BY EVE ZANNI | Romolo Ferri, an accomplished jazz pianist, composer and teacher, died on May 1 at home in his Charles St. apartment at age 89. The cause of death was heart disease and lymphoma.
Romolo Ferri, who was known as Rom, was born on April 17, 1931, the youngest of five children, into a loving, musical family in New Jersey. His father was an opera singer who sang at La Scala in Milano and who also appreciated Louis Armstrong’s singing.
Two of Rom’s uncles played guitar, mandolin and banjo in some of the major big bands, like Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.
Rom’s oldest brother helped get him a piano, then paid for Rom’s lessons. Rom accompanied both of his singing sisters on early radio broadcasts.
At North Plainfield High School, Rom met Bill Evans, who was a senior when Rom was a freshman. Rom was dazzled by Bill’s exceptional talents and classical chops and appreciated Bill’s encouragement. They became friends.
When Bill went south to study at Southeastern University in Louisiana, which was building a jazz studies program, Bill helped Rom get a scholarship there. They opened the door and were followed by at least 12 other musician friends.
Then Rom enlisted in the Army and got a position teaching music theory at the Naval School of Music in Washington, D.C.
Rom’s interest in the esoteric teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas led him to study metaphysics at Catholic University, also in D.C. He was deeply inspired by a professor of Thomistic metaphysics and formed one of the most illustrative mantras of his teaching and life philosophy: “Knowledge comes to the receiver in the manner of the receiver.”
As his wife Linda remarked, “That’s all you really need to know, in order to be a human being or a teacher!”
In 1962 Rom enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music to finish his master’s degree. He earned the respect of the classical faculty even though jazz was not considered “legit”! There he met star classical piano student Linda Kessler, winner of the prestigious Harold Bauer Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Music.
The school community of faculty and students rallied around these two extraordinary musicians in their respective genres — jazz and classical — and literally cheered when they announced their engagement! They married in 1964. Their son, Matthew, born in 1965, inherited some incredible musical genes and is a consummate scat singer.
During his career, Rom played with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Rowland, Todd Coleman, Carol Sudhalter, Larry Brown, Giacomo Gates and Lalia Madriguerra, to name just some.
He taught at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Alma White College, both in New Jersey, and private piano studio at Mannes School of Music, The New School.
Rom composed two musicals, “Nobody but Us,” with lyrics by Walter Thomas, and “A Nasty Itch,” with Kenny Beltrone, as well as original classical and jazz pieces, such as “Waltz for Elena” and “Francesca,” some included on Linda Kessler Ferri’s CD “The Well-tempered Grandma.”
Ferri is survived by his wife Linda, son Matthew, granddaughter Elena and extended family and friends.
Rom’s musical soul was a deep vessel of Italian opera, the exquisite jazz genius of Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Duke Ellington and many majestic jazz luminaries and a love of classical music that he always shared with his wife Linda, an exquisite concert pianist and teacher.
To be received into their Greenwich Village apartment was to enter a Music Zone. You sidle between shelves of music scores, books, records, CDs, boxes with original music, theory, music history, all interspersed with photos of Rom and Linda and their son, with jazz luminaries, family and friends, and wonderful artwork by their adored granddaughter Elena.
Then you are in The Piano Room, a small room completely dominated by a large Steinway grand, lovingly tuned, buffed and polished and a choice spot for a vibrating catnap by Trevor the Musical Cat.
These two pianists, both top-notch artists and master teachers in their respective genres, were, for many years, a “one-stop-shop” for serious music students, both jazz and classical.
When one of Rom’s jazz pianists had an issue with fingering or hand position, they could book a consult with Linda for her classical expertise. When one of Linda’s classical students wanted to learn to play Bird’s “Billie’s Bounce,” she could send him or her to Rom for an in-depth jazz improv lesson.
And what a tag team: Whether teaching or playing a gig, they would spell each other. If either Rom or Linda had a long solo gig, the other might step in and do a “guest” set. I especially love “The Cannoli Caper,” when Linda, sitting by at a gig of Rom’s, noticed that the cannolis were quickly diminishing, signaled to Rom, then quietly took over the piano chair, so that Rom could enjoy his favorite dessert, then slip back onto the piano bench without missing a beat. Those audiences really didn’t know what musical marvels they were getting — and two for the price of one!
Rom Ferri on the piano will always be the elegant groove merchant who created a deep cushion of harmonic beauty and swing for every singer and instrumentalist who was blessed to make music with him.
As soon as Rom started the intro, you knew “who was boss.” And if you paused to really take it in, you’d feel a “red carpet welcome” and you’d know that you and your song were in expert hands.
To sing or play with Rom accompanying, was to ride on a magic swinging carpet…a groove current of vibrant harmony, elegant melodic fills and pure delight. I liked to call Rom “The Italian Hank Jones,” but he was many things…deeply steeped in Bill Evans, with a Sinatra swagger, prone to impressionistic melodic flights, elegant, delightful, swinging, sublime.
I have so many memories of Rom as a friend and mentor. There was the time he asked me to do a duo gig at the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, which was so ornate and grand. I remember feeling honored to be there, singing with Rom and his elegant piano stylings and thinking that this setting seemed to befit him.
But Rom made all settings feel elegant.
Images of an open mic in the Flower District, with garden hoses snaking between the tables, make me smile. Or the years at Cucina in the Village, where you might hear the great Annie Brazil or maybe Russell Malone would stop by to sing with Rom.
Some of the singers were a few shades to the left of professional, but Rom played beautifully for everyone. A shaky “new” singer was always supported by Rom musically and given time and respect. A few years later and that “new” singer was swinging with authority, after studying with Rom.
When I started my journey as a music teacher in Greenwich Village’s local public school, Rom was always there for me. I often asked his advice, which he gave so generously. Most valuable of all, Rom always supplied me with a vitamin of courage, saying, “You’re doing great!”
And brave Rom came to many of the school concerts, where I conducted my Songbird Choir and GrooveCats jazz band before a packed auditorium, with kids and parents making a crazy din! I always felt like I was on the front lines of a battlefield, but seeing Rom in the back row gave me the strength to live and teach another day.
Zanni is a jazz vocalist and author.