"I feel like music died in my hands and that my hands are not able to play anymore".
This is what he answered me when I asked him if he was still playing. Billy Colucci is an Italian-American pianist, born in Philadelphia in 1939 by Italian parents. He currently lives in Baltimore and that's why I had the pleasure to share some time with him. And I will be forever grateful to my friend Tony who insisted so much I had to listen to Billy's playing!
During my 6 days I was in Baltimore doing my "Last Thing in America", I used to practice every noon, of course :) One day, Billy came downstairs and spent some time listening to me. What an honor for me! I had already heard good things about him and his talent.
At some point, he started to tell me about his life.
His father died when he was still young. His dad had to fight against mafia because he had an upholstery shop and didn't want to buy products from them. That's why they burn it 3 times. He told me a story about his neighborhood. "I will never forget when, I was a child, sitting outside on the stairs and suddenyl a car stopped, somebody opened the window and start to shoot a man, who died right away, in front of me. My mom came, bring me inside the house and said: YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT, OK? I said ok, mom, but I could never forget that moment. I was under shock".
He was telling me also that when he was young, people used to go to listen to live music. "It was the best time for music and musicians, everybody wanted to go to a concert and listen to great artists". I said: "Billy, I wanna listen to your playing". And his answer was: "I don't play anymore, but if you really want to, I will do an exception".
And that happened the very same day I left to fly back to Italy. At Bertha's Mussels, one of the most famous restaurants in Baltimore (I love its food and the people around!!!). It was a Sunday morning, at 10:15, I went to Bertha's and upstairs where Billy was waiting for me. I was expecting to see him already at the piano. No, he wasn't. He was sitting on a chair, the vertical piano was behind him and when I came in, after I said hello, he asked me right away: "You didn't bring the guitar!?!". I was like "mmm, no, really, I didn't know I was supposed to bring my guitar". He understood my embarassment and said "Don't worry, sit down please and I will play some tunes for you".
We were there alone. In a small room. And an American pianist, who used to play during the intermission at Dizzy Gillespie's concerts and played with jazz guitarist Pat Martino for years when they were kids, living in the same neighborhood in Philly, was going to play only for me. Once in a while, a waiter, coming in for some service to do, would stop for a few minutes, like "Wow, is this really happening here?"
For some reasons I already knew that something special was going to happen in that room. So, before he started to play, I asked him if I could audio record it and, with no problem, he gave me the permission to do so.
"The Angel" was the first tune he played. Written for his mother, that music made me cry. I mean, I was literally crying with tears. Probably it was also the right soundtrack for my mood and my feelings, being there for "The last thing in America". Then he played a song for his father, for a girl he loved so much, then "Song for Laura" (what an amazing story!!!) and so on, about 45 minutes of music, sharing with me the stories behind every piece he composed, which was the most touching part of that magic morning at Bertha's in Baltimore.
I was already thinking about sharing this story with you and write about it on my blog, so I aksed him if he would play again his beautiful "The Angel" and let me make a video recording.
Here it is: Billy Colucci plays "The Angel", live in Baltimore, at Bertha's Mussels, Sunday September 25th, 2017. Video by Flavio Sala.
"Flavio, I have not played the piano since my last concert and do you know when that was? Last December. I was so worried I had to play for you and I was not sure I could do it, if my hands and my arms, but..."
Billy, your playing and your music are just beautiful, it completely moved me and I will never forget this meeting.
The last thing he told me was..."I'd like to play with you"...Billy, this will happen!
Whenever Billy puts his fingers on the piano, his expression changes. It is as the music gave him an extraordinary power, a pride on the face that, once the piano is closed, it turns out to be the daily face of one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met on my way.
On the way back, coming out of the restaurant to go home, Billy tells me a very strong one: "Even if I could buy a lion, an elephant, a boat, a villa, what could I do with that? Flavio, at the end of my life, the only thing I love is to play for those who have the joy of listening to it - nothing more than that."
Then the greetings. I wanted to hug him to show him gratitude and I tried in vain to do it.
THANK YOU, Billy, for your music, your stories. And your wisdom.