We Cape Codders are lucky indeed. Yes, there’s the Atlantic Ocean, fresh seafood and tubby tourists in Speedos. But there is also Mike Persico, trombonist and singer extraordinaire, sure to be gigging somewhere on our fair peninsula.
“I’ve been a featured performer in many different groups my whole life,” Persico says, “but basically I’m a sideman. Last March, I put together a sextet for a Louis Armstrong tribute at a school fundraiser. It was so successful that I decided to form a permanent small group so I could play the tunes I love.”
Speaking of Pops, Mike has become close to Armstrong’s dear friend, Jack Bradley, who also lives on Cape Cod. “Jack is a great gentleman, a chronicler of jazz, a master photographer. I go to Jack’s house to help him with the Herculean task of organizing his files, photos, films and books that he did not give to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. This is one of the greatest jobs I have-I learn so much every time I see him. Jack is truly a national treasure and I’m so lucky to call him my friend.”
I have a hunch that Pops would have dug the deep trombone sound of Mike Persico. To these ears, Mike’s bone tone is rich, burnished-like dark-brown oak-and he always swings. “On Christmas Day 1973 I received a brand new King 3B trombone,” he says. “Up to that point I was playing an old, turn of the century Muller that was built like a tank and was just as melodic. With the new horn, which my mother bought from the store I was working at, a whole new world opened up before me. God bless Mom: She went into hock for over a year to get me that horn. I still play it today and have no plans to replace it.”
Cape Cod is still mourning the passing of its godfather of Jazz, trumpeter Lou Colombo. Says Persico, “I’ve performed with a lot of truly outstanding players over the past thirty plus years, and I’ve learned a great deal. But as great as they were, nobody comes close to Lou Colombo. I was fortunate enough to be his second horn for ten years-the best ten years of my life. Lou knew every song, and his sound was pure joy. He could produce the most outstanding sounds, right up to the time he passed away. Just when some thought his age might be catching up with him, Lou would play the most astounding stuff-knocked you out cold!”
Colombo was also renowned for being a superb teacher. What did Persico learn from the master? “Lou taught me the value of playing soft and what it meant to be an entertainer. He made no bones about it-musicians are entertainers. Another great thing is that the more we played together, the tighter we got. I’d harmonize all of the breaks or other riffs he played and the audience loved it-just ate it up. Nothing revolutionary like Pops and King Oliver, but not bad. Lou also loved my singing and encouraged me every chance he got. If he called a tune I didn’t know, I made sure I learned it before the next gig. Working with Lou was like a holiday. God, I miss him.”
A 1980 graduate of the Berklee School of Music, Persico is justly proud of his lengthy teaching career. “By January 1983 I was the Mashpee (Mass.) Middle School Band Director (grades 4-8) and for the next 27 years I enjoyed that position. I moved to grades 7-12 in ’97,” he says. “I taught all instruments, had two concert bands and two jazz bands and a marching band. I also taught piano, music theory and theater. I was blessed with great students who made the time quite enjoyable. We even performed ‘Hail to the Chief’ for then President George H.W. Bush with my junior high band in October 1990. What a time that was!”
Persico’s musical idol is Mr. T-Jack Teagarden. “What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before? Before I heard Jack play, I thought I had heard everyone–J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Frank Rossilino-and that’s what the t-bone was supposed to sound like. But in my sophomore year of college, my good friend Phil Person introduced me to the music of Louis Armstrong. I was knocked out by Pops, but his trombone player was like no one I’d ever heard. The song was ‘Pennies from Heaven’ from the 1947 Town Hall Concert. I decided right there and then that this was the greatest jazz trombonist of them all. (Teagarden possesses) such a warm sound and tremendous flexibility; he played so many intricate figures that I first thought it was a valve trombone. I’ve been sold on him ever since. Jack has been a huge influence on both my playing and singing; I’m still finding recordings I never knew he did. No matter how difficult his triplets and other figures were, he made it all sound so easy. Of course, it’s anything but easy. His style, of which I try (and often fail) to emulate is the very definition of relaxed. Jack Teagarden is the greatest trombone player ever-no lie!”
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Persico grew up in Garnerville, about thirty miles north of Manhattan. “It’s a little suburb, nothing really special. It used to be all apple orchards until the end of World War II, when they built the Tappan Zee Bridge, which opened the area up.
“I was always interested in music. I learned a lot of the songs I play now after hearing them on Bugs Bunny cartoons. While both my mom and dad encouraged my music, it was Mom who gave me the most support. She’s a real people person who waitressed for thirty years. I started on accordion, but dropped that after a few lessons and then took up the alto horn in fifth grade. My first music teacher was David Buck, a very droll but knowledgeable musician-always wore a black suit every day-looking like a diamond merchant or one of the Blues Brothers.”
After becoming familiar with the trumpet and then the baritone horn, Mike made the final switch to trombone in high school. “My band director was Bruce Robinson, a man I still remember with fondness and affection. He and his wife were a singing duo in the ’50s and used to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. Mr. Robinson helped instill in me a love of music and entertainment that I carry still.”
A few years later Persico began advanced studies with Bob Nash, “who wrote commercials in New York City for radio and television. Bob had his own studio in the city where I met a lot of great players like Thad Jones and Jon Faddis. I was only a kid, but I knew I was lucky. I was resolved at this point to become a professional musician. I was playing in a local big band and doing gigs by the time I was 15. Too bad I was born 70 years too late!”
Every artist needs a muse, and Persico is no exception. “I’ve been fortunate to have a partner who always supports my efforts,” he says. “My wife Jane is my biggest fan; her encouragement has pulled me through good times and bad. Her father was a huge jazz fan so she’s familiar with a lot of the songs I do.”
So what’s up ahead for Mike Persico? His new group “started rehearsing a few weeks ago and I’m using younger guys. To them, all of these tunes are new, so there is freshness to our music. For piano, I’ve hired a former student of mine, Ben Healy, who is simply amazing. I’m putting together a demo in the studio this December with an album planned to record in early ’14 with some of my favorite players like Phil Person on trumpet; Paul Nossiter on clarinet; and Laird Boles on bass. My drummer, Kareem Sanjaghi, is a blessing. Only 25 years old, he’s been playing professionally for over 10 years thanks to his grandfather, (pianist) Bob Hayes. The first time I played with Kareem his feet barely reached the bass drum pedal. He’s come a long way and I see great things in his future. He plays with such soul.
“Hey,” says Persico, “that’s what jazz is all about: soul, mood and emotion. So I keep rolling along, enjoying every moment I can.”