It’s easy to believe that, somewhere in his family history, Bill O’Connell must have some connection to Latin lineage. After all, for more than four decades the Port Washington native has carved a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Latin jazz in the music business, having performed at some of the most prestigious clubs in the world — from Birdland in Manhattan to The Cotton Club in Tokyo. He’s also worked with some of the cream of the jazz world — Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and Mongo Santamaria to name a few.
“At base, I’m a jazz musician, and then there’s the Latin thing,” says O’Connell, 64, who divides his time between residences in Montauk and upstate Suffern. “As a jazz musician, I like mixing everything. And all music can only benefit from cross-pollination. . . . I’ve always felt that I’ve had something to bring to it even though I’m not Latino. I approach the music in an honest way, very respectfully and with nothing but love for it.”
That love will be in the air when O’Connell takes the spotlight at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center on Monday night with his band, the Latin All-Stars. No doubt, he and his group will be playing a few tracks from O’Connell’s latest recording “Monk’s Cha-Cha” (Savant), the first solo album, which was recorded at a club in Nyack.
“The nice thing,” he says of the album, “is that it’s just you and the piano. There’s nobody else to hide behind, or nobody else to distract what you’re trying to get across with the music.”
Latin jazz, he says, incorporates elements o
f the mambo, cha-cha, conga and other rhythm music styles. “It’s just not swinging in the same way that traditional jazz is,” says O’Connell. The music, he says, is an amalgam of the rhythms of Brazil, Peru and Cuba, all of which have roots in Africa. His arrangements reflect that.
“As soon as you hear him playing, you know that’s Bill. His playing has a very distinctive voice,” says Tom Manuel, president of The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook. “You hear his name, and you wouldn’t expect him to be associated with Latin jazz. He’s a master of that style yet he’s not Cuban, but a local boy.”
Musical influences were everywhere in O’Connell’s life when he was growing up. His mother, Doris O’Connell, was a singer and at 5, he began studying piano with his uncle, a classical musician.
“I can’t say I was totally into it all the time,” O’Connell says about taking piano lessons.
When he was about 11, O’Connell recalls, it became more of a chore for him to sit down and practice. “My mother came up to me and said ‘Bill, you don’t have to take piano lessons anymore if you don’t want to.’ And I remember starting to cry a little bit. . . . I realized right then and there how much it really meant to me. I thought, you can’t take music away from me. Don’t do that. From that point on . . . I was a little more self-motivated.”
In high school, he began writing music for the orchestra and briefly played in a rock band. His interest in jazz wasn’t really cultivated until he began studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. “I had a roommate who was very into jazz. He had all the Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums, and I immersed myself in that, and then I was hooked,” he says.
Post-college in the early ’70s, he headed to New York City, picking up a few jazz gigs. Still, it wasn’t enough to pay the rent, then a whopping $120 a month. “I had a telemarketing gig selling land in the Poconos” to supplement his income, he says. “We all have to pay our dues.”
Along the way, he made lifelong friends who shared the same goals as he did, including Steve Slagle, who plays alto and soprano sax and flute in the Latin All-Stars. “We were youngbloods coming into the city playing our music,” Slagle says. “Bill’s just one of the handful of the strongest pianists in New York. And when you’re playing on a team with a player of the highest level, you have to come up to that level.”
At that time, the Latin music scene was vibrant in New York City, with numerous dance clubs serving up salsa, mambo and more, O’Connell says. “I was intrigued by the music even though I knew nothing about it.”
One night, a trumpet-playing pal performing with a Latin group asked O’Connell to fill in for the piano player. The group’s bass player gave O’Connell a crash course in the rudiments of Latin jazz. “And they really dug the way I soloed,” he said. “So then I was on my way. I was playing with great Latin musicians, and that rhythm has as much passion as great jazz.”
O’Connell’s big break came in his late 20s when he joined Santamaria’s band and also got his first taste of touring. “The beauty of it was that we were playing every night,” he says. “San Diego, then San Francisco, then Seattle. And that does something to you musically. I really started to hear all the percussions parts, I started to hear the music in a way that was not just concerned with my parts as the pianist in the band. I could hear how all the rest of the parts locked into the music, which is another level of understanding Latin music. When you play every night, you just get stronger.” It also helped that, at the time, he had no family responsibilities when he was touring. After having children — one with his first wife and three with his current wife of 28 years, Laurie Solomon — he cut back on touring. He has one grandson, Ethan, 2. “I’ve been very involved with my kids’ lives despite traveling a bit,” he says. “I was never away so much that they would forget who I am.”
Equally memorable were his stints playing with Rollins and especially Baker. “Playing with Chet, it was the closest I ever got to playing with Miles [Davis],” O’Connell says. “His lyricism, his sensitivity. There was also a ferocity that maybe isn’t on record as much of the way he put melodies together. Sometimes he would play some stuff that would blow my mind in intensity.”
With both Baker and Rollins as well as longtime collaborator Dave Valentin, O’Connell says he evolved into a more polished musician. “The way you learn is you play with the best musicians possible and strive to play at that level,” he says. “I learned a lot about intensity, focus, commitment and translating emotion into your music.”
TEACHING WHAT HE KNOWS
Everything O’Connell learned playing with those jazz legends, he now tries to instill in his students at Rutgers University, where he has taught jazz piano for the past eight years. But then, O’Connell has always been an instructor throughout his career, taking on private students when he was in New York City.
“Economically it makes sense,” he says, “and it’s also a nice thing to do. You’re still involved in music, and you’re sharing it with people.”
He’s also made numerous recordings with various bands and he’s always performing somewhere — most recently at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill earlier this month. “Bill’s was the last performance of the season,” says Richie Siegler, a percussionist and jazz curator of the Parrish. “I figured let’s end it with the quintessential jazz quartet. . . . He’s a very interesting guy and a pleasure to talk to.”
O’Connell is hoping to become a full-time Montauk resident, and just as he felt as a kid, no one will ever take music away from him.
“Composing is a big part of my life. I want to keep looking for that next tune, I want to be looking for that next phrase,” he says. “I just want to be open to being inspired. And I don’t want that to change, and I don’t think it will change.”
To experience the Latin jazz beat of Bill O’Connell, you can either listen to his live album “Monk’s Cha Cha” (available at Amazon.com) or see him perform live at these venues.
Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Monday, 10 Columbus Circle
INFO $20 to $35 cover; 212-258-9595, jazz.org/dizzys
WHEN | WHERE 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1 and Saturday, Sept. 2, 500 W. Lake Dr., Montauk
INFO Free; 631-668-5330, gosmans.com
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Thursdays, Aug. 31 and Sept. 7, 1742 Sag Harbor Tpke., Sag Harbor
INFO Free; 631-899-3915, bayburger.com