Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
After a while, the kids became accustomed to it and stopped starring at my half-shaven face when I stood with a razor in hand and mouth agape while pianist Johnny Costa performed during one of the episodes of Mr.
Rogers [a public television program for children that starred the late, Fred Rogers and generally aired around ].
I couldn’t help myself; Johnny’s playing was so spellbindingly beautiful it was as though a large magnet was pulling me to go and look at the TV screen in the den. [And it seemed smarter to wander out in this manner rather than to rush and cut myself whilst shaving].
Often when Johnny had finished playing, I’d shake my head in quiet disbelief, at the incredible creativity that he had just tossed off so effortlessly while returning to the bathroom to deal with my by-now, dry lather.
Based in Pittsburgh and rarely traveling, thanks to the national prominence of the television show, which was also filmed there, I along with countless others were given the gift of being allowed to share in Johnny’s virtuosity.
Johnny talks about himself and his playing in the following interview he gave to Hank O’Neal and Bill Hillman, who produced his Flying Fingers CD for Chiaroscuro Records [
[The questions were not explicitly stated in the interview, but you can infer them by John’s responses.]
“There’s very few things that I do that I’m completely satisfied with.
When it happens, it’s the most pleasurable thing in the world.
You say: ‘You know, that’s perfect. Or as nearly perfect as it can be.’
And what a great feeling that is.
But you know what?
With music as in living; you can’t really achieve what you want to all the time.
So you have to take what is good at the moment and go on to the next.
The reason the ‘first take’ [in making a recording] is often the best is because the ideas just flow. And then what happens when you do the ‘second take’ is that you try to recapture what you thought you had in the ‘first take.’
Somehow you can’t do that.
When we are taping the Mr.
Rogers, one of the hardest things is to have to do things over and over again because of maybe a camera glitch or somebody blows a line or something and so invariably your taking the fourth or fifth or seventh cut; it’s somehow lost something at that point.
That happens which is why the first time is usually the best.
Jazz, as wonderful as it is, always leaves you open to walking away and saying: “I should have done this and I should Have done that.’ Or ‘why didn’t I use this chord?’
There are so many ways to play these things.
The minute it is recorded and it’s done, your walking home when you suddenly say: ‘Gee, I wish I could do that again. I try it this way or that way.’
But that’s the fun of Jazz.
The reason that I don’t want to do anything that sounds like anybody else is two fold.
First of all, I only want to play the songs that have endured, those by the great popular composers. They have been done so many times and in so many ways that I thought I should bring a fresh approach to them.
For instance, how many recordings are there if Stardust?
I had to try and do something with that song that is different.
And I don’t want to get into much of the newer music because I’m not sure that it is something that I can handle.
Talking about how you would play a certain piece brings up so many ideas.
For instance, you have what you feel you want to play; something tugs at you and say, ‘Well now, do you want to make it sound modern?’
You want to make it technical enough so that the people are not bored with it and yet you want to always make sure that the melody is there.
I have always tried to respect the melody.
The songs that I chose, I love the melodies. They are great songs by great composers and I want to keep that pure.
But at the same time, maybe you need to show what the left hand can do. Or maybe what both hands do together.
Maybe you want to be compared to Art Tatum or some of the greats. And sometimes you just want to be yourself.
And somewhere in this maze, you kind of find which way to approach these things.
But it needs a lot of thought; it just doesn’t happen.
I guess if you are playing in a saloon or something and you are running through some of these songs, you don’t have to give it so much thought and just enjoy and have fun with it.
But it does require thought and I think Jazz is getting more that way.
It used to be a lot easier and a lot more fun and more spur of the moment.
But now I think it is quite mental.
I think it has gotten to the point now where it is an extraordinary art form and it needs to be thought about.
Sometimes what I do is interject a Classical piece in the Jazz that I’m playing.
I never thought about it but I guess the reason I do that is kind of a surprise. I think it was a gift from Tatum because he would always do that.
Once in a while I’ll do the scales and a few exercises, but I really don’t practice that much at all.
I say this humbly but for some reason, the fingers work whether I practice with them or not. I know that’s not the case for most people so I guess I’m just lucky that way. But just because I don’t have to practice, that doesn’t make it the right way.
What I have is a gift from God, but you do the best you can with what you have.
[At this point in the interview, Johnny talks about some of the tunes on the Flying Fingers CD].
Tea for Two is one of those songs that whatever I learned I could kind of put it in this song because it kind of leant itself to that.
I started building my arrangement way back in the 1940’s and just added things to it as I went along. Today it has almost taken its form.
The first time I heard Art Tatum and the wonderful things he did with Tea for Two I thought, ‘Well, I gotta try a little of that, too.’
Before that, I had a chance to get and hear Mel Hinke in
. He did something with the beginning of the tune where he went around the cycle of fifths. Chicago
And then I heard a man called Alec Templeton, a blind pianist and it was uncanny what he was able to do. The right-hand would play one melody and the left-hand would play another. He would put them together.
I thought, ‘How nice. I can try that with Tea for Two because I can put the verse in the right-hand and the melody in the left-hand. So that’s in there.
Another time, Ravel’s La Valse and it almost lends itself perfectly to Tea for Two, so that’s in there.
When I was learning to play boogie-woogie, I thought some of that would be good to also put into tea for Two.
My arrangement of
came about quite early in my life. I had never been there but I saw movies and was fascinated with the city. And I wanted a kind of ‘inexpensive’ version of [Gershwin’s] Rhapsody in Blue, in which I bring out what I think is in Manhattan from viewing the films like the traffic noises, café society, New York City Chinatown, and The Bowery at the end of it.
I thought it would be like a little musical trip around the city of
and that’s the way I try to play it. New York
The very first time I sat down to play Over the Rainbow, I want to thing about the movie [The Wizard of Oz] and what it means. That song makes me want to go someplace else; someplace maybe that’s better.
But then when I do I always want to come home. We all do, if we can get back home.
One of the things that I thought about when I played that song was that I wanted to keep it pure and keep the thought of it as beautiful as I could.
[John’s original composition] Flying Fingers came about because I wanted to write something for Mr.
Rogers’ wife who is a concert pianist. Also for myself to use at the end of my concerts when I want to do something quick and fast.
I called it Flying Fingers because that’s he way it sound.”
You can get some idea of Johnny’s fabulously facility and interpretive ability on the piano by viewing the following video.