Columbus Avenue as Musical Muse
Musician Joe Gianono on Blue Note, turning pages at the ballet, and getting his songs on television
New Yorkers can find inspiration in their neighborhoods just by simply stepping outside. Joe Gianono, a longtime Upper West Sider, frequently writes music as he walks home on Columbus Avenue. His career spans decades, and includes a gig with Blood Sweat & Tears, page turning for the pianist at the New York City Ballet, and arranging for Broadway.
I met him at A.G. Kitchen, one of his favorite local spots, and we discussed his songs, and how New York has influenced his music. He said, "I can't imagine living anywhere else. Things move; it's never boring. I mean I can go to Birdland at 5 o'clock and Dizzy's at 6."
How did you get started in the music industry?
I started playing the guitar at 6. I heard a guy play his guitar and I said, "That's what I want to do for the rest of my life." I went to college to study music and spent 30 years arranging and orchestrating for Broadway, making other people's music sound good. I was Chita Rivera's arranger for a long time. And then I started to write my own, and for that past seven years, that's what I've been doing. Now, I'm also the resident composer at the White Horse Theater Company downtown. So far, I've done about 10 shows and right now I'm doing "Eyes for Consuela," by Sam Shepard.
Do you work out of your home?
I work at home, yeah, but I could work anywhere. Strangely enough, most of the stuff I write, I initially get the idea from walking down the street. I've written so many things on Columbus Avenue, coming home from dinner.
I just listened to your song about the environment.
"I Like Green" is a very funny song, but also very profound. It's all about the environment and has a lot of factual information in it. It's sort of like Me. Rogers meets Tiny Tim. And I'm singing it, and I'm not a singer.
You have your own record company.
It's relatively new. It's me and a couple of producers. Basically it's a per project producer-ship. I need a certain amount of dollars to get this thing done. Like for my song "Silly Girl," I raised about 6,000 dollars, went to down to Nashville, and recorded the song. We're supposed to be releasing it really soon. I release through CD Baby and when that happens, CD Baby automatically sends it out to iTunes, Amazon, and all those other spots. So it's like one-stop shopping. They also have a partnership with YouTube monitors, so if you're registered with CD Baby, when your songs are played in other people's music videos on YouTube, you get the penny.
What are your favorite restaurants in your neighborhood?
This [A.G. Kitchen] is one of them. I come here for dinner a lot. I like Arte Café, they have nice food in the restaurant part of it.
In your opinion, where are the best places to listen to music in the city?
I go down to the Blue Note a lot and the Jazz Standard. I play jazz guitar and sometimes play at Birdland. I get a call once in a while, saying, "We need a guitarist." The problem with that is you never see the music in advance. They turn the lights on and say, "Start playing."
Explain your page-turning job at the New York City Ballet.
My good friend, Elaine Chelton, is the concert pianist over there. In fact, she does most of my recordings. A lot of times, she needs people to turn pages for her. And it's so fantastic; I love it. It's not simple though. You're not there to turn pages. You're there as a psychiatrist, an unnerver, the fall guy. At the end of every show, the conductor comes up and says, "Great job, kid." Because they know if you screw up, the whole ballet goes down.
Do you have any interesting stories from page turning?
We're in the middle of Maurice Ravel's "Piano Concerto In G, 2nd Movement," which is a very slow, beautiful movement. Elaine's mother was about to die, and she's concentrating on getting through the ballet, which was very difficult. In the middle of nowhere, this beetle crawls right in front of the music. What would you do? Would you try to scoot it away? If it lands on the pianist, she'll start screaming. If it goes in the piano, it will mess up the piano. No matter what you do, you're screwed. Plus we're in the pit with the orchestra, so we're in view of the audience at all times. I'm sitting there, wondering what to do, and thank God, it just crawled over the top of the music and disappeared. About a week later, I had lunch with Elaine, and said, "By the way, what did you think of the beetle?" She said, "What beetle?" She was so focused on the performance and her mother that she didn't even see the thing.
You wrote the theme song for the TV show "The Soup." How did that come about?
Yeah, "The Soup" uses one of my pieces. I have a publisher, and his job is to get my stuff on television. "Chelsea Lately" uses some stuff. A lot of my stuff is in the "Boardwalk Empire" library. They haven't used it yet, but they're supposed to.
For more information on Joe and his music, visit www.joegianono.com.
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