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dragon lady records
:: joe piscatelle ::

Joe Piscatelle

Elegy for Joe by Bett Butler (reprinted from the San Antonio Current )

Earlier in my jazz career, singing in front of a trio of formidable players, I was appropriately intimidated. One night, Joe Piscatelle sat at a front row table. On the break, he read me the riot act.

“What the hell kind of half-assed thing are you doing up there?” he said in that gruff, Cagney-esque voice. “When you sing, you need to take command.”

“But I’m not the leader.”

He dismissed my protest with a wave of his ever-present cigarette. “You’re the damn singer; deliver the damn song. You owe it to the music. You owe it to the audience. They didn’t come here to watch you sleepwalk.”

He was right, of course. That authority, born of passion, is one of the characteristics that set the truly great players apart; and Joe was one of the best. His playing was in-your-face, impossible to ignore, with melody lines that sang like Caruso and harmonies that took you to wild and unexpected places. And he was always in command. Everyone who played with him would say the same thing: When you play with Joe, there’s no question who’s driving.

He seemed to remember every tune ever written--at least, every tune worth remembering. Music lived and breathed in him; playing was as natural as talking. If he walked into a house with a piano, he immediately sat down and started playing. It wasn’t a bid for attention; it was simply his way of joining the conversation.

Uncompromising, cantankerous, and stubborn, he was a willing and generous mentor to those who shared his passion. “These young players are always wanting lessons from me,” he would complain. “Hell, they should pay to hang out with me. They’ll learn everything they need to know.” Joe liked those sweet drinks with a caffeine kick, and what riches could be bought for the price of a Bailey’s and coffee during the break: head-scratching jazz theory, mind-blowing alternate chord changes, obscure lyrics for which you’d been searching for years jotted down on a cocktail napkin. It would buy the real lowdown on the diva he’d accompanied in Los Angeles whose name is a household word, or anecdotes of poker games with Chet Baker on the train through Europe in the wee hours of the morning.

I know it sounds corny, but I’d like to imagine Joe on some heavenly train with all the great jazz players who’ve gone before. Perhaps he’ll wander into the club car in his Armani suit, sit at the grand piano with his Bailey’s and coffee, and begin one of his fabulous, open-ended Gershwin or Cole Porter medleys, chain-smoking like a film noir detective. Perhaps he’ll be joined by Dizzy or Bird, who he used to hear on the radio from Birdland when he was growing up on the east coast. Perhaps when he takes a break, he’ll join Chet Baker for another hand of poker.

Hell, no. Knowing Joe, he’ll probably be driving the damn train.

A Tribute  (written and presented by Beverly Prado at Joe's memorial service)

Joe: sometimes mysterious and distant; a man of few words, often a man of contradictions. Small in stature, yet towering. He was rough; he was gentle. He was intimidating, then sensitive. Most of all he, was a man who was passionate about his muse, his jazz mistress, his music. Joe was a complex man. What was below those piano keys?

Joe loved the rain. He thought it was a cleansing part of nature; felt comforted when he watched the rain, awed by its power.

“How can someone not like the rain?” he’d say.

He was a man of many appetites: enjoyed a good meal and a not so good meal, enjoyed a glass of wine and a good cup of coffee, enjoyed the temptations of life and his art. He was an experimenter. But that’s jazz after all, isn’t it?
Joe was a man who was fascinated with machinery: cars in particular. A genius, jazz pianist/car mechanic, he kept his automobiles in good condition even when his life was not. He was sometimes standoff-ish with people, often because he was shy. He hid behind a gruff exterior.

He played cards. Admired teachers, but said he was not one himself. Some learned valuable musical lessons from him that linger today.

Behind the complexity, Joe was a simple guy. He couldn’t understand why the world was not a peaceful place. He didn’t understand why he sometimes didn’t get paid right after the gig that night. After he suffered a stroke in March, he thought that if he stopped smoking and took an aspirin a day that his body would heal, but he did neither.

But Joe mostly WAS his music. He told me once, “That’s all I know how to do. When it calls me, I have no choice. I can’t help it.” And he was right, for he was a musician every minute of his life. Music was his first, his last and only real love.

So, let’s talk about love, a recurring theme in Joe’s favorite music. Joe wasn’t a particularly handsome man: wouldn’t be hanged for his good looks as the saying goes, but as a friend would often say, “something happens to him when he sits down to play. He becomes transformed, and I think I’m falling in love with him.” And fall in love with him we did. We all did, every time.

Joe’s last engagement was at Carmen’s De La Calle Café. He wasn’t feeling well that day It was hot. He ambled through one of his famous medleys and then played what may have been one of the last tunes he ever
performed, “Night and Day” by Cole Porter.

Night and day, deep in the hide of me
There’s an oh, such a yearning, burning inside of me
And this torment won’t be through
‘Til you let me spend my life, making love to you
Day and night, night and day.

And so we have been given a loving, lasting present. Joe did not come in fancy packaging. He bore none of the frills and ribbons we associate with the material part of life. His gift to us is what came from his talent, his mind, his heart and those magical fingers. What good fortune for HIM: all of you here to pay tribute to him. By the way, he probably wouldn’t have stayed for the whole service and would have been embarrassed by all the to-do.

“I can’t help it.” he used to say.

What good fortune for US!

After his passing, Joe gave a gift to the Legacy of Life group, who gratefully accepted the bones in his arms (fitting, isn’t it?) and legs as a donation to others and for research. Fifty to 75 patients may be helped by his donation. He is going home to Connecticut now. His relatives there―the families of Ray Piscatelle and Adele Nero―wish to thank all of you for the kindness you are showing to his memory.

Our service ends with Joe himself, playing “I’m On My Way” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.
—August, 2004

A Tribute to Joe
by Joël Dilley
performed by Bett Butler on her album Myths & Fables (2007 Dragon Lady Records)


Jazz desde Laredo
Joe Guerra feauring Joe Piscatelle
$12 (plus shipping & applicable sales tax)

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  :: Bye, Bye Blackbird :: Donna Lee :: So What :: Corcovado :: Killer Joe :: Au Privave :: Tenderly :: Scrapple from the Apple :: Birkes' Works :: When Sunny Gets Blue ::

Jazz desde Laredo
Joe Guerra feauring Joe Piscatelle
$12 (plus shipping & applicable sales tax)

At the turn of the twentieth century, solid South Texas drummer Joe Guerra brought the best jazz players in the region to play every Wednesday night at the popular 907 Zaragoza, a posh club in a historic border mansion located literally on the last street in Texas. A frequent guest pianist was the late great virtuoso Joe Piscatelle, who lived and breathed straight-ahead jazz and played with Chet Baker and other legends. For this 2001 release, Guerra brought him into the studio for a rare series of sessions with bassist Joël Dilley and trumpet player Cecil Carter. Also featured are Ric Cortez on guitar, Mike Berglund on trumpet, and Bill Holman on sax.

Featuring Mike Berglund, trumpet, flugelhorn; Cecil Carter, piano, trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn; Ric Cortez, guitar; Joël Dilley, bass; Bill Holman, saxophones; Joe Piscatelle, piano.