Sometimes life gives you a second chance and so it seems to go with the presence of George Raccio in my life. As Playdate gets ready to do our CD release party this weekend at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, I figured it’d be a good time to reflect a bit about George, who was the teacher presiding over the jazz program at the Educational Center for the Arts, where Wayne Escoffery, Amanda Monaco and I met and began playing together.
My first contact with George came the summer before 5th grade, when I got an acoustic guitar and he was recommended as a teacher by our neighbors the Undercofler (the dad, Jim, was then the director of ECA, and would then move on to higher-profile gigs such as dean of Eastman School of Music and Artistic Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra). George was great as a beginning guitar teacher, but I had a crap guitar, my fingers weren’t well-suited to the instrument (I now realize) and most significantly it was a summer of family chaos and stress, so I never was able to focus enough to gather any momentum. And then the summer ended, so did the lessons, and that was that and for all I knew that was that for my relationship with this nice man.
Fast forward to 9th grade – I had gotten sufficiently into rock music that I’d picked up the guitar again and taught myself some chords, eventually even upgrading to an electric (a Les Paul copy). With this show of enthusiasm, I wound up with lessons again, and George was the one again. This time I was a sponge – not so much for the guitar (I loved it and did admirably well for a hack) but for all the musical knowledge that came along with it. The blues scale? Holy crap, it was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz where things went into color. Chord theory and voice leading and diatonic harmony and scales and modes and my cup runneth over. What George didn’t know, of course, was that I was taking all of this stuff and applying it to the piano, which I sorta could play. Meanwhile, he dubbed me (on cassette) a couple albums that he though might be relevant to stuff we were working on – Bill Evans’ Portrait In Jazz and Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. I was still a rock-head, but this stuff was starting to open up some new neurological pathways.
After a year and a half of lessons I auditioned for ECA – I prepared a not-terrible chord solo on “All The Things You Are” and played a classical piano piece (a flashy Toccata by Khachaturian), which was the first time George heard this enthusiastic but not very talented student play an instrument with some facility. So began the next phase of my second chance to work with George. I met some great people for sure (including Amanda and Wayne and lots of other musicians and other artists), and the playing opportunities were enlightening. But man, George’s ability to explain and teach was really at the root of all my growth. He was also very serious. I’ve told this story before (sorry if you’ve heard it) but I remember the semester we worked on the tunes from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and George asked me to transcribe Bill Evans’ intro to “So What.” It was kind of hard, so I didn’t really do it, and George never said anything, so I figured I’d gotten out of it . . . until I got my report card and there it was in the comments explaining my reduced grade. That was a watershed moment for me, realizing that even if in most contexts I could get away with less than complete effort, cheating the music was not a good move.
After I left for college, I kept in touch with George, but not often. His presence as a teacher was with me always, particularly in my first couple years at Rutgers when I realized that it was unusual to be my age with such a solid background in theory and ear-training, stuff that George made seem so simple, nearly self-evident. One day I heard through the grapevine that George’s wife had fallen ill – as it turned out, she had cancer and died quickly, which was unsurprisingly a gut-wrenching experience for George and their daughter. I find that I’m getting the chills even writing about it, but given George’s strength of character it’s also unsurprising that there were a couple other second chances up his sleeve.
Fast forward a few years, and (among other things) we find George happily remarried (and his wife, Paula, is fabulous) and successfully transitioned to his dream gig as owner of a community-based music store and teaching studio. In that context we got our niece her first guitar and lessons, and then when we suddenly became parents in 2004, there was no better person to whom to bring Rebecca. George’s great teaching and endless patience were a given by this point, and his own experience didn’t hurt either – long before I ever knew I’d be in that position myself, George was the first foster parent I’d ever known. So Rebecca’s second chance wound up being the vehicle for me to reconnect with George again, and on another level. I’ll even have the pleasure of playing at his now-grown daughter’s wedding in June 🙂
I tip my cap to you, George, and thanks for everything! Everyone should be so blessed as to have a George.