Guest Blogger, Amy Duncan

imagesBrooklyn, New York-born pianist and composer Ron Di Salvio is a man of many talents. An accomplished jazz and classical pianist, as well as a prolific composer, Ron has recorded six albums that encompass both genres. He teaches jazz piano, improvisation, theory and composition at Kalamazoo College, and is also Music Director of the United Methodist Church in Marshall, Michigan. Ron has designed and built three homes in Michigan since 1970. He has five daughters, all of whom have graduated college, with two teaching music, and five grandchildren. He is President of Trojan Heat Treat Inc., a position he has held for 35 years.

Ron is getting ready to release his 7th CD Songs for Ten Jazz Legends” featuring NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb. This work of original lyrics and music pays tribute to musicians who have been an inspiration to him. He is author of the Deltadiatonics Method, an outcome of the Baroque figured bass, Jazz notation and the Nashville Number Systems. Ron has developed a succinct universal set of symbols readily accessible to all musicians, composers, improvisers and theorists which simplifies complex harmonic structures and theoretical phenomena.

Ron, you’ve been described as a 21st century “Renaissance man”—what does that mean to you?

Well it was my long departed mother-in-law Betty Petredean who was the first to say that about me. I have a joy and love of life that manifests in all I do. I do many things well and I do them with focus and depth. Whether it’s running a business of fifty co-workers, designing and physically constructing things, cooking gourmet dishes, organic gardening, grinding wheat berries and making bread, composing music, writing poetry, raising children, or teaching at the College, my life flows as one continual stream of events with a lot of improvisation and changes along the way.721_My_Five_Daughters

You started composing and arranging at age fourteen. What about before that? When did your interest in music begin? Do you come from a musical family?

I started accordion lesson at age 11, thanks to my Aunt Anna who gave me her deceased brothers accordion and paid for my music lessons. My Dad played bass and sax in a big dance band in the neighborhood. When I was fourteen I had my first trio and he taught me how to arrange music for the bass and guitar. I also had early training at the Church of the Brethren where the organist, a fellow accordionist, taught me how to play the organ and eventually sub for him.

Pianist Lennie Tristano is one of my personal favorites—you were sixteen when you studied with him. What was that like?

Lennie was blind from birth, you know, so that took a little adjusting for me at the first lesson. I remember there were two grand pianos situated in a very large room filled with mysterious chaotic crayon murals on the lower parts of the walls. The lesson was structured into three parts. The very first thing Tristano did, after I played “What is this Thing Called Love” for him, was to hand me a pad and a pencil. He said write down these numbers: 1,3,5-1,3,5,7-1,3,5,b7-1,b3,5-1,b3,5,b7-1,3,#5,7-1,3,5,7,9-1,3,6,9-1,b3,6,9. This went on for quite some time and by the end of the dictation my head was spinning and my hand was cramped up. He then instructed me that these chord voicings were to be played with the left hand and I needed to learn them in all twelve keys. Next he gave me scales and modes, also dictated with numerical dictation, which employed very unorthodox fingerings. The exercises were to be played at an excruciatingly slow tempo, hands separately and in twelve keys. Lastly I was to bring in a jazz record of my choice and sing (scat) whatever instrumental solo I wanted from that record. Lennie laid down the law at the very first lesson: he told me that he would only listen to one key of chord voicings that he would randomly pick. If I didn’t know them, the lesson would be ended. Fortunately I never had that happen.

You had some success in New York City in the 60s—what made you leave?

The drug-jazz scene was very prevalent in the late 60’s and I was swept up with all of it, I was an amphetamine-hashish addict for two years. I had a steady gig with my trio at the newly formed Top of the Gate, which was on the upper floor of the then famous Village Gate. We were playing opposite the Dave Pike Trio. During this time we got to play with some jazz greats including Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, Enrico Rava and Sonny Rollins to name a few. When my best friend and bassist Lester overdosed on heroine, it was a huge wakeup call for me. I transitioned out of drugs and into Yoga, health foods and classical music all of which helped to save my life. It was during this time of healing that I met Sandy at the Caldron, a macrobiotic restaurant in the East Village, and a week later we married. We wound up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I was organist for St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Tell me about the home you built in Michigan and the organic food and bakery shop you opened.

We left New York in 1969 in a self-converted VW bus which contained all our belongings and headed across the United States in search of the perfect place to settle down. We were your basic hippie-flower-children of the day wandering our big amazing America. It was after our bus was stolen in San Francisco that we headed to Marquette to stay with Sandy’s parents and look for some property to build a house. In 1970, with a $10,000 loan from the bank, we bought 160 acres of wilderness south of Harvey, and I built a 20’X24’ “A” frame Cedar-Redwood home with only hand tools. We lived for years without running water or electricity, heating the house only with wood. We raised two daughters, Shanti and Aria, chickens, milk goats and had a few horses and ponies. Since it was hard to get natural grains and beans at that time we decided to open a health food store and bakery called “Old Fashioned Foods” in an old garage on Magnetic Street. After two years we took on a partner and a new location at a small shopping mall, changing the name to “Wintergreen Foods.” I ground fresh flour from wheat berries and kneaded the bread by hand. The smell of cookies and granola made with butter, cinnamon and Michigan maple syrup gave the place an amazing aroma. I still grind and make bread and granola to this day.Ron

You play both jazz and classical music very well. Which one of those genres do you feel is closer to your heart, or are they both equal?

From my heart springs forth melody and harmony—sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes it’s a popular song, sometimes it’s dolce, sometimes it furioso, sometimes it’s a very long composition, other times it’s a short 16-measure gem, sometimes I feel I have captured the essence of Broadway in a piece and other times the sound of a holy hymn. Jazz always comes out when I feel that way, and lately it’s art songs that fill my day.

One of the main things that sets jazz apart from classical music is improvisation. I’ve heard some jazz musicians say that improvising is a spiritual experience. What do you think?

This is a big question that I am going answer in a small way: All true art comes from the spirit.

You’re a really prolific composer and player. I’m amazed at how much you’ve accomplished, along with running your own business and raising a family. What’s your secret?

An opening lyric from a James Taylor song goes “The Secret of Life is enjoying the passage of time.” I try to be in the moment as much possible, I don’t dwell in the past and I try not to dream of the future. I just try to focus on the here and now. I work very hard at whatever I am doing and I do it in a focused way.

Tell me about your latest project, “Songs for Ten Jazz Legends”. Who are the ten legends?

This is a project that was an outcome of a live concert that I presented with Jimmy Cobb in 2006. The venue was the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. We performed all the music from my “Essence of Green, A Tribute to Kind of Blue,” for jazz sextet. I included two numbers that featured a vocal quartet at the last concert of the series. In the months that followed I was so inspired by the sound of the vocal group with the sextet that I began to compose both lyrics and music for “Songs for Ten Jazz Legends.” This will be released this fall on the Blujazz Label.

The Legends and song titles are as follows:

  1. Oscar PetersonOscar-nice-inicity
  2. Dave BrubeckDave’s Brew
  3. Sonny RollinsSunny Side Up
  4. Shirley HornA Thousand Songs
  5. Charles MingusMingustino
  6. Bud PowellBud’s Blossom
  7. Duke Ellington-Tonight Mood Indigo
  8. Gerry Mulligan-Mulligan’s Stew
  9. Miles DavisMellifluous
  • Chick CoreaChicklet

Do you have any advice to give to young musicians?

Set a routine and create a ritual for practice, composing and arranging, make it a daily event.

Try to play and write in twelve keys with focus on your weak keys.

Study music theory.

Listen to the legends of all genres.

Any future projects on the drawing board you’d like to mention?

I am working on setting the poems of Madeleine L’Engle from the “Ordering of Love” for voice and piano.

To listen to Ron’s music and buy his albums:

To listen to Ron’s compositions and buy his sheet music:

Ron’s website:































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