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Sal Mosca, 80; jazz pianist, teacher hailed for improvisations

August 09, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Sal Mosca, a jazz pianist known for his distinctive improvisational skills and a deep dedication to his craft -- one that led him to build a musical life centered on practicing and teaching, rather than performing -- died July 28 at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y., from complications of emphysema. He was 80.

In the 1950s at the start of his career, Mosca headlined with saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, playing "at every major club along the Eastern Seaboard," according to a biography posted on Mosca's website. With Konitz he recorded "Subconscious-Lee" in 1949 and played on the recording of "Ezz-thetic" in 1951, alongside Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Bill Bauer. In 1957 he recorded "Very Cool", and in 1959 he made "Sal Mosca & Peter Ind at the Den."

Mosca was trained in bop piano and classical music; he was a student of legendary pianist Lennie Tristano and an admirer of Art Tatum. To his students and fans Mosca epitomized a commitment to excellence and purity in art. But purity came with a price. The widespread popularity that might have accompanied someone with Mosca's skills and credentials was elusive; the pianist said he "never wanted to be caught in the web of commercial success."

So Mosca turned down gigs and opportunities and focused on teaching and practicing at his studio/home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. When he did record and give concerts over the years, he did so on his own terms, said his daughter, Kathryn Mosca, of Scarsdale, N.Y. Those performances left critics marveling at his powers to improvise: He played jazz standards with extraordinary freedom while also observing strict musical parameters, they said.

Writing in the New York Times in 2004, Corey Kilgannon observed that Mosca's "flights of fancy to far-flung musical orbits are all the while precisely linked to the song form they are improvised on."

"His playing exhibits the well-constructed inventions of Bach, the giddy galloping gaiety of Fats Waller and the elliptical runs and stunning technique of Art Tatum. It is also stamped with the introspective intensity and harmonic rhythmic complexity of his mentor, Mr. Tristano."

Mosca imbued his playing with a respect for the composer of the work, a nod to renditions offered by other artists, and his own feeling, the pianist said.

"I play a song differently every time, with (perhaps) a variation on them -- melody or different chords, different tempos, so it always puts a new, little something into it," he told Zan Stewart in a 2005 article for the Newark Star-Ledger.

As a private instructor Mosca emphasized the basics, often taking students, even those who had been playing for years, to the beginning, his daughter said. They also learned from observing Mosca.

"He was the most totally dedicated person to a single endeavor that I have ever met," former student Joe Masi said in an e-mail to The Times. "He refused to move from the suburbs to NYC, saying that any engagement that required him to get to New York any faster than a trip from Mount Vernon wasn't worth taking. He knew the money would never match the talent."

Born Salvatore Joseph Mosca in Mount Vernon on April 27, 1927, the pianist grew up listening to such artists as Fats Waller on the family's player piano. By the time he was 12 Mosca knew music would be his life. He began taking lessons, and by 15 he was teaching others to play.

Mosca often insisted that he had no innate talent or special gift; his ability was the fruit of long hours of practice and devotion. "He would basically say: Anybody could do this if they studied and practiced the way I did," his daughter said. "But nobody else really believed that."

In 1945, toward the end of World War II, he began a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, where he played in the Army band. At New York University and New York College of Music he studied classical music. But the most enduring influence on his musical life came from his teacher, Tristano, a blind pianist and important figure in modern jazz.

In 1953 Mosca married Stella DiGregorio and, before divorcing, the couple had three children. In addition to Kathryn, Mosca is survived by Michael Mosca of Eastchester, N.Y; Stephen Mosca of Jacksonville, Fla.; and seven grandchildren.

In 1997 after a series of misfortunes and illness in previous years, Mosca withdrew from teaching and even practicing. "As far as people knew, I was gone," he told the Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., in 2005.

By 2000 he returned to playing, until he was waylaid by illness, including a heart attack. But he recovered and resumed playing.

Last January he played in Paris and Amsterdam and gave two concerts in Belgium, Kathryn Mosca said.

"His goal was excellence, because he knew that in art, excellence is where all the fun comes from," Masi wrote.

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