[see ‘Background to inspire#7: An Open Heart & A Humble Stance (Mario Serio)‘ for the background to this interview.]
It was 1994. The phone rang. Mario was in his hotel room in Las Vegas watching O.J. Simpson busy getting chased by helicopters. Jazz singer from New York, Nancy Kelly was on the line, asking if he wanted to go to Singapore for a gig for 4 months. He recalled thinking it was an ‘incredibly long engagement’ since the gigs usually ran for weeks at the most. Besides, ‘where Is Singapore?‘ was the big question. Before Yahoo! got bought up by Verizon, and before Google was your best friend, the former was the one you could count on to find out where this red dot of an island was. He figured out, and finally said yes to playing at the Somerset’s Lounge at Westin Plaza Hotel. In 1995, he was called for an engagement in Pan Pacific Hotel in Singapore that would eventually be extended to almost a year. At the same time, he had met his lovely wife, Michelle. The rest was history.
Early Beginnings, Education and Educating
Mario grew up with 2 other siblings, a sister and brother under the care of his mother. Filipino by heritage, they lived in East Harlem, also known as El Barrio/Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, New York. They weren’t well-to-do but all three of them were enrolled for music lessons. Mario had more than once shared with me that his mother had always noticed he had good ears, he could pick up arrangements and replicate any music he heard easily. His sister played the piano and his brother violin, but he was the only one who had taken it further. At age 4 he was under a Jewish classical piano teacher, Stanley Friedberg, whom in Mario’s own words, became instrumental in his development as a musician. At age 6, Stanley gave Mario his first piano gig on a cooking show! I would have loved to see a clip of that.
As he shared about how Stanley offered him free sessions when his family couldn’t afford them, and also enrolled him for scholarships for camps and workshops, I realised that all that mystery about Mario’s generosity probably came from another source of sowing from a long way back. Through his teacher’s referrals, and through his own abilities in the mandatory auditions, he was accepted in prestigious camps including the Interlochen Music Camp (Interlochen Center for the Arts, Michigan) when he was 8 years old. His exposure to a very international, and high level of calibre from a young age helped set the level of his own musical expectations.
Later at age 13, Mario, again under the recommendation of his teacher Stanley, upon auditioning for several music performing schools, ended up opting for School of Performing Arts (now known as High School of Performing Arts. (At which, he started singing the theme to Fame, the musical) The well-rounded curriculum ranging from ear-training, music theory, music history and performance formed an important part of his early musical growth.
At age 17, he was enrolled in Mannes (the music conservatory from The New School University) and he was quick to admit that by then, he was rather distracted from his classical studies by his curiosity for jazz. In his words “although I was still doing the classical thing… my heart was already more towards jazz…” In his words “I fell in love …with the… just the freedom, just the feel of the whole jazz thing, …because it was so foreign to me…coming from the classical background…” He was quick to add that he had no problem piecing out the contemporary pieces such as the classics from Carpenters, complete with intros and endings and harmonies. But jazz harmonies were, in his words, “way more abstract”.
At that point, I recalled Herbie’s similar early beginnings as a classical pianist and how detailed he was in explaining his entire process of breaking down every note, and bits and pieces of the arrangements and voicings to these jazz standards from the records his mother had bought him. So I asked Mario if his path was in any way similar to Herbie’s. He replied positively that it was. Although his family didn’t have money to buy records at that time, they had a nifty little radio that had a very useful cassette-recording ability. (He paused at one point to check if I remembered what a ‘cassette’ was. It cracked me up.) Whenever a hip tune came on and managed to catch his attention, he would run to the radio and hit ‘record’. He also made sure to add that sometimes, he would continue to let the tape run until the radio presenter announced the song title, artiste’s name, album record title, lyricist or composer’s names etcetc..
Mario continued to explain how his own experience from doing all the transcriptions over his favourite songs, or as I called it, reverse-engineer these pieces, helped him analyse these patterns. He noticed that for example Miles would frequently record the same tune with different rhythm sections. And it was fascinating for him to analyse these different recordings: ‘ “how the entire rhythm section would approach the harmony” ‘. It was then I could see the relation between Mario’s love for sharing his knowledge, his method of teaching, and what he had a just a few decades ago discovered from the listening to and the analysis of other people’s work. He also explained that that would be why he always believes in breaking things down to its ‘basic essence’ before adding to, or enhancing the piece. Why? “So that you could remember it. Once you had the mnemonics, then you can begin to insert things” Mario explains.
Mario’s Earliest Jazz Influences
Miles Davis and the various people that came from him. He quoted, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Cannonball, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock……
He vividly recounts his earliest transcriptions. It was a Chick Corea piece called ‘Windows‘ (from the album ‘Inner Space’) which he worked on with another flute player. Drew Francis, a 14 or 15 year old school mate, skilled in circular breathing techniques by then, in short, in Mario’s words “very advanced for his age”, stuck his head in and interrupted the rehearsal with a laugh, “Y’now what you doin’?” A young Mario at that time didn’t entertain his boisterous remarks and basically asked him to leave (Mario revealed a very honest and human side of him when he expressed jokingly that at age 15, he (Drew) was probably lucky he didn’t get beaten up for being so obnoxious. In all reverence, I really enjoyed that moment…). At the same time, Mario was quick to add that he had to respect him since he was so skilled for his age. I continued to ask if he ever approached Drew again to find out what he meant. He never did. But the question as it appears began to haunt him. ‘What was I doing so wrong that was so funny to him?’ Perhaps, little did he know then that the confrontation probably led him on a path of further discovery.
Up ’til then, the only way Mario had learnt a new song was through imitation. As a classical player, putting down every note on the paper was how he had always functioned. Then what he said next about jazz was for me the punch line “The music isn’t really on the paper, it’s in the air,… it’s ethereal…”
Nevertheless, he also saw how his background and the habit of transcription had helped him analyse the ‘essence that makes it swing’. He had then broken the ‘recipe’ down to ‘partially harmony’ and ‘the not-so-strict rhythmical approach’. “…they are all in-between…. but somehow the pulse is still strong,….and relentless”.
It was then I was once again reminded of his masterful use of this other language, English. It was often as effortlessly precise and honest as his piano-playing.
Mario’s Earliest Gigs
The eager beaver that is in me, had probed in several times in our little chat about how and when he took on his first jazz gig. Listening back to the recording, i realise how youth could really be wasted on the young(er). He was sharing heaps on his process and i just couldn’t wait to jump on the milestones…
His earliest working gigs were in his recollection probably, solo piano types. And then I thought it fairly interesting when he next related (alas) that ‘early bands’ were formed at classes, or through jams and you simply ask your like-minded peers if they were also interested in putting together a band, and then proceed to get a bunch of repertoire together. I would be curious to direct this question to the millenials who probably meet each other on youtube and digital collaborations more often, and would this make the music somewhat… different?
The famous Barry Harris’s workshops also provided massive opportunities for him to get to know different musicians. He was introduced to them at the university by an ex-girlfriend at that time and had greatly benefitted from them. Each 2 to 3 hour class which was devoted to 3 main different sections, namely, horn, voice, and piano (harmonic), was a comprehensive session where pianists were taught how to comp and accompany singers, and horn sections were taught how to construct lines etcetc. These sessions offered the musicians a chance to meet each other, and opened up possibilities for collaboration eventually. It was an organic social process.
Mario on Composition
When it came to music composition, he gave a quick and almost abashed laugh and finally confessed that ‘he was never so committed to writing’. Although he had written a few bebop heads, they weren’t really copyrighted or published. It’s funny, I have often wondered, could ability truly be a distraction to certain media of creativity at times? Mario, had however successfully written a few bebop heads, including the tune “Harry” for Harry’s Bar @ Boat Quay’s when he first arrived in Singapore in 1994 for a resident gig at Westin’s Somerset Lounge. Decorated double-bass player Christy Smith, who was his ‘predecessor’ at Westin had started playing for Harry’s and invited Mario to the Sunday Jams. At this point, he started ruffling through his papers (God knows how many hidden un-copyrighted tunes are in that pile) mumbling “…for the life of me,…. I don’t know where it is…” (I chuckled, haven’t we all been there, but even Mario.).
Everyone is Going to NYC…
With all our jazz friends heading to Manhattan to better themselves in their craft, I asked Mario what he thought of that and if he would recommend the same to the next generation of jazz musicians. Without skipping a beat, he nodded profusely away and said ‘there’s nothing like being in the thick of it’. He put it in perspective when he explained that there were not just many more musicians, but many more ‘killer’ musicians per square mile.
He recalled then the jam sessions that he too, had gone to, and how he had met many musicians who were then starting out. Interestingly he brought up a remnant from the non-digital age – the handwritten phonebook. He remembered he had names in there – names of people he had met at the jam sessions who were once nobodies finding their way through the jams. Today many of them are famous, he added, part-amused, part seemingly lost in nostalgia for just a moment. It was an invaluable experience for him, and would be the same for anyone. We continued to drop a few names we hear in the jazz scene over in Singapore, friends like Rachma, Eugene, Maya, Andrew Lim etcetc.
A previously requested 15-min interview quickly stretching past the hour, I was trying to grasp the wealth of information that had just been shared with me. In awe and still wide-eyed, I asked if this was where he had envisioned himself to be. He quickly laughed and replied that he was never much of a ‘planner’. Honestly, I was not at all surprised. Much if not all of my life had been the same, a door closes and another opens. But I pressed in on the question, curious if he felt contentment. I understood these were big questions but I don’t think anyone could have managed the response more eloquently or more honestly.
“If I think about my ability, and my ‘laziness’, y’know, I suppose I could have been at a different place, or doing something different, if i had applied myself a bit more conscientiously. But in the same breath, i don’t have any real regrets. I feel like I’m doing what i can with what i have. There’s always room for improvement, y’know? I could be doing more, I could be reaching out to more people, effecting more people, in better ways. But i’m doing what I can for the time being.’
Mario on Spirituality
When I asked for him to clarify what he meant by ‘effecting more people’, it opened up yet another side of Mario, still held together by pure honesty. He spoke of his desire to write Christian music (such as ‘putting music to Bible verses’) and putting the concept of God to people ‘that already have it in there’ and revealed a mild degree of regret that perhaps he has not yet done enough.
“I go to a methodist church now,… but i’m not a big evangelising-type dude. I understand the importance but how I can reach out to more people so that it’s comfortable for me,… I’m (still) trying to figure that out…. I’d like to think that what I do, to a certain degree exemplifies my philosophy of life – like how I am spiritually. And I’d like to think that my music, to a certain degree conveys that as well.”
The topic struck a chord in my heart, and I continue to be impressed by the degree of honesty he was extending to me (and you).Mario To the Young(er)
When asked if he had advice for the younger generation of musicians，he took a deep breath, and paused as if to do a ‘yoda‘ thing. I was expecting a parable as all wise sayings go. And I wasn’t too far.
“Keep an open mind, and a humble stance.’
“The world nowadays is so me, me, me, do your best, be your best, and not really looking out for other people. It’s about what can you do for the company (or for the band), …. it’s so (with his hands demonstrating, like cat paws) grabby, not giving…”
At which I asked, ” Do you think continually being the presence of Greatness will help people stay humble?”
He quickly answered positively, “always aspire to be surrounded by people who are bigger, because they will force yourself to be better”, but not without adding “but once you do, you musn’t think that you’re in the company of such people, that you’re… special… You’re blessed, but not special. Stay humble.”
Mario on What Feels Like Home
The only Asian kid in a class of mostly Italians, and one African-American, two Puerto Ricans, he had always been called names. ‘Chink’ isn’t quite accurate for his Filipino heritage, but it pretty much summed things up if you represented the Asian minority in Spanish Harlem, El Barrio where he was. Although he didn’t feel outcasted, the degree of estrangement was pretty apparent. Only not so much until he arrived in Singapore.
He practically exploded into sharing his revelation that it never felt more right in 1994 when he first arrived in Singapore. He called it the ‘Asian factor’. ‘It feels so right!’ Mario said. With 90% of the population being Asian, he felt right at home in no time. He really fancied the idea of seeing four different languages in the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) trains and stations. When asked if he had trouble settling in at all, he basically summed it all up: (In 1994) this little red dot had the best of both worlds – the urban-ness (accessibility, infrastructure etctec.) and the ‘Asian factor’. In addition, it was not quite as population-saturated as the city of New York.
“My heart says it was normal! And the past 20 to 25 years seemed more…. ‘abnormal’!” Mario laughed.
I imagine that if the prime minister of Singapore heard or read this, he would be very encouraged by such a real-life testimonial of a very valued addition to this city with ever-growing globalization trends.
Thank you Mario for being the cool person that you are and the generosity for sharing your time, your words, your music and your friendship.
In the midst of writing this very long article, I tripped upon another interview with Mario by jazz singer, Lionelle Hamanaka. The issue is on issu.com and is free for download. It also contains tips from Lionelle for jazz vocalists. https://issuu.com/nyjazzproject/docs/january22a
Mario Serio is available for piano lessons and bookings at:
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