Tony Biancosino

Randy Bauer

Blues Traveler

Princeton High School

Popper on Popper

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A Musical Happening, for Harmonica

There is nothing extraordinary about Anthony Biancosino’s

advocating live music, rather than recordings. He is, after all, the

man who developed the instrumental music program for Princeton High

School, the director of its prize-winning wind ensembles, and the

conductor of the newly-formed American Heritage Wind Symphony (AHWS).

However, as he anticipates AHWS’s first concert, he comes up with

a novel analogy. "I would like to put this over like they do in

the sports world. They know how to do it. You can’t imagine a day

when people watch synthesized baseball, football, or basketball games.

There’s no substitute for that one moment when it happens."

Biancosino has arranged to make that "one moment when it happens"

particularly compelling by including in the formal debut of his American

Heritage Wind Symphony John Popper, frontman of "Blues Traveler,"

and harmonica player extraordinaire. Biancosino was Popper’s mentor

when the harmonica player was a student at Princeton High School.

At the concert on Thursday, May 27, in Trenton’s Crescent Auditorium,

Popper will solo in new works by composers Rick Lombardo and Randy

Bauer, both of whom are instrumental music specialists in the Princeton

schools. The program also includes a new non-harmonica piece by Bauer,

and compositions by John Philip Sousa, Karl L. King, and Henry Fillmore.

The AHWS made its informal debut at the 1998 dedication of the new

Princeton Stadium. It is the performing arm of the American Heritage

Music Foundation (AHMF), which is intended to sear the importance

of American band music into the minds of all living people. Biancosino

is the moving force behind AHMF.

In a faxed statement from the hard-to-reach and irreverent John Popper,

who is not afraid to invoke the prospect of chaos, Popper writes,

"The thought of playing a classical piece with Anthony Biancosino

brings to mind the classic dream of taking your midterms completely

naked, or being lit on fire. A week away, and not only do I still

retain no ability whatsoever to read music, but I don’t know how the

damn thing goes. Tony has every confidence that I will learn this

work in time, and at this late date I can only pray for a miracle."

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Tony Biancosino

Biancosino, who no doubt has heard such protestations

before, is wildly enthusiastic about the new music that Lombardo and

Bauer have written for the concert. He arranges for me to meet with

him and the composers at Princeton High School and urges them to preview

the pieces for me on the piano. Biancosino is the ultimate friend

of the press. He thinks that I can convey to readers in words what

the music sounds like. Of course, I can’t. Suffice it to say that

what I hear holds my attention, and that enthusiasm is appropriate.

In turn Lombardo and Bauer, at the piano, call off the instrumentation,

passage by passage as they play. Lombardo’s piece is called "Blues

Soliloquy for Soloist and Band." The large central section is

not written out because it allows for Popper to improvise on the harmonica.

"Rick’s glue," says Biancosino referring to Lombardo, "consists

of systematic stylistic changes while using the same theme. The way

it flows form one section to another, it’s upon you before you know

what happened."

Lombardo, in his mid 50s, is a composer, arranger, and music publisher

who teaches band music in the Princeton school system. His more than

80 published compositions are primarily for flute, saxophone, and


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Randy Bauer

Composer Bauer, now in his 20s, and, like Popper, one of Biancosino’s

former students at PHS, has contributed two pieces to the program.

At the piano, he sketches out his three-movement harmonica concerto.

Set between bustling outer movements is a nostalgic second movement.

"In this movement I’m feeling totally stretched in a very positive

way between Debussy, Ravel, Delius, and Vaughan Williams," says

Biancosino. "If we could put those four in one mind, we would

have Randy Bauer. This movement has their harmonic motion, their tension

and release. It’s sort of unstable. It’s screaming with color. It

floats. But on top of this is an incredible Vaughan Williams-like

melody, almost a folk tune that just moves from simplicity to elegance.

It becomes elegant just by the nature of what’s under it. That what

I think is the genius here." As Bauer squirms somewhat at the

overt compliment, Biancosino adds, "I really do, Randy."

Bauer’s "Lucid Dreams," a piece for wind orchestra without

harmonica, is also included in the program, and he plays it on the

piano. It starts with indistinct melodic fragments, along the lines

of the second movement of the concerto, that grow and expand. "When

the tension can’t build any more," Bauer says, "there’s a

very quick release. What’s left is for the piece to end. So there’s

a final statement and the piece ends very quietly."

Trained at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, Bauer teaches music theory

and co-directs the choir at PHS. "I’m an American composer in

the Western classical tradition," he says, "I’m also a jazz

pianist, and that often creeps into my music, even if it’s not what

I set out to do."

As a veteran and well-loved teacher who will be forever remembered

by former students as "Mr. B," Biancosino derives great satisfaction

from the success of all his students, including Popper and Bauer.

"They’re now men," he says, "and contributing as professionals.

It gives me personal jubilance."

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Blues Traveler

Popper has made a particular splash. "There wouldn’t be a kid

on the planet at this point who doesn’t know John Popper," says

Biancosino of the large, brash harmonicist, who graduated from Princeton

High in 1986. A posting on the harmonica-oriented Web page of Richard

Hunter says of Popper, "Emotionally, his playing is about ecstasy;

his cascades of notes are a volcanic eruption of sheer joy. He has

created a new style and approach to playing the harmonica which cannot

be ignored by harmonica players, any more than classical pianists

can ignore Beethoven."

Popper, along with guitarist Chan Kinchla, percussionist Brendan Hill,

and bassist Bob Sheehan, all PHS graduates, Class of ’87, are the

Blues Traveler. Popper is the group’s chief writer, its lead vocalist,

and its harmonica virtuoso. Popper, in addition, co-founded and co-owns

H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), a summer touring

group established in 1992, where Blues Traveler has repeatedly appeared.

Popper’s sense of loyalty to both Traveler and H.O.R.D.E. is memorable.

In 1993 he severely fractured his leg in a motorcycle accident and

the band faced the specter of canceling their summer tour. However,

Popper mobilized his wheelchair, traveled with the band, and performed

from the chair. By 1996 the H.O.R.D.E. tour became one of the largest

grossing tours ever.

Blues Traveler’s discography features six albums every one of which

has gone gold or better. The group’s first eponymous CD was dedicated

"To our parents — who didn’t flinch." In 1996 the group

released the 2-CD set, "Live from the Fall;" "Straight

On Till Morning," the group’s latest, released in 1997, is a platinum

seller. At the moment Blues Traveler’s management is keeping the musicians’

noses to the grindstone as they cut a new recording, but the folks

there know that Popper is, incidentally, involved in what they call

"Mr. B’s project."

For those not yet hooked on Blues Traveler, a favored

starting place is their 1994 CD "Four," now a six-time platinum

seller. Its cover art shows a cat with a knowing look, colored red

and cool blue on a day-glo avocado green background. Perhaps the cat

is intended to represent John Popper. At any rate, it wears sunglasses

and dangles a cigaret from its lip, although it lacks Popper’s signature

cowboy hat, and gives no evidence of being six-foot-four and weighing

over 300 pounds. The songs feature Popper’s dusky voice singing mostly

his own imaginative lyrics. The signature sonic element of the recording

is Popper’s roller-coaster-nimble harmonica, a de-rasped vehicle that

asserts itself as a singing solo instrument.

Popper came into Biancosino’s life when, as a high school student,

he wandered into Biancosino’s precincts in PHS’s band area with his

harmonica, and blew Biancosino into orbit with his playing. "I

immediately adjusted my jazz ensemble so we could include harmonica,"

says Biancosino, who runs four separate jazz ensembles at PHS, in

addition to a full band program. "We encouraged John to play harmonica

the way you would play flute or piccolo. He has extraordinary talents,

for literature, as well as for music."

The flexible, devoted teacher has led Princeton’s wind ensembles to

one triumph after another. They have won competitions throughout North

America for almost two decades. "John was with me for several

wins," says Biancosino. The studio band made history in 1985,

at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, when they were the first

high school band invited to play at an inaugural ball. They were invited

again for the inaugural of President George Bush. The band was invited

also to play in 1994 for U.S. Army troops departing for the 50th anniversary

of the D-Day invasion. They have also been invited to perform at workshops

on university campuses. In 1991 the New Jersey State Assembly passed

a resolution honoring Biancosino and the PHS band for "their unparalleled

history of musical excellence."

In his mid 50s, Biancosino earned a bachelor’s degree in music education

from Philadelphia’s Temple University. His master’s degree in performance

and conducting comes from the College of New Jersey. He has studied

in Indiana University’s doctoral program and holds a doctoral degree

from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He was the Wind

Ensemble director at Princeton University in the 1980s, and again

in the 1990s. In addition to his association with Princeton High School,

he teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Biancosino’s wife, Merrill Price, a dancer and pianist, is head of

the Princeton Conservatory. They live in Princeton and have a blended

family with nine children, ranging from a high school sophomore to

working professionals.

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Princeton High School

A teacher who inspires, Biancosino has affected the

lives of high school students for almost a generation. As one sits

in his office, the sound of spirited jazz music reaches the ear. Princeton

High School’s number one jazz ensemble, led by their student director

is sightreading, playing music they have never seen before. "All

of these students work very hard," Biancosino notes. The ensemble

we hear is the most advanced of the jazz groups at PHS, which has

one beginning jazz band, two intermediate jazz ensembles, and one

advanced jazz ensemble. The school also maintains three orchestras.

At PHS approximately 450 students participate in instrumental music.

An inveterate teacher, Biancosino’s enthusiasm for the American Heritage

Music Foundation and the American Heritage Wind Symphony is entwined

with his desire to use the organizations as a means of instructing

the public about the unique history of wind music in the United States.

"Every time you’re involved with the American Heritage Music Foundation

you’ll go away with more knowledge about our history and culture,"

he says.

"Approximately four years ago we filed for nonprofit status,"

Biancosino says of AHMF. "Our mission is based on the acceptance

of wind music in the United States. A lot of this is personal. I’ve

been in about 40 states and most provinces in Canada, observing wind

programs, and conducting. What I have observed in my lifetime is that

if not for the great band directors at Indiana, Michigan, Eastman,

and the United States service bands, nobody would be playing this

wind music today. The only indigenous music we have in the U.S. is

the symphonic wind ensemble and the swing band. The American Heritage

Music Foundation has set upon an incredible mission: to educate U.S.

citizens to our culture and the history of the U.S. through music

because this is truly American. It begins with the fifes and drums

at the time of George Washington. With our programs we’ll be helping

musicians and composers, and educating young people."

Biancosino’s goals are far-reaching. He has the dream of generating

a wind ensemble in every American city, all of which would look to

Princeton as a magnet. The AHMF is in the process of annexing the

six-year-old Princeton Conservatory, with its more than 100 students,

to serve as a training center. With an eye to starting a museum, Biancosino

has begun collecting historic wind instruments for over a decade.

And he has begun commissioning pieces for future performances of the


Through the commissions, Biancosino hopes to see the repertoire of

wind ensembles expand to feature additional instruments "There

are instruments that have not been given the attention they deserve,"

he says. "Harmonica and saxophone have not received accolades.

Even electric guitar and wind ensemble have been neglected. We’ve

commissioned a tuba piece, and Tubby will have to move over."

Speaking of the American Heritage Wind Foundation, Biancosino says,

"there’s a lot of personal investment in my life in this. I’m

intense about it. I want to see the mission through." His eyes

sparkle as he thinks of ambitious, fully-formed projects intended

to advance everyone’s exposure to American wind music. Zealous as

he is, however, Biancosino can’t see the project through alone.

When Popper was a student at Princeton High, Biancosino helped him

formulate and realize his dream. In the Trenton debut of the American

Heritage Wind Symphony, you could say that Popper is just returning

the favor.

— Elaine Strauss

John Popper, Soloist, American Heritage Wind Ensemble,

Crescent Temple Auditorium, 50 North Clinton Avenue, Trenton, 609-924-2021.

The professional wind orchestra makes its debut under conductor Anthony

Biancosino. A combination ticket for the performance and reception

with John Popper is $100; single tickets $15, $25, & $30. Thursday,

May 27, 7:30 p.m.

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Popper on Popper

Despite his obvious visibility, John Popper is well

guarded by management and agents who make it nearly impossible to

reach him. However, Susan Bank of Silent Partner Management in New

York, faxed Popper a list of questions we would have liked to ask.

Here are his replies.

What are your thoughts about appearing in the Trenton concert

conducted by Anthony Biancosino?

Popper: The thought of playing a classical piece with Anthony

Biancosino brings to mind the classic dream of taking your midterms

completely naked, or being lit on fire. A week away, and not only

do I still retain no ability whatsoever to read music, but I don’t

know how the damn thing goes. Tony has every confidence that I will

learn this work in time, and at this late date I can only pray for

a miracle.

If you had it to do again, what would you change?

Popper: Probably my clothes. I was asked to wear a tuxedo for

the engagement. A low-cut number with rhinestone studded pleats, but

the studmaker is a practitioner of a lost art and as my pleats will

not be ready in time for the performance, I will be forced to wear

a greasy smock and nothing else.

What goes through your mind when you’re improvising?

Popper: Blood vessels, oxygen, an estimation of how much I get

paid per note. (Interestingly, if I play more notes on a percentage

basis, I get paid much less. If I play less notes, obviously I get

paid more. But seeing as this is a charity, I have no clear answer

of how many notes I will play. I suspect I will play all of them.)

How do the members of Blues Traveler keep their sense of

togetherness now they no longer all live in one place?

Popper: No matter where Blues Traveler or its members care to

reside, on a metabolic level we have been and will continue to be

structurally sound. Only one time in my memory did one of us ever

begin to disintegrate, but it turned out I just had gas.

What’s the latest Popper biography?

Popper: My biography has been well documented. Born in Cleveland,

Ohio, yadda yadda. Stanford, Connecticut, boppity boom. Princeton,

New Jersey. But it’s worth noting that my life truly began when I

met Anthony Biancosino. The man has so many levels he’s like a complicated

modern house. His winding staircases reveal only a part of the true

structure. His sensitivity in cultivating the attributes of music

education are without parallel and only on a strong foundation such

as this could he have constructed such elaborate and ornate spires.

The man gives and gives and keeps on giving, and without such sensitivity

I might never have learned to blow and suck as I do.

On the biography question, did you succeed in keeping off

the 30 pounds you lost recently? Do you care?

Popper: I did keep off the 30 pounds I was trying to keep off,

however another 30 pounds was walking by and I accidentally ate it.

Caring is a word I use to describe many, many, many different different

aspects to which my life is. On one level I care, on one level I don’t.

One goes in, the other goes out. Old things die, new things are born.

Interest rates go up, taxes go down. Taxes go up, as Democrats are

elected. Soon we’ll all be dead, or maybe not. Life is a soggy dung

sandwich — eat it or starve. And always remember, stay in school.

What are the current residences of Blues Traveler members?

Popper: The whereabouts of Blues Traveler are sketchy at best.

As the band does top secret work for the government they must retain

their anonymity. Though unsubstantiated, some say that they have sighted

drummer Brendan Hill walking out of the Andes mountains somewhere

near Lima, Peru. There was also a mutually corroborated story that

I accidentally hovered over the Hoagie Haven for three hours as beams

of light shot out of my eyes. To this I can only attest that it wasn’t

me — I haven’t hovered in six years, but I did eat at Hoagie Haven.

Their 1/2 roast beef with cheese is fantastic.

What is Blues Traveler’s current relationship with H.O.R.D.E.?

Popper: The relationship of Blues Traveler and H.O.R.D.E. is

something along the lines of Joan Crawford and her most disappointing

troubled young daughter. H.O.R.D.E., which had once held so much promise

and would yield us so much money — not to mention incredible packages

fraught with virtually every artist we admire — has by this time

completely lost our interest. But the tour had run as long as any

tour ever had. We’re at a new age now. High-definition TVs fill the

air, an electric car has been built to exceed 53 m.p.h., movies like

"Star Wars" and "The Matrix" have taught us all to

laugh again, and the Viagra pill has swept the nation with rigid success.

In this time, the "radio show," usually a one-time festival

package thrown at a given time in which the artists receive airtime,

has far surpassed and most efficiently replaced the festival tour.

Therefore it seems obvious H.O.R.D.E. has had its day. Better to be

proud of the former glory of your lost child than to sustain it and

watch it turn into a malevolent and withered creature.

— Elaine Strauss

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