Coda: Across Oceans and Time
|Photo by Claudia Fantini|
Finding my family's roots has been an important piece of my life's puzzle. As I grew up, there was always an air of mystery surrounding my paternal grandparents because my father was orphaned as a boy, a dozen years after his parents emigrated to this country from Italy.
When I was young, I asked my father where in Italy his parents had lived, but he was always a little vague on the details. All I knew was that my grandparents, Tomasso and Teresa Moretti, were born in Italy, and that they came to America, arriving in Providence, Rhode Island, sometime in the early 1900s. My dad was born in Providence in 1915. His mother Teresa died when he was only two. Because it was difficult for many immigrants to find work, Tomasso left my dad in the care of neighbors while he sought work as a coal miner in Pennsylvania.
Those must have been tough years for my father. When he was about nine years old, his father, Tomasso, returned to Providence to bring him to Pennsylvania. Sadly, Tomasso died three years later. At 12, my father ran away and lived on his own for the next 13 years, traveling the country, doing whatever it took to survive. At 25, he returned to Rhode Island where he met my mother who, coincidentally, was related to those neighbors who had cared for him after his mother's death. He had lost contact with the family for 15 or so years. Consequently, he never learned much about his father's history. Shortly before my father died in 2000, I asked him again about his parents' life before they came to America. All he knew was that they might have come from a town near Naples, Italy, a place he thought was called "Monticello."
I have pursued the life of an active musician for the past four decades. I've toured and recorded in various places, but never in Italy. The urge to go there and find my family's roots has remained in the back of my mind. About six years ago, I met Gianni Blasi, who would prove to be the link to my Italian roots.
Blasi holds a doctorate in English literature, plays drums, and is an avid jazz fan. I met him at one of my gigs in Providence while he was visiting from Italy. I immediately wanted to find out if he had any connections that could bring me to Italy to play. Nothing came of it until the summer of 2001, when I ran into him again and we had a long chat. He was curious about my grandfather but told me he didn't know of a town called Monticello. We also discussed the possibilities of my coming to Italy for clinics and to work with town concert bands and local gospel choirs.
All of the pieces fell into place last year when pianist Al Copley (Roomful of Blues founder) asked me to play the week of New Year's Eve with him at a famous club, called Marians in Berne, Switzerland. Italy and Switzerland share a border, so I contacted Gianni to see if we could get together in Italy after my gigs.
Acting on his hunch that I had the town's name wrong, Gianni spoke with a trombone-playing friend in Esperia, Italy, which is near a small medieval town called Monticelli. With a bit of digging, they found records for my grandfather Tomasso Moretti. With help from the Ellis Island website, they learned where in Monticelli Tomasso had lived, that he left in 1907, and that he came back in 1913 to bring his wife, Teresa, to America. This information was consistent with my father's birth in 1915. Tomasso and Teresa had gone to Ellis Island, New York, and then made their way to Providence. It was ironic that this all came to light the year after my father passed away.
I landed in Rome on January 2, 2002, and Gianni picked me up at the airport. The next morning we made the half-hour drive to Monticelli. I wasn't expecting the greeting I received when I arrived there. The town band and the town officials had come out to meet me and extend their official welcome to Monticelli. There was even a dinner in my honor. The press and the townspeople were buzzing with the story of the return of an American jazz musician to his grandfather's hometown after nearly a century. The next two weeks were incredible, filled with great experiences of meeting people and giving clinics and concerts. My newfound friends invited me to return that summer.
This past July, I went back to Italy for clinics and concerts in a number of small towns and villages. Gianni had arranged for me to work on a jazz workshop series, coach and play with gospel choirs, and appear as a featured guest with Chicago blues legend Carl Weathersby at a blues festival in the Isola town square before a crowd of 4,000. I also played with and conducted the concert band in an ancient walled town called Alatri. For an encore, someone in the crowd requested George Gershwin's "Summertime" as a saxophone solo. As I played, you could have heard a pin drop. It was an amazing feeling.
I felt that I was getting in touch with my roots. A particularly poignant moment for me came when I played in Monticelli, the birthplace of my grandparents. A local band director organized a concert with a big band and a rhythm section from Rome. Playing jazz with musicians from another culture reinforced my conviction that jazz is a universal language. As we played atop a hill overlooking Monticelli with a medieval castle looming above us, it occurred to me that there might be people in the audience with whom I share bloodlines.
On my last day in Italy, I was booked to play with a quartet at a private get together at a club in Ceprano. There, I met a man named Gianni Perilli who makes and plays an ancient Italian double-reed instrument called the ciaramella. Perilli and his father are largely responsible for the resurgence of these instruments and the performance of traditional Italian music associated with the ciaramella and the zampogna, which is the Italian version of the bagpipes. The music is very modal and sounds like a blend of Celtic and Middle Eastern sounds.
Perilli sat in with the quartet that night, and we jammed on a melody he played. It was mainly aeolian but had some semitones added. I made an attempt at quarter-tone playing on the saxophone to imitate him. It was great fun and led to the idea of us making a recording together. We discussed recording in an ancient church and combining Italian instruments, a rhythm section, percussion, and church organ.
Since I left Italy, I have thought about how people and places have mixed through time, greatly adding to the texture and color of their culture. The experiences I had in the south of Italy resonated emotionally as well as musically within me. As a jazz musician, I'm interested in seeing what happens next.