We’ve Just Lost Another Musical Icon and Beautiful Human Being.
As we all know too well, recent years have been brutally cruel across the board when it comes to loss. Of course the onset of the COVID pandemic has much to do with that and, as despite our best efforts we cannot seem to get it under control, it seems that escalation will only continue.
The music industry has been hit particularly hard by both COVID and non-COVID related loss. Everyone is very well aware of those from the more popular genres: like Tom Petty, George Michael, Prince, Lil’ Peep, Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Nipsey Hussle, Aretha, Little Richard, Charlie Daniels, Neal Peart, Kenny Rogers and sweet Avicii. Just to name a few.
The more obscure world of Jazz has also taken a severe beating in terms of loss. Names that might be unfamiliar to anyone but Jazz fans like Ellis Marsalis, PeeWee Ellis, Chick Corea, George Wein, Bucky Pizzarelli, McCoy Tyner, Freddy Cole, Tony Monte, Jimmy Heath, the legendary engineer and charismatic owner of the iconic NOLA Studios in Midtown Manhattan Jim Czak and so many more including, just this week, Pianist, composer and musical director Mike Renzi.
Granted, many of the aforementioned Jazz folks were not young. But several were friends and / or collaborators of mine at some point. “This is what tends to happen when your friends are thirty and forty years older than you are,” cooed a friend to me a few days ago in a moment of consolation. Fair enough, but that doesn’t really lighten the load of sad.
Here, I’m focusing on Renzi. Our latest loss and one of the most gifted human beings to ever take a seat at a piano — and one of the nicest and most upbeat people you could find in an industry not particularly known for such things. Not just a pianist, however, an extraordinary composer and one of the steadiest hands ever at one of the most notoriously unsteady tasks in all of music: Musical Director. Artists that relied on him over the years included Lena Horne, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Liza Minnelli, Maureen McGovern, Jack Jones and…well, me. And many more.
He served nine seasons as musical director on Sesame Street, did arrangements for an episode or two of Blue’s Clues, and arranged and composed for additional television and film projects over the years.
But it was his work on stage and in studio slaying Jazz tracks new and old while watching the backs and assuaging the nerves of the singers he was supporting for which he was best known. I am not certain there has ever been anyone better in this role than Mike Renzi, and I am not sure there ever will be.
“He is truly one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever met, and I can’t tell you how inspiring it is for me to sing with him” said Peggy Lee, as Jazz Times reported in their obituary. I’m pretty sure most everyone who worked with him felt the same. I know I sure did.
I do not know whether it was COVID or something else that took Mike, I just know he is gone, and that I am entirely gutted. When I worked with him I felt safe. Just feeling him play made me stronger. Made me sing better. Especially when it came to ballads. The gentleness and nuance of his playing directly impacted my voice and the way it worked in the studio. It was uncanny. Magic.
Renzi-dotes abound in the Jazz world. Before I leave you, I’ll share a few of my own:
One day during the making of my last record I was supposed to do a duet with another singer and it just didn’t gel. So Renzi, who did actually sing but I had no idea at the time, and was both directing the session and playing piano, says “Lemme give it a whirl”…and we all kind of shrugged like “OK, then!”….and he killed it!
The aforementioned last record of mine was called #LEGENDS because everyone on it was in fact a legend. I’m talking people like Bucky Pizzarelli, Dennis Mackrel, Harry Allen, Warren Vache, Freddy Cole. One of Frank Sinatra’s favorite arrangers Marion Evans (2 Grammys and 65 Gold records, man!) did some of the charts. Jim Czak was at the board, and of course Renzi. Shortly after the album came out, he headed out on the first tour that Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga did together — the Cheek To Cheek tour. So when they came through Atlanta, where I was living at the time and where Freddy Cole lived, we decided to get a posse together including Mr. and Mrs. Marion Evans to check out the show at an area amphitheater.
I happened to send a note to Renzi that we were going to be coming through and suggested getting a drink together after the show. I didn’t hear back, and just figured he had his hands full — Tony is plenty of a handful alone. Adding Gaga to the mix (though she has a stellar reputation for being a very kind soul and very respectful with musicians) was certainly keeping him on his toes, I imagined. Midway through the show Tony asks the band to take a minute. He steps up to the mic, Gaga looking on, and says something (I can’t recall the exact words) to the effect of, “Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to make you aware of the fact that we are honored this evening. For with us, in the audience, sits a living legend for whom I have the utmost respect. I know you’re out there, Freddy Cole, would you please stand up so we may see your smiling face?”
Renzi had told him.
The crowd went wild. The band rose and clapped. Gaga grinned a giant grin. Freddy’s eyes moistened. My head nearly exploded. That was Mike Renzi for you. Rest in peace, my dear friend. No bad chords!