Keyed Into Performers
Every month we sit down and have an informal conversation with a featured pianist. It could be a famous Jazz pianist, an innovative keyboard instructor or an up-and-coming new artist. This week at OnlyPiano.com, we have a conversation with…
by Gary Paul Bryant
Bob Alberti spent a lifetime as a professional pianist, composer and conductor and arranger. With Jazz as his primary love, he always gravitated to the famous clubs on 52nd street in New York. Bob spent 23 years at NBC in California where he was in charge of all the music for the long running Bob Hope television series. While at NBC in the 70's and 80's, he served as an alternate pianist on the Tonight Show with Doc Sevrensen’s Orchestra. He was twice nominated for an Emmy in musical direction.
OnlyPiano: How did you get into Jazz? Why Jazz and not classical music?
Bob Alberti: Oh, okay. I don't know, my ear just lead me there. And when I was a kid, they, family after I guess they discovered I had perfect pitch when I was about five years old, they wanted to get me into studying piano and I basically rebelled. I did not want to play scales, exercises; all the things they usually give to kids. And then, I'd squawk about it and the teachers would bring in these little classical things like Country Gardens and such. And I made such a fuss that they finally said, "Oh, forget it. Do what you want." And I would listen to Jazz on the radio and then I would go over and try to emulate it when I was a little kid. And I just gravitated toward it.
OnlyPiano: Who's been the biggest impact on you in terms of influencing your music?
Bob Alberti: Well, my first big influence was Teddy Wilson. At the time - and this is going back to the 1940's, he had a fifteen minute radio show every night on a station in New York City, WNEW. And I guess I was about thirteen at the time, I picked up the phone at the end of his show and called the station and managed to talk to him and asked if he taught. And he said, "Yes, I give a class at the Metropolitan Music School" and he gave me the address and it was sixty dollars. And I saved up my allowance money and I went over and enrolled in that.
I did not know anything about Jazz other than what I had heard and what I could emulate. By this time, I had learned how to play Teddy Wilson's theme song exactly as he played it so he accepted me into the class. And I was this little peanut of a kid and I was in with a bunch of forty or fifty year old pros who were trying to improve themselves. And I would say he was probably the biggest influence in that six month course- because he gave me the one key that I found to be the most helpful in my entire musical career.
He said, "I've taught you all I can which is a theory" and he said "from now on it's up to you to listen to everybody that you can listen to whether it's a saxophone player or trumpet player, a big band, a piano player. Just keep your ears open. Go everywhere you can and listen." He said, "What you like about each individual you will retain and what you don't like, you'll discard. The composite will eventually become you." That's exactly the way it worked. I think that was a wonderful way to put it.
OnlyPiano: And I understand you've done a book.
Bob Alberti: Yes, I did. And I did an autobiography. It's titled Up the Ladder and Over the Top, The Memoirs of a Hollywood Studio Musician, which is primarily what I was for most of my years.
OnlyPiano: Now, you also worked with Bob Hope and Doc Sevrensen, is that right?
Bob Alberti: I worked up at NBC in Burbank from about 1970 and then I retired in 1993. And I did a number of things. I was with the Bob Hope Show for 23 years originally as a pianist, an arranger and then eventually Les Brown decided he enjoyed playing golf more than going to promotional meetings so he turned the stick over to me. He said "just hire-- use the guys in the band." That's it. But anyway, at least anyway, I got credit for being musical director. And I did that but also at the same time, a lot of other shows were happening at NBC arranging on the Dean Martin Show. I had the band for two seasons on Name That Tune. We did 167 shows. And from I guess 1974 to about 1983. I alternated with Ross Tompkins on the Tonight Show band with Johnny Carson.
OnlyPiano: During that whole time how did you wake up and say "Well, I'm making television musical history here?
Bob Alberti: Well, it felt good because you knew that, it was, kind of, part of the goal made for television. There's a lot of great shows that I worked on that we'll never see again. And I'm sorry about that because it was truly a great venture into the world of humor. There was one point where there were sixteen live variety shows a week on the air. I think I was working on five of them. Five a week during that. I was doing a show at ABC called the Hollywood Palace. I was doing Tom Jones. I started at ABC before I moved to NBC doing the King Family Hour. I was doing Milton Burle and I was also over at NBC as an arranger on Dean Martin. So I was just running from one studio to the other and it's just the way life was. It was my going to the office. Well, let me look at my book and see which show I'm on today. It truly was tremendous fun.
OnlyPiano: And now, you're living in the Southeast. What's happening with you in music today?
Bob Alberti: Well, I'm probably much busier here than I'd like to be, but there's a big shortage of musicians of professional caliber in this area. I planned on retiring down here, only because I like the area very much. And I came here in 1993 with that in mind. Right now, I average about twenty playing days a month. We have a Jazz club here on the island that runs full-time, it's Jazz Corner. And they bring in artists such as Scott Alton, Harry Allen, Warren Buche', Buggy Pitzarreli, people of that nature.
OnlyPiano: What's your advice to young pianists starting out?
Bob Alberti: Well, if I were to teach, which I don't, but if I were and I was at a college, the first thing I would let a young student know is that learning all the theory in the world is not going to give you the tools to get out there and earn a good living. And if I had a piano class, one thing I would do is to give them a list of about 200 songs by those great composers of the 30's and 40's and 50's and insist that they memorize five songs from that list every week. And be able to play them, not only in the original piece but be able to transpose them. Play them in other keys. Because, what they're going to do, they're gonna get out there, there gonna have to backup a vocalist or somebody is going to learn that tune in another key and say “No, I do it in A flat not in B flat,” you'd better be able to transpose it.
OnlyPiano: What’s your favorite album so far.
Bob Alberti: Well, I kind of truly like the quartet album that I did with Harry Allen, who I think is a brilliant young talent. Harry's gonna be with me on a Jazz cruise in February (2005), on the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator. Along with a bassist Ben Tucker and guitarist Joe Cohen, and a young lady, a singer from North Carolina, Yolanda Longin and assorted others. It's gonna be a lot of fun and I look forward to that.
OnlyPiano: Bob thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us.
Bob Alberti: Well, I thank you very much, I appreciate it.
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