Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Angelo Briandi, jazz wannabe

Andrea Scrima has an interesting piece at 3 Quarks Daily: Italian Americans, Gender Trouble, and The Sopranos. From the second paragraph:

In an attempt to understand my relationship to the Italian-American identity, I recently began watching episodes of The Sopranos, which I avoided when it first aired twenty-five years ago. I was on a nine-month stay in New York at the time, living in a loft on the Brooklyn waterfront, and I remember the ads in the subways—the actors’ grim demeanors; the letter r in the name “Sopranos” drawn as a downwards-pointing gun. I’ve always been bored by the mobster clichés, by the romanticization of organized crime: as an entertainment genre, it’s relentlessly repetitive, relies on a repertoire of predictable tropes, and it has cemented the image of Italian Americans we all, to one degree or another, carry around with us. But the charisma of Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, exerts an irresistible pull: I jettison my critical abilities and find myself binge-watching several seasons, regressing for weeks at a time, losing touch with what I was hoping to find.

This gives way to a specific memory:

When I was in high school, I babysat for a family who spoke just like the Sopranos, whose house looked a lot like the Sopranos’s, only smaller. They were all seriously overweight. The father would drive me home at night in his enormous Cadillac, and even though he himself was enormous, to my great relief a considerable distance still separated us on the front seat. When he paid me, the dollar bills smelled of his aftershave. I’m not sure if they were involved with the mob; they shared a surname with a politician who was charged with racketeering and went to prison a few years later, but I don’t know if they were family.

There are more memories, but most of the article is a perceptive analysis of various characters in the series, leading to a harsh verdict: "For the most part, the men in The Sopranos are petty criminals desperate to prove themselves...." That led me to thinking about the only mobster I ever met. Here's the comment I posted about him. 

* * * * *

Hmmm....Danish Americans don't have much of a public image in America, though there is a fairly well-established genre of movies and streaming video devoted to the raping and pillaging our Viking ancestors did over a millennium ago. These days, however, what is there? Perhaps distant memories of Victor Borge and some residual awareness of a strange restaurant in Copenhagen, Noma, where rumor has it that they serve ferns and grass.

However, I did once hang out a bit with an Italian-America who was probably a minor figure in the local mob. It was in Buffalo, NY in the mid 1970s. I played in a Saturday afternoon jam session at the home of Mike Fuda, a physics professor at SUNY Buffalo, where I was getting a PhD in English. Mike played drums. Other musicians included Ed Wood on bass, a tenor player named, I believe, Sammy Caveleri (or Calcatera, I forget exactly), and his friend, Angelo Briandi, on trumpet. I also played trumpet. We played a lot of bebop. Sammy was excellent – he'd been a full-time pro at one time – while Angelo was not so good. He played the heads (melodies) very well. He didn't just play the notes, he played the music. But he couldn’t improvise and didn't try to.

Sammy had done some time in prison on a drug charge. But he'd been out for some time and was working as a laborer in a flour mill. Angelo is the one we suspected of being in the mob. He drove a late model Cadillac, had no visible source of income, and had good weed. One afternoon after Sammy and Angelo had left, Mike pulled out a newspaper clipping of an article that was about some local mob figure and Angelo was mentioned in the article.

I'm thinking there's an interesting story in the two of them. They were obviously friends. From childhood? Possibly, but I don't know. Was Sammy in the mob when he got picked up on drug changes? Don't know, but I don't see any particular reason to think so. He was old enough that he could easily have been swept up in the heroin plague that went through the jazz world in the quarter-century after WWII. 

FWIW, there are a number of fairly well-known Italian-American jazz musicians from upstate New York: Sam Noto on trumpet, J. R. Monterose on tenor sax, and Nick Brignola on baritone sax come to mind. More generally, Italian-Americans are fairly well-represented in jazz, e.g. Louis Bellson, Tony Bennett, Chris Botti, Conte and Pete Condoli, Chick Corea, Buddy DeFranco – that's only up though the Ds in this list. Oh hell, I've already put Tony Bennett on the list some I might as well include Frank Sinatra as well. While he's known primarily as a pop vocalist (and movie star), he got started in the days when the boundary between jazz and pop was flexible and permeable, singing with the big bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. Much later he did a gig at the Sands in Las Vegas where he was backed by Count Basie, with arrangements by Quincy Delight Jones, Jr.

The interesting thing is that Angelo would show up at a jazz jam session even though he couldn't improvise. He would play the melodies, difficult up-tempo bebop melodies, with skill and finesse, which is difficult to do. That's evidence of real musical craftsmanship, but that's as far as he took it. He didn't improvise at all, which, after all, was the reason for having jam session. I found that disparity a bit unusual and therefore quite striking. In my experience musicians who could run down those bebop melodies could also improvise over them.

That's where the story is, in that disparity. Angelo was clearly a wanna'-be jazz musician but, unlike his good friend, couldn't quite make it. A petty criminal desperate to prove himself? At least he could hang with Sammy Caveleri.


  1. 'dollar bills smelled of his aftershave'

    My uncle was the Clark of Court in the Glasgow criminal court, among his many roles he handled the evidence, he was also a fantastic story- teller in regard to court gossip/ cases.

    The signature scent of the illicit cash betraying the identity of the criminals, was one he used.

  2. 'pecunia non olet'

    As they say in Rome.