Pete Malinverni: My first – and, really, only ever – instruction was in Classical Piano, beginning when I was six in my hometown of Niagara Falls, New York. My teacher through high school, Laura Copia, had been a standout pianist as a youngster but, instead of attending conservatory, was forced, due to family financial need during the Depression era in which she grew up, to play in beer halls for the Polish immigrants who were working in the factories of Niagara Falls. But her training was in the strict Russian style so my lessons were not sweet and calm affairs. She was tough and exacting and I learned well and quickly – in self-defense! Under it all though, she had two very important things: a love for music and musicians and an appreciation for a strong rhythmic sense. The latter allowed her to accept that I had a bent toward other musical forms and she even encouraged me when I started to like Jazz when I was about sixteen. She helped me prepare the “Rhapsody in Blue”, which I played with my high school’s concert band during my Senior year. She was a force.
VOJ: Why did you choose to move to New York? What was that experience like for you, and how did it change you as a person and a musician?
Pete Malinverni: When I was at college (the Crane School of Music) Jazz was not appreciated much, except by a small handful of teachers. It was through them, recordings and some of my classmates that I began to really explore the music, playing in several bands. At that time, drinking age in New York state was eighteen, so in a small town with four colleges nearby, there were plenty of opportunities to play in clubs and bars. I ended up playing at least three or four nights every week and that’s really where I started to cut my teeth.
After graduation, I tried for one year to be a teacher in a grade/middle school, since that reflected my degree. But it didn’t take long to realize that I would only be happy if I lived as a player and New York was there, on the horizon, as the place to find out whether or not I had “it”. I figured that I’d go, try it out and see what happened, rather than always wonder “what if”.
I never really looked back, because I was willing to work hard and seek out playing opportunities. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to NYC, so I found lots of work playing solo piano in fancy restaurants for the first few years, which was great training in many things, including learning tunes, personal comportment, dealing with the public and the real effects music has on people, whether or not they’re actively listening. I’d pick a group or a couple and watch to see if I could “warm them up” by what I was playing. I came to feel I had an invisible hand on the thermostat of the room and I enjoyed facilitating the heat, so to speak. I guess, coming from a much smaller town, NYC affected me greatly on a personal level, too. The sophistication of the Big Town, the mores, the fashion, the culture and the beautiful mix of nationalities and backgrounds of its people all remain inspirations to me, even now.
VOJ: What is your take on the state of jazz education? Do you feel as though there is enough emphasis on the tradition? Elaborate on that & your personal teaching style.
Pete Malinverni: I think Jazz Education has taken a positive tack in recent years, as actual players begin to be involved in it. Still though, there are programs that I think operate as mere tuition-collection agencies for their institutions at-large and aren’t so concerned with sending viable professionals into the world. At Purchase, we’re insistent on keeping our teacher-student interactions modeled on the time-honored Jazz tradition of mentor/student relations. We make sure they know how it has been done in our music since its inception and this, we believe, prepares them to burnish most effectively their own voices. And it works – our grads are all over, working and making a positive mark on the music world.
I learned a lot about that mentorship when I first came to NYC and went to Barry Harris’ famous classes. I learned a lot from Barry about harmony – and, maybe even more importantly, about sharing all one knows, unguardedly. Because, as Barry knows, telling it all reveals the end of our own knowledge, which is when the REAL learning begins.
VOJ: As a pianist, do you feel that your sense of “hearing” in a musical situation is different from that of a single-note instrumentalist? Why or why not?
Pete Malinverni: I don’t think it’s so different. In any musical collaboration, it’s most incumbent on each player to do what s/he can do to make everyone else sound better. It’s just a matter, after reaching that realization, of utilizing the tools of expertise on one’s own instrument.
VOJ: Is there thought involved while you’re improvising? If so, what kind of thought occurs?
Pete Malinverni: Long ago I realized that there is no substitute for preparation. For me, that has meant lots of study, lots of practice, lots of listening and lots of playing experience. It’s in that heightened state of preparedness that I feel free to react in the moment to whatever may come, without judging. You see this in the best players, I think, the relinquishing of strong-headed determinism in exchange for the acceptance of everything that happens as an opportunity for beauty. Now, if someone can’t play or is not of the same mindset, I’ll hope not to play with him or her again, but in the moment, those thoughts are unproductive and, in fact, make oneself sound worse.
VOJ: Looking back on your life, what things or values have been the most important to you? How do you think these things have played a role in the events of your life?
Pete Malinverni: So many things – my earliest teacher, whom I mentioned before, Laura Copia, used to say, “Peter, be your own most severe critic”. And that makes a lot of sense, to a point. To be critical in the preparation stage, to make sure that, to the best of my ability, there are no chinks in the armor, that I’m prepared for every eventuality, is the thing. When it’s time to play, that criticism needs to be toned down and freedom to meet the music is paramount.