My Life In Music

My Life In Music

Question 1: Frank how did you get involved in music?

My grandfather was a violinist and composer who came to America from Italy in 1907 when he was 25 years old. He came from a town in southern Italy called Marsala which is a seaport city located in the Province of Trapani on the island of Sicily. Everybody in my family played a musical instrument so I was exposed to music as a child. Most of the music my grandpa wrote was in traditional sonata allegro form for violin, piano, mandolin, clarinet, and concertina with piano or guitar accompaniment. At that time in Brooklyn there was a large community of Italian immigrants and my grandpa would write all the music for the musicians that would perform at the local Italian festivals. He would usually play violin and my great uncle Phil who was the eldest brother would sing the opening song “C’e La Luna Mezzo Mare”. This song tells the story of a young woman who wants to get married:

My daughter, who do I get for you?

Grandpa with his violin 1939

The festival performances were traditional Sicilian plays that could include puppeteers, singers’ actors and musicians. 

Here is a piece Grandpa wrote in 1937 after leaving Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn thinking that his prostate cancer was cured called “Miracle”. I unfortunately didn’t get to know him but I have been told he was a very playful man with a great sense of humor who never would forget your name, even if he only met you once and hadn’t seen you in years.  Grandpa also taught music but had to supplement his income by doing some side work restoring furniture, repairing smoking pipes and working in the garment industry.  He also made his own instruments and enjoyed playing the violin, banjo, guitar and especially the mandolin. Don Haas and I developed and taught the Jazz Performance Techniques program at San Jose State University.  He was a monster pianist, composer, arranger and a great teacher.  Unbeknownst to me Don had started on accordion and this piece grandpa wrote was for concertino, I asked Don if he would take a look at it and wow! he knocked me out playing all the nuances, tempo changes and  dynamics perfectly.

Miracolo performed by Don Haas [4:43]

Question 2: I understand that you started playing the guitar first so that you could accompany your Dad who was a mandolin player. Can you tell us about that experience?

I began playing the guitar at 11 or 12 years old so that I could accompany my father who played all the Italian mazurkas, tarantellas on the mandolin. Dad was a master mandolin player who played totally by ear and had great technical command of the instrument. (audio sample below)

1980 Victor and Frank Jamming at the Mabel’s Home in San Francisco, California

Victor playing a mazurka [8:27]

 Always at holidays and visits to both my grandmother’s  my dad and I would play music while there were six or seven conversations going on about politics, sports or local news.  During the week when he came home from his day job driving a truck, he would have his dinner and we would work on some music together or he would practice by himself while I tried to learn new fingerings and voicing’s.  My father’s ears were so well trained that he would memorize most melodies that he liked after he heard it a couple of times.  Tin Pan Alley tunes like Night & Day, Begin the Beguine and Stardust melodies were child’s play for him. Dad liked to challenge himself with difficult pieces that required command of his instrument. I was very fortunate and didn’t realize at the time he was training my ears, teaching me form and basic chord progressions. Since he did not have any formal music training, he couldn’t say:”its C sharp minor or A major”, but he intuitively new if I played the wrong or right chords to the melody.  As my playing progressed I began to add bass lines, leading tones and harmonic nuances.  Over time I started hearing the basic chord progressions and how to setup the key changes for different sections of the music and the correct rhythmic support.  After awhile we had some pretty tight and tasty arrangements in our repertoire. (Photos)

Question3: When did you begin studying the Acoustic Bass?

When I was about 13 years old I went to a wedding and sat right next to the bandstand very close to the bass player.  I fell in love with the deep sound and earthy quality the acoustic bass has and was attracted to the large shape and size of the instrument. I decided to rent an acoustic bass and began teaching myself the positions.  I remember taping the fingerboard so that I could find the right notes to play and trying to figure out how to bow.  Around this time I had already transferred to Frances Lewis High School in Queens, New York, and the head of the music department was a bass player, Milton Fink.

Milton Fink

Milton taught a very fine beginners string course for violin, viola, cello and double bass.  I enrolled in his string class and as my playing began to improve, Milton would let me go into a private study room and practice more advanced pieces that he would help me with the fingering positions, dynamics and bowings.  At one point Milton told that he knew of an excellent classical bass teacher and asked if I would be interested in studying with him. I said yes, and he helped me to prepare an audition piece and some scales for this bass teacher.  Little did I know how accomplished and well-known he was in all the professional music circles in New York City?

His name was Homer Mensch and he had played with the New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini and many other well-known orchestras’. 

Homer Mensch

In 1932 after winning the audition on the stage of Carnegie Hall in front of Otto Klemperer Homer became the assistant principal with the Pittsburgh Symphony with the great conductor Fritz Reiner. (Photo of Homer)

Homer would have been 18 years old in 1932 when he won that position. He also played on recordings of Heifitz, Piatagorsky, Stern, Milstein, the Bach Aria Group, Casals Festival Orchestra and the Columbia Symphony. Homer also did record dates and recorded with greats like Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, and Paul McCartney.  He also can be heard on many soundtracks from the 1940s until the 1970s. The theme from the 1975 film Jaws is played by Homer Mensch. He was a great bass player and I had no idea…..In my mind I thought I could master this instrument in two years…Boy was I wrong….

I studied with Homer on and off for the next 15 years and never finished my classical studies.  He taught me the instrument and all kinds of things like how to properly get your bow re-haired, what to look and listen for when shopping for an instrument, how to transport the bass, his favorite bass repair shops.  He was a great person and a wonderful teacher who would explain his methodology in detail and also explain why he had come to these conclusions.  I would go off on my own for one or two years and call him and ask for more lessons and he always would accommodate me.  He also had a very stern and commanding way about him yet he could relate to me as just another brother bass player trying to learn the instrument. He would tell me that at the rate I was going, I’ll never finish the classical training and repertoire needed to get an orchestra gig.  When I first started studying with him sometimes I would take a lesson and I was not prepared.  He would spend the whole lessen on the etude that I was suppose to prepare and it basically became a very painful practice lessen in which I learned how to study. His wife Constance could hear us from down stairs and as I was leaving she would tell me “you know the Jewish and Asian students always come prepared, they study harder, and complete their studies” the Italian students do not, but in time you will develop the discipline needed”.  She was also Italian and her father was a conductor and her mom was an opera singer, she played violin and eventually was like a second mother to me.  As I got older Constance and I became very close friends and we confided in each other about personal things.  Both Homer and Constance not only had a huge impact on my musical studies but also influenced my character and sense of values as a young man.  They had integrity and high ethics and were well respected in the classical world of performance and music education. Everybody had studied with Homer, classical, jazz cats, studio musicians, club date cats; he was the “Bass Guru”…

When Homer died this was in the New York Times: (Show on video)

“Homer R. Mensch Bassist and pedagogue, 91, died at home on December 13, 2005. He was Chairman of the Bass Department at the Juilliard School, and served on the faculty of the Manhattan and Mannes Schools of Music, Yale, Rutgers, Dalcroze School, Queens College, and Catholic University.”

The president of Juillard School of Music Joseph W. Polisi said:  “The Juilliard community mourns the passing of Homer Mensch, one of the great double bassists of the twentieth century and a member of The Juilliard faculty since 1970. With great dignity and artistry, Homer embodied the very best attributes of the modern musician as an active soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player. He also was one of the most important teachers of the double bass to generations of instrumentalists. His warm, engaging personality and presence will be missed by us all.”

I didn’t realize at that time that I was being exposed to the Dalcroze method which is one of the most highly regarded music education systems based on an integrated approach of body, mind and spirit until later in my life.

Question 4: When did you start discovering jazz?

When I was about 15 years old I bought an Oscar Peterson Trio album called “Westside Story” and was blown away by the trio and especially the bass player Ray Brown.  That was the beginning of my love of jazz. I heard about a great piano player in my neighborhood of Queens New York, who could play all the Oscar Peterson arrangements and lots of jazz his name was Richie Beirach.  Richie was a very enthusiastic and accomplished musician, he had been studying classical piano at a very young age and had incredible chops. Little did I know that we would reunite 10 years later to be part of a jazz group called “Lookout Farm”.  I was possessed with jazz and wanted to learn how to play but thought it was sacrilegious to take another bass players lines or solo off a record.  I was convinced that I had to find my own voice first, until I studied music with Mike Garson. At the point I realized the value of transcriptions as a imitation and studying tool. Mike was a pianist/composer and a great teacher, he would give me assignments transcribing Paul Chambers bass lines and at the lesson check my work and make corrections if needed. PC could do it all, play great time, understood changes and bowed some great bass solo's, what a master bass player.

After graduating high school I went to Queens College however they didn’t have any type of jazz studies so left after one semester. I started playing in a lounge trio with a pianist/singer and drummer working the club circuit on the east coast.  We had steady work playing six nights a week at various club/ restaurants in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.  The music was sort of jazzy with a Frank Sinatra type repertoire singing Tin Pan Alley tunes like “I Got You under My Skin”. I continued studying classical bass with Homer but I wanted to learn more about jazz.

Borscht Belt Gigs

Eventually I started getting gigs in the Catskills or better known as the  Borscht Belt, or Jewish Alps which is a colloquial term for the summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster Counties in upstate New York.  These were popular vacation spots for New York City Jews from the 1920s through the 1960s. I worked in a show/dance band at a small orthodox hotel. The nice thing about this gig was that we finished by 10 or 11pm which allowed me time to go check out other hotels where musicians would have jam sessions til’ 2 or 3am playing and learning the music. Eventually I started getting better gigs at some of the bigger hotels like the Concord hotel.  On my breaks I would go into the other lounges and watch all the hotel guests doing all the Latin dances like mambo, cha-cha-cha and meringue. I didn’t realize at the time... I was listening to some of the greatest Latin bands in the world like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmeri. 

Question 5: At this time what other types of music work were you doing?

Broadway Is Waiting for You…

Like most other free-lance musicians there were times I was out of work and needed a gig. I was on the union floor Local 802 looking for work and I heard they were auditioning musicians for a Broadway show and I decided to audition for the bass chair.  This was a pit orchestra gig with woodwinds, brass, and percussion.  The show had been a big hit on Broadway and they were going on the road with it.  These were called “bus & truck shows” since we travelled by bus and all the stage sets, props and lighting by truck.  The show was “Half A Sixpence” a musical comedy and it was so exciting travelling all over the country and seeing different parts of America.  Sometimes when we would get to the big cities we would add a local string section to augment the band.  I prided myself on playing 125 pages of bass music perfect night after night.  After six months on the road we were in Lawton Oklahoma and my bass needed repair.  While it was being repaired I needed to rent another bass for the show and the only place I could get one was on the Army base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  I called the warrant officer in charge and asked if I could rent a bass, he said come on over that he have eight of them and I could pick anyone I wanted.  When I offered to pay him, he said oh no…so I gave him a bunch of tickets to the show and that week he came with his wife and children.

Question 6: I understand you were in the Army, can you tell us what that was like.

While I was on the road with the Broadway show Half a Sixpence I got a letter from the draft board and had to go back to New York to the infamous Whitehall Street for a physical. Now this was 1967 the Vietnam War started in 1965 and it was in full force at this time. Me and another 5,000 or so young men were drafted on the spot sworn in and shipped out that night by train to Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

You’re In the Army Now…

When I was in basic training I was on the chubby side and overweight, the drill sergeants always made the fat guys work harder so we would lose weight.  I remember many times getting on line for chow at the mess hall and the drill sergeant would say: “do you think you can run two miles? If I said yes, he would say ok go ahead and run it, if I said no, he would say the same thing.  Basic training was not too bad, I lost about 50 lbs and at one point had an opportunity to audition for the Army band.  The sergeant who auditioned me was a trumpet player who was doubling on string bass doing gigs in town.  I scored very high on the test, it wasn’t very hard… I was asked to play the minor and major scales, arpeggios and sight-read some music.  He told me to relax and that after basic training I would get orders to the band at Fort Jackson.  Well, I didn’t realize at the time but he was afraid that I would take all his bass gigs so he threw my application in the garbage or never submitted it and when I finished basic training I got orders to AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) at Fort Lewis, Washington without a leave. Boy…I was a “sad-sack soldier”, who just wanted to play music and here I was training for a tour of duty to Vietnam as an infantry soldier.  AIT training was much more rigorous, 25 mile forced marches and runs, sleeping very little, bivouacs (sleeping in a tent and guarding a camp).  The class instructors were mostly sergeants who had done tours of duty in Vietnam.  The classes would always begin with: “when you get to Nam…”

Our company commander was a young officer who had just graduated from Virginia Military Institute.  He was a real gun-ho type soldier who continued to push us all beyond our physical and mental capabilities. As a result, I ended getting pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital.  When I got to the pneumonia ward there were soldiers that would find ways to keep their lungs crackling so that they could stay in the hospital and avoid active duty.  At night they would go into the latrine open all the windows and stand there naked. We had a very nice empathic naval doctor who would come to the ward to examine us and one day as he was examining me I was so sad and depressed…he asked me what was wrong?

I explained that I was a musician and was suppose to get orders to the Army band and here I was in the infantry.  I asked him if he had a directory and could I use the phone in his office, he said yes.  My idea was to call the warrant officer I met at Fort Sill and see if he could do something to get me in the Army band at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  When I got him on the phone, he said:" just hang tight and I'll see what I can do".  The unit I was with was on oversees alert for Vietnam, which means you cannot go more than a 50 mile radius from the fort and that you slept with your duffel bag packed and ready to go.  On a Saturday morning the sergeant walked into the barracks and sad: “Tusa get your gear you have orders to the 77th Army band at Fort Sill”.

Now, I had been in the service about six months and still did not have leave. I flew to Oklahoma and sat down with the warrant officer who said: “Tusa, it cost me a bottle of scotch to get you here and I’m going to get every drop from you”.  I had 90 days to learn how to play the Tuba since I couldn’t march with the string bass and that there was an IG (Inspector General) inspection in 3 months. I practiced until my lips and cheeks were stiff practicing every day for 5 to 6 hours. When it came time for the inspector general I had prepared an excerpt from a Wagner opera “Die Meistersinger” and new most of my major, minor scales, arpeggios and played the bass lines to some Sousa marches. I passed and was so relieved, that I could stay in the Army band.

77th Army Band

 My job was to make coffee every morning and drive to town for donuts.  The money we made selling donuts was used for beer parties which I was not much of a beer drinker but enjoyed the social nature of the parties. Life was good…I had my own room, played string bass in the concert band, dance band and all the combos. I also played tuba, bass drum and cymbals in the marching band. One of the band members was a pianist who was quite a bit older than me who had graduated from college with a degree in physics but decided that he wanted to be a concert pianist.  I spent lots of time with him learning about classical piano music, harmony and counterpoint.  We connected with an army dentist who was an excellent jazz trumpet player and the band was formed:

  • Martin Schwartz-Trumpet
  • John Dulik-Piano
  • Woody Floyd-Drums
  • Frank Tusa-Bass

We had a steady weekend gig at a Ramada Inn in Lawton, Oklahoma that was packed every weekend with locals and GI’s enjoying the quartet.  Most of the tunes and arrangements we played were all the great jazz leaders’ music like Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and Miles Davis classic tunes.  Eventually we won the “Fourth Army First Place Jazz Combo Contest”.  We TDY (temporary duty yonder, a military slang) travelling around the five states of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma to  military installations playing concerts for the GI’s. Since we were now travelling alone in a station wagon with a per diem per day we had some great adventures together.  I remember going to Randolph Air Force base in Texas and having a high ranking officer call me out because my hair was so long….he immediately made me go to the post barber shop and get it cut.

I practiced and played the acoustic bass every day, studying jazz and some classical music.  I expanded my record collection and began listening to all the different styles of jazz i.e. be-bop, cool school, avant-garde.  I was also playing bass in the Lawton Philharmonic learning more of the classical repertoire and I also spent lots of time researching the state of the art sound systems available in 1968. I was learning more about acoustics and the physics of sound. After researching the manufacturers I ended up buying all my sound equipment at the PX (Post Exchange) which I was able to keep in my room.  This was great I had a music studio in my room with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a good sound system and my bass.

Question 7: What happened when you were discharged from the Army?

New York, New York

I was honorably discharged from the United States Army in January 1969 and vividly remember driving my 1956 Plymouth off Fort Sill army base filled with my bass, clothes, electronic equipment, music books, records and a cooler filled with food and drinks.  I had mapped out my route and was so excited that I wanted to drive straight to New York. I drove on route 44 through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and to the Pennsylvania Turnpike just stopping for gas and restroom.  The trip was 1,600 miles and by the time I had gotten to Pennsylvania it was snowing and I was exhausted. I decided to take a break and wait until the next morning to continue my trip. I remember having a phone conversation with my Dad about the best route to take since the weather continued to get worse. When I first returned to New York I lived with my parents and I began picking up weekend gigs in clubs and hotels. When I told my parents I wanted to make my living playing music they wanted me to find a “real job” explaining that I could always do my music on the side and that it would be so difficult to survive by just playing music. 

Being a good Italian son I got a day job working in the New York garment industry selling infants clothing to out of town buyers that owned children’s retail stores around the United States. I did very well working with a small base salary and commission; in fact the President of the company flew me to their headquarters for a tradeshow, had me tour their manufacturing facilities and offered me New York as a territory. When I met with Mr. Rosenberg in his office he had his father’s violin in a glass case.  His Dad was a classical violinist and he played a little violin himself but decided to go into the garment industry. At that point I realized that I wanted to pursue my music career full-time and I declined his offer.

I had saved some money so I quit my sales job, moved out and got a studio apartment in lower Manhattan.  I lived in Chelsea which is north of Greenwich Village and south of Hell’s kitchen on 21st street between 8th and 9th avenue. The owner of the apartment building was an Italian communist writer who had very strong opinions about capitalism and America, we had some very interesting conversations through the years and he had a great appreciation for the arts.  For the very first time in my life I felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted. I had already joined Local 802 American Federation of Musicians and was hoping to find some work through the union.

My First Real Jazz Gig

Meanwhile in 1969 I was the house bass player at a jazz club on Broadway and 65th street with Booker Ervine on tenor sax, Jimmy Lovelace on drums and the owner of the club was a piano player Gene Harris (A different Gene Harris than the 3 sounds). Booker was best known for his work with Charlie Mingus and he use to say: "Mingus's charts demanded that I play equally well in all registers of the horn, that I learn to read the most difficult music without faltering, playing it right on down with feeling, and that I learn to go farther out harmonically than I had ever gone in my solos." Booker liked to play standards in different keys so…one night he would play “All The Things You Are” in A flat and the next night B flat or G. I was not prepared for this and found myself struggling to keep up plus it was embarrassing since many musicians use to hang out and sit in at the club.  If I didn’t know a tune that Booker called and there was another bass player in the audience who knew it he would come up and play.  This was the New York Jazz Code of Honor….”its a hard knocks school”…One night Chick Corea came into the club boy! I was so excited to play with Chick except he wanted to sit in on drums…by the way he is an excellent drummer. I was disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to play with Chick at the piano.  Miles use to come in, sit in the back and just hang out.  The gig lasted about six months and unfortunately Booker died much too young in 1970 of a kidney disease.

Local 802 Musicians Union

When I was out of work I would go to Roseland for the Wednesday afternoon calls, when the union delegates would call out union gigs i.e. “I have a wedding in Brooklyn, need a five piece band November 25th”.  The floor was usually packed with lots of musicians and there was never enough work for us all.  After awhile I began to scope out the floor, the left side of the room was club date musicians who mastered the music for weddings, birthdays, and bar mitzvahs.  The right side was pit musicians that worked all the Broadway shows and the mid-to-left side were all the Latin cats and the mid-to-right side were the classical musicians. I would go week after week and try to network with other musicians for work and hoping to meet some jazz musicians. One day I met another bass player who was really a singer and he needed someone to play first sets for him since he had two gigs on the same night that the start times over-lapped.  He would pluck and thump the bass and you could never really hear the pitches since he was really the front man for the band.  He was a good singer/entertainer and just sort of held the bass and dampened the notes as he sang.  He was a very colorful guy with blond curly hair and he always wore a white tuxedo jacket.  I was grateful to have the gig make a little money and meet other musicians that referred me to different band leaders for work.  I realized that the only way I was going to grow and learn to play jazz was to practice and play sessions, playing these commercial gigs was not it. 

In August 1970 I decided to get my hack license drive a taxi during the day and stopped playing commercial gigs.

Around the corner from my apartment on 19th street and Sixth Avenue living in lofts were Chick Corea, Dave Holland.  At that time Chick and Dave were working with Miles Davis and I spent time hanging out with Chick.  I idealized his playing and like many young aspiring jazz musicians wanted to follow in his footsteps.  Chick was always very empathetic and eager to explain something new to me.  There was also a very young jazz saxophone player living in the building who was having jam sessions all the time, his name was Dave Liebman.  I had met Dave years ago in the Catskills (Borsht Belt) in upstate New York when we were teenagers but we never connected until this time.  He was much more advanced than any of the other musicians I knew, a very intense guy with a high level of determination to master this music.  I had never formally studied jazz bass but I had the great fortune to study with Dave Holland.  He opened up my mind and awareness to things like developing my sound, how to produce your sound.  Dave also had some brilliant technical exercises that helped advance my technique and he was such a down to earth guy and a great bass player. I studied with Dave for a couple of months and began developing my jazz practice approach.  During this time we had a bass trio with Dave Holland, Glen Moore and I playing mostly original music, it was a great time…

Recording and Playing with Paul Bley

In 1970 Bob Moses and I recorded with Paul Bley on the Milestones record label called “The Paul Bley Synthesizer Show”. The producer was Orrin Keepnews the founder of Riverside records. Orrin has produced some of the greatest jazz recordings of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Heath. Some of my most treasured jazz recordings which might be the greatest live recordings Orrin produced were the Bill Evans Trio Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. I loved Bley’s approach and piano playing and was a huge fan of Gary Peacock and all the great music they had created together. 

Open Sky Trio

Dave Liebman and I began to connect and we had many of the same musical interests that we wanted to explore bebop, free-jazz and Indian music. We had a piano less trio called “Open Sky Trio” with a great drummer who wrote lots of music for the trio, his name was Bobby Moses. Moses had a great imagination and could play some of the most interesting drum solo’s I have ever heard; he was an extremely creative guy truly unique… At that time none of the record labels were interested in the trio since we played mostly original music that was avant-garde in the style of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. We were able to get some work at local colleges and small clubs around Manhattan but not enough to survive.  Gene Perla  a master bass player who has performed and/or recorded with many great musicians including Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Stan Getz, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, Sonny Rollins, Stone Alliance and others understood what we were trying to create. We recorded two albums for Gene in 1973 Open Sky and Spirit in the Sky.  On the linear notes of Open Sky  Lieb’s wrote:

This group represents the first organized music I took an active part in with my long time associate, drummer Bob Moses and bassist Frank Tusa. The music looked towards the “chordless” groups of Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman with influences ranging from late Coltrane, world and 20th century contemporary music. The “Open Sky” recording was a live concert at the public radio station ,WBAI in New York City. “Spirit in the Sky” was recorded in the studio and features other artists with some overdubbing. As I look back over the decades, there is a freshness and openness in this music that represents my earliest endeavors in jazz, occurring at the same that I was serving my “apprenticeship” with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis.
- David Liebma

Much of our inspiration came from a friend and fantastic artist Eugene Gregan who did the cover painting for our first album.  We would take trips to Eugene’s farm in Napanoch upstate New York hangout, admire and learn about his work, play music and have great conversations about life, art, and music. Eugene was a great teacher with a very engaging mind and loving vibe.  He and his wife Beverly grew beautiful flowers, delicious tasting fruits and vegetables and were living a very zen-like life style.  The name of his farm was “Lookout Farm” which would eventually be the inspiration for the formation of another band called Lookout Farm.