Lots of musicians and singers might say they were strongly influenced by Frank Sinatra. But jazz musician John Bianculli can claim a direct influence on his musical development from old Blue Eyes. "My dad was a waiter all of his life, but he also had an incredible love of music," says Bianculli, a longtime fixture on the Trenton-Princeton-New Brunswick jazz club scene who plays solo piano at the upscale Rats Restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton on Friday and Saturday nights and brings his trio in for Sunday brunch. "He sang and played drums and bass. Jazz was around my house all the time growing up." Working at a posh place on 52nd Street in New York called Jilly's, Bianculli's father was able to eventually buy a single family home in Fort Lee - thanks in part to tips from Frank Sinatra. "Sinatra used to ask for my father whenever he came in there," he says.
The senior Bianculli loved to regale his family with stories about Sinatra, including lore about how he worked to encourage racially mixed groups on stages all around New York City in the 1940s and 50s. "Frank was a very generous person, and he made it easier for black and white artists to play together at clubs in New York," Bianculli says from his new home in Highland Park. In addition, Sinatra hand-picked some struggling musicians to record for the label he started at Warner Brothers, now known as Reprise Records.
Bianculli has played at dozens of venues but he finds that playing solo at a high-end restaurant is its own little world. Particularly a restaurant like Rats, an architectural gem fashioned after a French country villa and set amidst its own mini-cultural mecca of the beautiful and striking outdoor sculpture and art exhibits at Grounds for Sculpture (see story on page 30 on the current juried photo exhibition). When you are the diner at a jazz brunch you might not think twice about the guy at the piano, but Bianculli, 48, says that his position on the bench at Rats gives him a unique opportunity to people watch - and to observe human behavior. "Sometimes it's a drag, and you feel that people are yelling over you, or you're getting requests that you'd rather not play. I was the pianist at the New York Hilton for two years, and one time someone there actually asked me to stop playing! That's rare, though." At other venues he has had to tolerate lots of smoke, noisy TVs, and less-than-adequate pianos.
He finds that while providing music at a restaurant brunch he can kill two musical birds with one stone. "With my solo gigs it's a very personal and intimate thing. If the piano is a good one - and it certainly is at Rats Restaurant - it's really a great way to be expressive and explore and develop."
Bianculli was born in Manhattan and raised in Little Italy before his family moved to Fort Lee. His mother is an actress, singer, and playwright who co-founded the Fort Lee Adult Theater Players. Bianculli came to New Brunswick in 1974 to attend Rutgers as a pre-med major. "I switched my major several times and eventually got involved in the jazz program at Rutgers," says Bianculli. "I found my real religion through jazz." In 1983 he graduated from Rutgers' jazz performance program, now a part of the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
He says listening to "Crystal Silence" by Chick Corea and Gary Burton on the radio when he was a senior in high school cemented his fascination with jazz. "That record changed me. I was more moved by music than I had ever been before, in a very deep emotional way. It was different from all the jazz I'd heard before. It offered a glimpse of a path I might take as a composer and improviser."
From Rutgers he began to work in Newark, New York, and Philadelphia, in clubs like Mr. C's, Sparky J's, and the Peppermint Lounge in East Orange. "Those clubs were a real training ground," he says. "That was a big element in my development, having the chance to play with people like (vibraphonist and longtime New Brunswick resident) Steve Nelson. Steve was always one of my idols, and I was in awe that he asked me to play with him, because it's obvious he's one of the world's greatest vibes players." Bianculli has performed and recorded with Nelson, Jeanie Bryson, Terence Blanchard, Regina Belle, Christy Baron, Charlie Rouse, Bobby Watson, James Spaulding, Jimmy Ponder, Earl May, Bill Hardman, Carrie Smith, and even Cassandra Wilson.
If anyone doubts Bianculli's ability as a composer, they need look no further than late 1990s albums by Bryson and Doris Spears. Bianculli originals are sprinkled on albums by both jazz vocalists.
It's been 22 years since Bianculli, who is single with no children, needed "a day job." He lives in Highland Park with his girlfriend and is lucky enough to support himself on his musician's income. He also teaches music, but limits his students to three a week. Through the 1980s and '90s he enjoyed a long tenure at the New Brunswick Hyatt, playing solo piano, as well as with a trio, and performing with East Brunswick-based vocalist Bryson. "The last time I had a day job was probably sometime in the early 1980s, when I worked in the kitchen at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick," he says.
How does one carve out a living playing jazz? It isn't easy, as any jazz vocalist will tell you. "I always felt I was lucky, but as I look back, I always felt blessed that people were reaching out to me," says Bianculli. "I also never felt that I needed a lot of money to live. I never cared much for rock 'n' roll or playing in top 40 groups, but through the years I have played with a lot of soul, Motown, R&B, and funk groups."
Despite his long career Bianculli has yet to issue his own recording. Pressed about this, he says he plans to finally tackle his own record in 2005. Showcasing some of his own compositions is something he's long wanted to do. "I always thought of myself more as a composer than a pianist," he says. "Composing has always been more about who I am and what I do. For a number of years now, I've always said, it's my intention to put out my own recording. The issue has not been financing the CD; it's been my own perfectionism."
With his trio at the Sunday brunch at Rats, he lets loose with jazz standards, Great American songbook classics, and some originals. He is accompanied by Earl Sauls on bass, and either Tom Baker or Taro Okamoto on drums.
So how does Rats compare to other high-end venues like the New York Hilton? "Rats Restaurant is much more conducive to playing. The environment there is just conducive to people listening. It's not a concert, but it's a very beautiful place to play, within the realm of restaurants," he says. "The people who own it are very much supporters of the arts, and the way it looks - with paintings and sculptures around - it just feels like it is conducive to being creative. Many of the people who work at the restaurant are involved in the arts, so it's a very supportive environment. The main upside of playing at the New York Hilton was the high visibility and the fact that I would see celebrities all the time at that venue."
What is Bianculli's bottom line? "I like to play where people really appreciate the music and one of the things about Rats is that it's about the music," he adds.
John Bianculli Trio, Rats Restaurant, 14 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., $49 per person. Call 609-584-7800 or visit www.ratsrestaurant.org. E-mail Bianculli at JohnB9407@aol.com.