One of my earliest memories is being with my mother and two brothers driving to a performance my dad, Pete Selvaggio, was doing. When we got there, I just remember meeting this older musician and not understanding who this person was or any of the historical significance of that. At the time, my dad was finishing up being out on the road with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, and I believe this was one of the last gigs he was doing with the band before Guy Lombardo passed. It’s pretty cool now to look back at that and see how my dad was part of something that was part of the history of this music I’ve ended up dedicating my life to.
I grew up going out to hear my dad play quite a bit; whether it was with groups or him playing solo piano. I met, through my dad, all of the great Cleveland Jazz musicians way back before I even considered becoming a musician. I look back now and understand all that music I heard was in my head, even if I wasn’t playing it at that point. I wanted to be a baseball player when I was young. I was actually pretty good and was considering playing professionally, at some point. I did pick up a saxophone for fifth grade band when it was that time to start playing because, of course, my parents wanted us to play music in some way. My brother Freddy, the middle of the three of us, was playing drums already at the time and so I was hearing that in the house. I remember when I played the saxophone (to see what instrument I was going to play) the person in the booth (who I couldn’t even remember to tell you who it was) made a comment about how natural the instrument sounded from me. Again, I didn’t really take notice of that at the time. I just said, "Cool, let’s play this instrument."
So, I went through middle school and high school playing in all the bands, including jazz band, without any real serious interest. Even when I got into high school, into my second and third year in particular, and stopped playing baseball because of all the music things I was doing, I still didn’t really take it overly serious. At that point, I started to understand that playing this instrument came pretty easy to me, at the time, and I didn’t understand what it meant to really play yet. That came in college at Kent State where I went for my undergrad studies in music. Other than my father, I’ve had two main mentors from Northeast Ohio that I still get to see and hang out with today.
The first is John Klayman, who was my first jazz saxophone teacher. I look back now and understand how important it was how John taught me. This has really affected me all the way up through today, as a teacher. He taught me all the fundamental things, of course, but he never said I had to do it this way, or one way only. He let me pick the things I wanted to work on and never challenged me to play differently, when I wanted to play the way I wanted to play. That was significant. My other mentor is Chas Baker. When I started my undergrad at Kent State, Chas was the jazz teacher at Kent. Not only is he one of the great musicians I have known, but he was very similar to John in that he never told me how to play; he just told me how to get to that point. And he showed me the way by introducing me to a record that really showed me what it meant to go all-in as a jazz musician. That record was Cannonball Adderley’s Radio Nights. This is a live record that Cannonball did that’s a little later period for him. It’s basically the end of the modern/chromatic jazz era of Cannonball before he got into the wonderful stage of the Mercy Mercy Mercy stuff. As I listened, I wore that record out; playing along with it, trying to understand what he was doing. I started understanding that this was real serious music. And if I wanted to play like this, I needed to rethink my dedication to jazz. So I did, going "all in", practicing multiple hours everyday, trying to soak up as many sounds as possible, and figuring out how to play them. This led me to start my first gigs while I was still at Kent with various wedding band groups and in particular, a very significant band I played with, the Jazz Revival Orchestra. This was the first important band I played with because it was a professional jazz big band. We played a lot of various things, but mostly we played a lot of Thad Jones music, which was another significant step for me; hearing that music and wanting to understand it and play it at as high a level as I could. That was another experience that made me understand I wanted to go "all in" and be a professional jazz musician. As I finished up at Kent, having met my now wife of 25 years and getting engaged, I left for New York City to pursue a master’s in jazz performance.
I love Northeast Ohio and I love making this my home today. But, it took me going to New York City to really understand the attitude of playing jazz music, holistically speaking. What I mean by that is not just playing it, but every other aspect of it; like composing, putting projects together, and all the other entrepreneurial aspects of being a musician, and the attitude that it takes to make all that happen on your own; not relying on anybody else. This is important to understand. Of course, we want friends and fellow musicians that we can be close with, and work with, and hang with, but the reality of it is musicians need to get to a point of taking on a personal responsibility of moving themselves forward. If help happens along the way, that’s great and take advantage of it. But nothing’s going to happen for you unless you take the responsibility unto yourself to move forward. And there’s a certain understanding and attitude involved in that. That’s the most important thing I got out of New York City. I’ve met some lifelong friends at Manhattan School of Music and I was able to start performing with significant musicians that were known nationally and internationally. Two more specific mentors were teachers of mine at Manhattan School: Dick Oatts and Bobby Watson. The interesting thing is both of them taught in much the same way as my original teachers back home. This is the history of the music and the fundamentals, but always make sure you’re looking for your own voice. I look back now and understand how important and significant having teachers like this was for me to be the player and person I am today. Another cool thing, and what I consider to be my first big gig, was performing with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the Village Vanguard in New York City. I subbed on a couple of rehearsals with them through my teacher Dick Oatts, and that led me to performing with them a bunch the year before I left New York. It was pretty amazing to be playing the same Thad Jones charts I did back home, except this time with the band that Thad actually wrote them for. I was hanging on for dear life next to some of the great jazz saxophonists today, including Dick Oatts, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Ralph lalama, and Gary Simoleon. This was another one of those watershed moments for me, musically. It basically helped me understand that all this time I was putting in was important and putting me in positions to be able to play with some of the best jazz musicians around. That was New York City in the 90s. Playing gigs with Ryan Kaiser at Birdland, Steve Wilson and Ingrid Jensen at Smalls, Scott Wendholt and Matt Wilson at Augie’s, and soaking up the sounds of some of the great musicians today like Chris Potter, Brad Mehldau, and Roy Hargrove, around New York. It turned into a calling for myself to do all those things they were doing, like recording music, and touring, and creating projects of new music. That energy and excitement filled me all the way through today; 25 years later.
When my wife Chelsea and I decided to move back to Northeast Ohio, which was always the plan, I came back home and noticed with all the great musicians in town, there wasn’t a whole lot going on where musicians were playing new music and recording and touring. At first, I just put myself back into the scene, playing local gigs like I was before I went to New York. And after a little bit, I started thinking to myself and talking with Chelsea about all the things I missed about New York, musically. And so, since that was what I wanted to do and there was no scene around doing that, I created my own scene with a handful of musicians that I knew would be interested in doing new music and all of those things. This became my biggest watershed moment in life. Through trial and error and discussions with New York musicians, I went through the process of writing new, original music; going into the recording studio and learning that process; figuring out how to put a tour together logistically speaking; how to write letters to jazz record labels and jazz performance venues; and all those entrepreneurial aspects of being a musician. Basically learning on the fly how to do everything I saw my New York peers that I respected doing. I’m humbled by the fact that I have recorded ten CDs as a leader and been on multiple other CDs as a sideman; that I’ve been on countless tours across the country and in other countries performing my original music; and of all these things that I’ve done in the past 20 years with this mindset. I am most proud of the number of musicians I’ve been able to put to work in all these settings. Because that’s what building a scene is about; creating a community of musicians that enjoy making music together and moving everyone forward.
Education has become a very important topic for me. And, although I am the director of jazz studies at Kent State University, I don’t mean just school education. I mean holistically. The mentorship that musicians that are older and have more experience can pass down to the younger musicians on the scene; I mean, that’s basically what John and Chas and others did for me. There’s a good wealth of younger Jazz musicians in Northeast Ohio that have started to do the same things I did when I came back from New York, which is writing your music, doing tours, and recording. And at Kent State, being able to pass down these traditions to younger musicians, I’m getting them to understand what it takes and means to be a musician. Now, it’s become a kind of balancing act between being a musician and being an educator. In some regards, it’s an easy balancing act because I don’t separate the two, meaning I am a musician first and everything else, including being an educator, comes out of that. The hard part of the balancing act is simply the time. I’m still finding it; meaning time to be a full-time musician, but it isn’t as easy anymore as it used to be. I am getting ready to record my 11th CD for DotTime Records. This will be my first live CD I’ve done and I’m quite excited for that. I’m working on a couple of tours coming up in the spring and summer. I’ve been writing grants for various projects and I’m really excited and anxious to see what comes of that.
I guess this road that I’ve been on has not crumbled enough yet for me to have to get off. I guess it’s always been a little bumpy, in some regards, and it’s just a different kind of bumpy today. But I just enjoy it too much still and I’m still excited for what there is to do yet.