Meet Johnny Costa, the Pianist Who Introduced Millions of Mister Rogers Fans to Jazz

Jazz pianist and com­pos­er Charles Cor­nell is not alone in his con­tempt for the sort of dumb­ed down musi­cal fare typ­i­cal of children’s pro­gram­ming.

The late John­ny Cos­ta, Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hoods long-time musi­cal direc­tor and a self-described “real jazzer,” was of like mind:

Chil­dren have ears, and they’re peo­ple, and they can hear good music as well as any­body else. So I start­ed right from the begin­ning play­ing for them as I would for any adults.

The show not only hooked many young view­ers on jazz, it may have plant­ed a sub­lim­i­nal pref­er­ence for live jazz.

None of the show’s music was pre­re­cord­ed.

Instead, Cos­ta attend­ed every tap­ing, pro­vid­ing live accom­pa­ni­ment just off cam­era with per­cus­sion­ist Bob­by Raw­sthorne and bassist Carl McVick­er. They were such an inte­gral part of the show’s vibe that in 1985, Mr. Rogers broke the fourth wall to show his “tele­vi­sion neigh­bors” their set up.

As Cor­nell notes, above, host Fred Rogers, an accom­plished pianist him­self, wrote the program’s sig­na­ture tunes, includ­ing its famous open­ing theme, but left it to Cos­ta to impro­vise as he saw fit.

As a result the open­ing num­ber varies a bit from episode to episode, with hints of Oscar Peter­son, Art Tatum, Thelo­nius Monk and oth­er jazz world greats.

Cor­nell con­sid­ers Cos­ta their “crim­i­nal­ly unno­ticed” equal, but observes that his quar­ter cen­tu­ry of involve­ment on Mis­ter Rogers Neigh­bor­hood means his music has like­ly reached a far larg­er audi­ence.

Cos­ta had carte blanche to noo­dle as he saw fit under the onscreen pro­ceed­ings, includ­ing the many dis­cus­sions of feel­ings. This musi­cal under­scor­ing helped Rogers demon­strate the wide range of human emo­tions he sought to acknowl­edge and nor­mal­ize with­out con­de­scend­ing to his preschool audi­ence.

The show’s web­site prais­es Cos­ta for simul­ta­ne­ous­ly know­ing “when to stop play­ing and let the silence take over, as there were times when Fred Rogers didn’t want any­thing, even music, to dis­tract the chil­dren from con­cen­trat­ing on what he was say­ing or show­ing.”

As Cos­ta revealed:

I watch Fred, and there must be some kind of telepa­thy that we’re not aware of, because some­how I get the mes­sage to play or not to play.  I’m sure that some of it has to do with work­ing togeth­er all these years, but a lot of it is unex­plain­able.

The show afford­ed him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to play with renowned neigh­bor­hood vis­i­tors like trum­peter Wyn­ton Marsalis and croon­er Tony Ben­nett, as well as the Land of Make Believe’s pup­pets inhab­i­tants.

Which is not to say he nev­er ven­tured out­side of the neigh­bor­hood. Behold Cos­ta and “Handy­man” Joe Negri per­form­ing on 67 Melody Lane, a show geared toward adult view­ers.

Stream more of John­ny Costa’s music for Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood below.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Mis­ter Rogers Makes a List of His 10 Favorite Books

Mr. Rogers’ Nine Rules for Speak­ing to Chil­dren (1977)

The Col­ors of Mis­ter Rogers’ Hand-Knit Sweaters from 1979 to 2001: A Visu­al Graph Cre­at­ed with Data Sci­ence

Via Laugh­ing Squid

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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