It's 8:30 on a Wednesday night in East Patchogue, and when tenor sax player Bill Rignola gives the nod for the five-man jazz band to "hit it," music permeates the Dunton Inn like a tsunami from the past.
As a tip of the hat to one of its founders and lead singer, the band is called Vincenzo & Co. They kick off with guest trumpeter Dick Behrke's rendition of "Tangerine," its nostalgic melody soon melding into Behrke's improvisation that defines what jazz is all about.
"It's like being back in the Roseland Ballroom," a fan in the audience says. "You don't hear live jive like this anymore." Roseland, a legendary Manhattan dance hall once known for its "hot jazz" bands, shut its doors earlier this year.
Several young guitar and trumpet players who await their turn to jam with Vincenzo & Co. may never have heard of the dance hall, but it's the music that has drawn them to this Long Island hamlet.
They're old but cool
And for those fond of the genre, fans say this band's music is as cool today as it was at the peak of the jazz era -- about 60 years ago, when most of the band's members first took up their horns and other instruments. These jazzmen say that when they play, the years peel away as they swing into the beat and put their own spin on classic American music.
The founders of Vincenzo & Co. are longtime friends who are now retired from their day jobs. Rignola, 80, of East Patchogue is a former contractor; drummer Ron Scarpati, 79, of Medford is a former Patchogue village employee; and the band's organizer and vocalist, Vincenzo Castellano, 74, of Mastic Beach, is a former upholsterer.
Castellano calls himself "an old-fashioned crooner." Explaining how the band was named after him, he says, "I just got together with my friends who wanted to be part of a jazz combo, and my name sort of stuck for want of anything better."
Rignola says, "We play, not only because we all love jazz and this combo gives us a chance to keep up our skills, but because we want to stimulate interest in jazz -- and part of that is encouraging young jazz players."
It's a gesture appreciated by the younger set. Vibraphonist Max Feldschuh, 25, of Riverhead, says his music education was underscored by many impromptu jam sessions with Vincenzo & Co.
"It was a unique way to learn the ropes," says Feldschuh, who graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and New York University, where he earned a master's degree in music.
Rignola says welcoming younger generations into the jazz fold will keep the music alive. "Without youngsters like Max, jazz could be in danger of being lost."
Maybe not quite. some experts say. "Jazz won't be lost, although it will never again have the clout it once had . . . when it dominated the popular music scene," says Peter Winkler, composition professor at Stony Brook University's Department of Music. "It's fallen into the realm of a classic genre, like country, soul and folk, by finding its niche in American music legend."
Various factors contributed to the waning popularity of jazz, including the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s.
Rignola says Vincenzo & Co. members never got caught up in the style changes that gripped the popular music audience. "As for our combo, we already had other occupations," he says. "We'd always played jazz for our own amusement and for clubs and private parties, and we agreed that we wouldn't play that new stuff, so we never switched."
Their audience has diminished as many older fans move away or stay home in bad weather, Rignola says, but he also has noticed that the gap is slowly being filled with younger-to-middle-aged regulars who often ask the combo to play jazz favorites.
Hope for the future
Over the years, the band's mission to salvage a portion of musical history has prompted dozens of younger musicians to show up at the Inn, instruments in hand, for a chance to jam with the seasoned players.
"These kids love jazz as much as we do, and by passing the torch, we can see there's hope for the future," Rignola says. "We're able to give them a taste of what it's like to play for a live audience. There's not many places they can do that."
Some who were mentored by Vincenzo & Co. have gone on to careers in music. Trumpeter Thomas Manuel, 35, of St. James, was only 17 when he began to jam with the ensemble. "Billy [Rignola] took me under his wing and was hugely instrumental in teaching me jazz," says Manuel, who has a master's degree in music from Boston University College of Fine Arts. He also taught music at Islip High School for eight years and is currently a doctoral candidate in jazz studies at Stony Brook University.
To round out the combo, Vincenzo & Co. recruited two professional musician friends, pianist Rich Dimino, 67, of Sound Beach and bassist Paul Brusger of Northport. At 52, Brusger says, "The guys call me the baby of the group." When he's not at home, he plays gigs around the country. "When Paul or Rich are away on gigs, we can invite any number of jazz friends to sit in," Rignola says.
"Actually, lots of times, some of them drop in for the evening, and we always welcome them to jam with us. Most of our guests are longtime professional sidemen who'd toured with bands across the country, from Broadway to Hollywood; rubbed shoulders with a virtual 'Who's Who' of jazz greats -- from Benny Goodman to Satchmo. We're honored when they drop in."
Trumpeter and arranger Behrke, 78, of Shelter Island, once worked with icons such as Tony Bennett and Lena Horne. He was a close friend and colleague of singer Bobby Darin, whose rendition of "Mack the Knife" is a classic.
"The musicianship at the Dunton Inn is awesome," says jazz fan Russell Martin, 62, of Bayport who works in medical sales. "I've been a regular patron for about eight years, and between the combo, the youngsters and the pros who drop in, there's always a surprise about what's in store that night. Where else can you hear top performers for free -- and watching how they all work together is a lesson in professionalism."
For the past 17 years, the band has held regular Wednesday night jam sessions at the Dunton Inn, one of only a handful of active jazz venues on Long Island (see box). "If it wasn't for [former Inn owner] Ed Mariella, there would be no jazz at the DI. He's a patron of the arts," says Castellano.
The Inn is an unassuming neighborhood watering hole with a capacity for 90 and was bought in 1975 by Mariella. "I had a few musician friends -- guys who love jazz and were eager to play for a live audience, so I offered them that opportunity," says Mariella, who is 72. "We set up the Wednesday night live jazz attraction that's been ongoing ever since."
Room at the Inn
He sold the Inn in August. New owner, Jim Strano, 62, of East Patchogue, says he strongly supports jazz night.
"When I bought the Inn, people asked me if I would let the jazz combo stay on," he says. "Actually, I was hoping they would want to stay. It's a tradition I intend to keep."
As for Vincenzo & Co., drummer Scarpati says, "I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say I never want to stop playing."
Here are some local spots where jazz still swings, with no cover charge.
Bay Burger: 1742 Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Tpke., Sag Harbor; 631-899-3915; Thursdays, 7-9 p.m.
Dunton Inn: 701 S. Country Rd., East Patchogue; 631-758-8940; Wednesdays, 8:30-10 p.m.
Stony Brook University Student Union Cafe: 631-689-6000; Wednesdays, during the school year