Noted New York pianist Rich Iacona performing twice in Houston this week
Noted New York pianist Rich Iacona performing twice in Houston this week
Photo courtesy of Rich Iacona

Rich Iacona: You've Never Heard of Him But You've Heard Him

Chances are high you've never heard of pianist/composer Rich Iacona. But believe me, you've heard him.

While Iacona, a New Yorker who comes to town this week for a series of clinics and shows with the Houston Community College big band program at the invitation of HCC professor Woody Witt, has never toured much or had hits on the radio, he has a resume of recordings he's worked on and compositions he's written that would be the envy of anyone claiming to make their living in jazz.

In a career spanning 50 years, Iacona has played with or provided arrangements for an amazing array of artists ranging from Charles Aznavour to Lisa Minelli, Chuck Berry to Clark Terry. He composed the theme for Telemundo's hit series, 12 Corazones, commercials for Sears, Acura, Folger's Coffee, and has appeared in movies such as Mighty Aphrodite and Woody Allen's Celebrity. His music has been heard on Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Maury Povich Show. He has also produced four albums of his own as The Bad Little Big Band. His most famous composition is "Sin Palabras."

At 67, Iacona, a lifetime New Yorker, is still full of piss and vinegar, looking for the next gig (actually, he doesn't call them gigs, he calls them jobs), just happy to still be playing and staying active rather than settling down at the old folks home. He still teaches advanced music theory and piano at Long Island University and spends the rest of the time on a variety of projects ranging from sheet music to scores for radio and television commercials. But it is big band music and Tin Pan Alley standards that are Iacona's primary interests.

"I've worked with so many publishers on sheet music and done a lot of my own transcriptions," say Iacona. "So I sent some of those down to Woody at the college and those are the scores we'll be using for the college shows, stuff like the original big band arrangements for Stan Kenton Orchestra or Count Basie. Those will make up the bulk of the program."

Iacona will perform 12 tunes with two HCC big bands, and one of the pieces will be the premier of a new Iacona arrangement, according to Witt.

"It's such a great thing for me when I find an educator like Woody who's still trying to instill a sense of what I call the classics, that stuff that fills the great American songbook," says Iacona. "I think it's a shame that some people go to college for a music education but get out after four years with these huge gaps of knowledge about American classics and jazz standards.

"The young kids coming up these days have almost no sense of the great standards, they just aren't up on that stuff. That's a shame, because that music and that culture we made is valuable."

Gig-wise, Iacona has worked what he calls "piano singles" for decades and he bemoans the passing of those types of gigs.

"Twenty, thirty years ago, I could work a piano single almost every night," he explains. "Every hotel had a pianist who knew the standards people want to hear in that setting. That's still here in New York City, but much of it has gone away, and I think that's terrible because New York was known as a piano town. There were literally hundreds of guys who were great, who were true pros. When that's gone, it's gone."

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"In the 1990s my wife and I were driving into Manhattan every night of our life," he explains enthusiastically. "There were tons of music jobs, tons of piano jobs. I was writing for a music library, I was constantly doing recording sessions. I made so much money in royalties, and I'm really just a nobody. But those days, I could get on a record all the time, there was so much work here in the City."

Iacona also bemoans the fact that music schools are probably going to see some budget cuts sooner than later.

"As educators, I think we're in some rough waters here for a while," Iacona surmises. "Enrollments are down for music majors and unless we do something to reverse that trend, it could get very bad for music educators. You just know cuts are coming along."

"One thing I think we'll need to reverse this is to have some highly qualified, inspirational teachers come along who can re-energize the curriculum and get students excited."

Aside from his clinic and performance with the HCC big bands, Iacona and his wife, singer/bassist Madeline Kole, will be performing at Cezanne over the weekend, backed by Witt and drummer Rich DeRosa.

"This is the kind of job we both love," says Iacona, "playing the great standards with a hot, capable band. Life doesn't get much better than that."

Rich Iacona w/ the Houston Community College Bands, 1010 W. Sam Houston Pkwy. N, April 20, 7:30 p.m.

Rich Iacona w/ Madeline Kole and the Woody Witt band, Cezanne, 4100 Montrose, above The Black Labrador, April 17 and 18, 9 p.m.

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