I had say?
After that, we began seeing each other outside of the clubs because we had things to talk about. We met from time to time and then more frequently to discuss music, sports, his family and mine, his doubts and fears and mine.
Eddie was a fierce sportsmen. He held a season ticket to the New York Giants football game and followed the sports pages constantly. When he could not be at a game, he saw it on television. He was not only a spectator. Softball, football, golf, stickball, bowling saloon shuffleboard - he was always ready to play. And he’d be out to skin you alive every time. He was an eager ball tosser and exchanger of sports notes with the 10-year-old boy next door. When he had some time off, which wasn’t often in the last year or two, he was out in his back yard in Queens throwing the ball around with his 2-year-old son, Robbie. Once, when my 14-year-old son, Bob, and I dropped over on a Saturday morning with a football, the three of us dashed into the street in front of Eddie’s home.
‘Let’s tire your old man out,’ he yelled to Bob.
‘It won’t be hard,’ Bob yelled back.
And it wasn’t. I pooped out long before they did, but I tried to keep up appearances lest they both find me out. I was the first to quit.
There were wrangles, too, about baseball. Baseball, I once told him, is a bore. All you ever have is two guys playing and the other 16 just standing around or in the dugout.
‘What’re you talkin’ about?’ he asked. He pronounced ‘talkin’’ not ‘tawkin,’ like a native New Yorker, but ‘tockin,’ probably like the rest of his hometown in Atlas, PA.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘when I guy knows the game, the batting averages and the players, and what they can and cannot do, every game is interesting. You can judge what a player is doing against what he should be doing and shouldn’t. And what about the unexpected? There’s a thousand possibilities in each game.’
A couple of days after his death, Ed’s wife, Jeanne, suggested that a fund be established to sponsor a Little League team in his honor, or to buy season passes to football or baseball games for youngsters. It’s a great idea. Ed’s love for sports and children were inextricably combined.
Music, of course, was the force that made him live. I think at time he felt it even more important than his wife and children and, because he had a great love for both, felt very guilty about not spending more time with them or showing his love more.
These were tough times. After an initial flush of success, culminated by the only double new-star victory in Down Beat history (piano and vibes: 1957), he worked only now and then in clubs. He became somewhat embittered.
‘It looks,’ he said, ‘like a new-star award is a kiss of death.’
For the next couple of years, Eddie gigged on with his own trio, a fine but unappreciated group featuring drummer Paul Motian and bassist Henry Grimes, and as a sideman with groups, Woody Herman's and Gigi Gryce’s among them. During this period he began to gel calls for studio and transcription work, More and more they came as his reputation as a vibraharpist got around.
Eddie's ability to read vibes parts became legend in the studios, where in the last two years his talents were in tremendous demand He used to laugh over this and say, ‘I’ve been reading piano scores since I was 5, To read just one line like this is nothing.’
It might have meant nothing to Ed, but not many musicians could make the changes he could with little or no preparation. One studio musician observed at the funeral parlor that Eddie could come into a date cold and read off the toughest things with ease.
‘Some of the other guys can make it pretty good on reading." he said. "but when it comes to something modern, they drop their sticks. Not Eddie.’
All during the last year. Ed worked extremely hard. He wasn’t at home much. Sometimes he'd work in the studios most of the day and night, getting but a few hours sleep. The price was an ulcer, but he kept on. Occasionally, alter a night date of his. we'd meet at the Hall Note club. Many of those times he was pretty whipped, and I'd tell him to stop pushing so much. '’Besides, you don't even dig the commercial work that much.’
‘Look,’ he'd say, "I've got Jeanne and four kids to support and a house to pay off. I can't quit now."
What he said was true, but it tore at him nonetheless. Ed passionately believed an artist should develop his talent to the full, and he certainly wasn't doing it in the studios.
Yet there uere signs in recent months that he was beginning to realize his great potential. His playing was getting better and better, more than fulfilling the promise of early years. He joined the Bob Brookmeyer-Clark Terry Quintet, and during his first gigs with them at the Half Note and Village Vanguard he really regained confidence in himself as a Jazz musician. Playing in clubs again with guys he respected, and who respected him, brought him out of the artistic doldrums and his critical reception at the First International Jazz Festival in Washington in June was perhaps more enthusiastic than that accorded any other artists.
One thing that has always bugged Ed was to have people think of him primarily as a vibes player rather than as a pianist. He knew he was good on vibes but considered it extremely limited in relation to the piano. The latter was his instrument. It had been ever since his older brother, Bill, another fine musician who Ed idolized, taught him to play when he was barely out of rompers. He believed that he could create infinitely more on piano, and his recent work bears that out.
His playing on the recent released Jazz Mission to Moscow, with some of the Benny Goodman Russian-tour band, is an outstanding example. It so impressed Jack Lewis and his superiors at Colpix Records that a week before the fatal July 28, Lewis asked Ed to do a date with a big band, the tunes to be chosen by Ed, the arrangements to be written by Al Cohn and Manny Albam.
Ed was reluctant at first. He had made too many sessions where the guys in charge told him was they wanted. Lewis offered him a free hand, and Ed, at the urging of Lewis and three of his fellow musicians - Moe Wechsler, Sol Grubin and Bernie Leighton - agreed.
He and Lewis were to get together to pick out the tunes right after Ed and Jeanne returned from a week in Bermuda. It was to be the honeymoon that they never had. What a damned ending.
In the last three months, we discussed a magazine article on the music business itself, on those agents, managers, club owners, artists and repertoire men, and other warm-hearted functionaries whose love for musicians and good music somehow never got in the way of the money. Ed had a lot to say. Because he made it at the studios, he could afford to step on some big toes. He didn’t have to depend on clubs or Jazz records for a living, and he could speak freely.
All that’s gone, along with the slight shrug of the right shoulder as he walked to the bandstand; the carelessly crossed legs as he played; the snort that traveled down through his nose whenever he took off his glasses. All gone, with a talent that could have ripened into greatness, gone with such sudden finality that one wonders whether justice does not consist of one huge universal laugh .
I suppose I will reread these lines in a month or two and tell myself what a sentimental slosh they are.
I don’t care.”