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Cleveland Free Times Article on Dominick Farinacci


   Cover Story


by John C. Bruening
Published Febuary 14 - 20, 2001

The story reads like a Hollywood script — the kind that never makes it to the big screen because most producers would reject it outright as too unbelievable, too much of a fairy tale. But this fairy tale is true, and it has a great soundtrack.

The year is 1999. Our hero is 15-year-old Dominick Farinacci, but before you go looking for that tragic flaw so typical of the classic hero, forget it. This kid’s about as steadfast and honorable as they come — a young knight in training who carries his shining armor around town in a leather case. He’s a trumpet player, and a mighty talented one at that. Since he first started playing in the sixth grade, he’s been doing things that are downright scary: playing along with Louis Armstrong CDs, improvising complex riffs on a melodic line while his contemporaries were still struggling through "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and generally slackening the jaws of just about every high-school band director and music teacher within earshot.

Which is how he landed in the Tri-C JazzFest High School All-Stars, a jazz band comprised of talented teenagers from all over his hometown. Playing in the warmup spot on the last night of the 1999 Tri-C JazzFest, this combo of fresh young faces is assembled on the upper level of the Palace Theatre, serving up well-crafted renditions of Duke Ellington tunes. It’s the centennial anniversary of the Duke’s birthday, after all, and just about everything anywhere that has anything to do with jazz has assumed an orbital pattern around this theme all year long.

The crowd files in. They smile and applaud politely for the high-school jazz band, but they’re intent on getting to their seats. They’re here for the main event, a performance by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis. A few members of the orchestra’s ranks are out in the hall, milling around with the civilians, checking out the crowd, listening to the young All-Stars. Dominick takes a solo, and one of Marsalis’ roving lieutenants — a trumpeter named Marcus Printup — does a double-take. He listens for a few minutes, then heads backstage. This is something his boss has to hear.

Later in the evening, a security guard passes a handwritten note to Steve Enos, Dominick’s teacher, and director of the High School All-Stars. Teacher and student are requested backstage after the performance (the last line of the note reads: "Bring horn"). Later, after the LCJO finishes their performance, the security guard escorts Dominick, his parents and Enos backstage — parting a sea of some 200 fans and autograph seekers angling for a moment with Marsalis.

There are brief introductions in an inner room. Marsalis looks at Dominick and says, "Play," and Dominick, always polite and respectful, does what he’s told. Notes fly, time stops for just a moment, and Marsalis’ face lights up. He stops Dominick after a few bars and issues instructions to the security guard, who steps out and disperses the crowd outside. The area is suddenly off-limits, as though some highly sensitive, top-secret experiment is about to take place.

Marsalis sits down with Dominick and listens to a few more songs, and then proceeds to download as much information and instruction into the kid’s head as time will allow: work on mechanics, learn the history of the trumpet from Louis Armstrong forward, study Bach, study Monk, study every conceivable master of every musical age. And Dominick sucks it up like a sponge.

Phone numbers are exchanged, and Marsalis encourages Dominick to stay in touch and come visit him in New York whenever he can. Dominick emerges from backstage less than an hour later, his head spinning a little. He’s just had the lesson of a lifetime, from one of the masters.

You’d think this would be the part where he’d go home with his dad and try to come down from the buzz, try to make sense of it all — maybe pinch himself a couple times, or press the note from the security guard into his favorite jazz encyclopedia, or scribble something in his journal about The Most Amazing Night of My Life as a Jazz Musician. But this Dominick’s a pretty busy guy. At 15, he’s already working several nights a week in jazz clubs all over town, and on this particular night, after the gig at the Palace, he’s booked at a place called Ciao Cucina, just down the street from Playhouse Square. Pianist Joe Hunter, another one of Dominick’s teachers at Tri-C, is playing at Ciao this evening, and the plan is for Dominick to sit in.

But the plan changes when Marsalis shows up for dinner. What follows is something completely spontaneous and organic. Marsalis doesn’t have his horn with him, so he sits down at the piano while Dominick plays. A crowd gathers, and Marsalis plays a couple tunes on Dominick’s trumpet. Then a few more members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra walk in, and a jam session gets underway. By this time, the joint is packed, and the music doesn’t stop for almost three hours.

Jazz in the fast lane

In some sense, the jam session hasn’t let up in the two years since. Last year, at age 16, Dominick became the youngest member of Ernie Krivda’s Fat Tuesday Big Band, Cleveland’s premier swing jazz orchestra, which holds court at the Savannah Bar & Grille in Westlake on Tuesday nights. Other nights, he puts himself through the paces with his own trio on Wednesdays (at Club Isabella in University Circle), Thursdays (the Fox and Crow in Westlake) and Saturdays (Nighttown in Cleveland Heights), and with a quartet on Fridays (Club Isabella).

He’s played alongside a host of high-profile jazz artists, including Benny Green, Artie Shaw, Joey DeFrancesco, Louie Belson, Eddie Henderson and James Moody. He’s been a featured soloist two years in a row with the Grammy All-American High School All-Star Jazz Ensemble at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles (he’s back there this week for a third and final appearance). He’s made a couple trips to New York to reconvene with Marsalis — one last summer to sit in on a Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra recording session (he recorded "Lazy River" with Marsalis for an upcoming album), and another in December, to play with the LCJO in a Louis Armstrong tribute concert broadcast on PBS. Just last week, he was invited back to Lincoln Center to play with the orchestra in a tribute to Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard in November. He’s scored a four-year ride at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but he’s waiting to hear from Juilliard before he makes any commitments.

There’s plenty more, but you get the idea.

You’d expect him to have some kind of dazzled, awestruck sense of the whole Cinderella experience. Or worse, you’d expect him to have developed a pretty high opinion of himself. Most 17-year-old boys, after all, are usually well on their way to developing high opinions of themselves. But Dominick’s not like most kids his age.

He sits at a table in the dining room of Nighttown on a Monday night — a rare night off — fumbling with a chicken sandwich, trying in earnest to temper his enthusiasm with proper table manners. The conversation moves in several directions, but always in a broader context than the much-ballyhooed Marsalis Connection. For Dominick, music is a journey, and for all of his talent and experience and connections, he’s very aware of how far he has to go and how much he has yet to do in order to get there.

"I could look at what I’ve done in the past couple years and have a huge ego, you know?" he says. He sounds a little gravelly, like he’s operating on just a few hours’ sleep, or is still getting accustomed to speaking with a deeper voice than the one he had a couple years ago. "But I always look at the big picture. The cool thing about jazz is, all I have to do is go home and put on Clifford Brown to get a sense of where I’m at in the big picture. It’s ridiculous. I have so far to go. And that’s what motivates me all the time."

Funny that he would gravitate to Brown, an intricate and ambitious soloist whose chops rivaled Dizzy Gillespie’s, and who was by all accounts a very likable cat — devoid of the typical bad temperament or debilitating habits that plagued so many of his contemporaries in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Though he died young (in a car accident at 26), Brown had already established a formidable reputation by his late teens, and left behind a substantial body of work with luminaries like Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey and Max Roach.

"At first, I didn’t like him," Dominick admits. "I didn’t really understand him. But then, as I learned more and more about the music, then I really liked him. Even now, he’s just about my favorite musician of all time ... The main thing is his sound, and his control over the horn. He had this incredible control, and he just mastered every aspect of the music."

If practice is what it takes to emulate his heroes, then Dominick’s getting plenty, beginning at dawn and usually ending when his gigs are over in the wee hours just before the following dawn.

"Every morning, I always wake up two hours before I have to go to school, usually at about 6:30 or 7:00, and make sure I’m doing the foundational stuff. After that I have school all day, and I play during school — a few hours during rehearsals and improv — and then I work at night. I’m probably playing about 10 hours a day."

His version of school is different from that of most 17-year-olds. He started out at Solon High School, but he’s currently immersed in a full complement of jazz studies courses in Tri-C’s post-secondary enrollment options program. The program enables gifted students to take specialized classes at the college level in order to fulfill high-school requirements and receive college credits at the same time. He’ll graduate in May with a diploma from Solon High School and an associate of arts degree in music from Tri-C.

Does the accelerated pace and the heavy concentration in music ever get tiresome?

"No, never," he says without hesitation. "Just physically, sometimes. I mean, yeah, at the end of the day, I’m kinda sick of music, but then I go to sleep for a couple hours, and I wake up and I’m excited about it all over again."

Little Satch

Dominick’s first love was the drums, but after some trouble with counting beats and tempo, he made the switch to trumpet. Within a few months, his mother wondered whether there was something unusual about her son’s habit of playing along with Louis Armstrong CDs.

Round-faced and gregarious, Steve Enos (pictured at left) is the friendly shepherd to some of the most talented young jazz musicians in town. He’s always on the lookout for new talent to fill the ranks of his Tri-C JazzFest High School All-Stars, but even he was more than a little skeptical at first.

"Someone dropped me a note in my mailbox," he recalls. "It said to call this kid, he’s really into jazz and he’s playing along with Louis Armstrong records. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘A 12-year-old kid playing along with Louis Armstrong records? Oh, come on.’"

Enos called Dominick’s mother and suggested she bring him down to Tri-C’s Excellence in Music program, a jazz studies program on Saturdays for school-age music students from all over Greater Cleveland.

"So this little kid comes in, and he’s about four feet high," says Enos. "We’re doing a big band rehearsal, and I point to him and I say, ‘Why don’t you take a solo?’ And sure enough, he does it. He was completely raw, but you could tell that he’d been listening to Louis."

Enos enrolled Dominick in the Saturday program, and Little Satchmo immediately moved into the express lane. His first assignment was to learn all of the major scales — a project that usually takes students in Dominick’s age group at least three or four months to even start to get a handle on.

"This kid came back the next week and had all his scales down," says Enos. "He could play them in all 12 keys. So at that point, I knew that I was dealing with someone here who was not only talented, but he put the time in."

For all of his raw talent, Dominick credits much of his achievements to date to Enos’ early intervention and the Tri-C program in general. He put the time in, he says, because Enos inspired him to put the time in.

"He just turned me on to different musicians and got me excited about playing, because he’s a working jazz musician, and one of the best in Cleveland," says Dominick. "So I would go watch him play, and I just kept telling myself, ‘Maybe this is what I could do one day. I really want to do this.’ What he gives you is really intense, and it quickly eliminates all the students who aren’t really into it."

By the time Dominick was 15, he was on the substitute list for Ernie Krivda’s Fat Tuesday Big Band. By 16, he was on the regular roster. Despite some initial apprehension about hiring such a young player, Krivda was eventually sold on Dominick’s "profound interest in the music." But there was something else, too.

"He had a proclivity for lyrical improvisation," says Krivda. "You don’t usually find that in young people. Most young musicians like flash and dash — louder, faster, that kind of thing. Very seldom do you see someone who has a natural bent and an appreciation for lyrical, beautiful, songlike improvisations."

Ironically, Dominick’s gig with Krivda’s big band puts him in the same trumpet section with Enos. But there’s still much to learn, and the student remains deferential to his teacher.

"Even on gigs where we’re playing together, he still calls me Mr. Enos. He won’t call me by my first name. I’m always telling him, ‘You know, Dominick, it’s OK. You can call me Steve.’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Enos.’"

The Son Also Rises

Dominick’s parents have been on a learning curve of their own. Before his son picked up the trumpet five years ago, Mike Farinacci was partial to the Motown of his youth, and his understanding of jazz was limited to the instrumental pop of Kenny G and the rest of the smooth-jazz set. Mike sells surgical X-ray equipment, and takes no genetic credit for his son’s musical talents. His father, though, played a handful of instruments — sax, guitar, piano, accordion and harmonica — at Euclid Beach and other local spots during the ’40s.

Nancy Farinacci, Dominick’s mother (pictured at right), manages Hickerson’s in the Hanna Building at Playhouse Square. The restaurant has hosted several Tri-C JazzFest dinners and functions, but ask her whether she has any musical inclination of her own and she’ll laugh out loud. She insists that it all went to her son, although he showed a tenacity for anything he was interested in even before he discovered music.

"He did karate for several years when he was going through school, and he did golf," she says. "And he always did well. Dominick was the type who could just go in and pick something up for the first time and excel at it. He just does what he does on such a nonchalant level, but the intensity at which he does something is just unbelievable."

Bonding rituals differ from one father and son to the next. Some shoot hoops in the driveway, or spend weekends fishing and camping. Mike and Dominick connect in the late hours, somewhere in between the blue notes. Mike brings a camcorder to just about every gig, playing the multiple role of chaperone, manager and fan.

"He got on a path that he’s dedicated to, so we just try to do whatever we can to enhance it for him," Mike says. "He hasn’t been distracted into a lot of areas that could be a potential problem. The only thing we were looking out for early on was the fact that he was so young — 13 or 14 years old — and playing in clubs. Either I or his mom always went with him. Up until he was 16, I’ve been the self-appointed, unofficial, nonpaid limo driver. And actually, I’ve been enjoying it, because I enjoy the music, and the clubs where he plays are all good places with good reputations. There’s never a problem."

But always a challenge. In the fall of 1999, Dominick was invited to sit in with clarinetist Artie Shaw at the Mentor Civic Center. Bandleader Dick Johnson told him to take a seat in the front row, and he’d call him up sometime during the set to play "Misty" and "It’s Wonderful" with Shaw.

"We went out to the car to get his trumpet," says Mike. "I knew he knew ‘Misty,’ but I asked him if he knew ‘It’s Wonderful.’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t think I know that.’ I said, ‘Dominick, you just told him you were going to play that!’ So he’s out in the car, shuffling through a book, and he finds the song in a book. And then he listens to a couple minutes of the song on the CD player, and he says, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, I got it.’

"So we go back in, and Dick Johnson calls him up onstage, and he went up into the trumpet section. Mind you, they’re all in tuxes, and he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He played the melody of ‘It’s Wonderful,’ and then did some improvisation, and then played ‘Misty.’ Now, I know this might sound like the old man bragging, but he outplayed their trumpet section. The crowd was going crazy."

The videotape doesn’t lie. The Hawaiian shirt was, in fact, completely out of place, but everything else came together flawlessly. He did give the rest of the horns a run for their money, and the crowd was eating out of his hand.

But that last part never seems to matter much to Dominick. He’s equipped with some kind of impervious humility, some indestructible psychic shield that protects him from the insidious and corrosive fallout from all of the attention and accolades that inevitably come with being as talented as he is — which only makes him all the more magnetic. Sometimes his own mother can’t quite figure it out.

"He has never let the attention go to his head at all," says Nancy, who took the initial call from Marsalis’ secretary last fall about playing with the LCJO in the Louis Armstrong tribute performance in December. "I called him on the car phone and told him, ‘Dominick, they called and they want you to perform with Wynton Marsalis in New York,’ and he just said, ‘Oh, OK, Mom, I’ll get back to her.’ So he called her back, he set it up, and then he went to his room to do his homework. I said, ‘What do you mean you’re going to do your homework? Aren’t you going to call somebody and tell them about this?’ And he said, ‘No, I have to do my homework.’ That’s him. He never flaunts what he’s doing, nor does he take it for granted."

Tough town

No matter how good he may already be, Dominick plays to a tough market. Although Ken Burns’ recent jazz series on PBS weathered an inordinate amount of sniping from jazz purists, it also scored viewership numbers in Cleveland that were consistently higher than in any other market in the country, according to Terri Pontremoli (pictured at left), associate director of the Tri-C JazzFest (it was Pontremoli, incidentally, who dropped the note about Dominick in Steve Enos’ mailbox five years ago, after a conversation with Nancy Farinacci).

"There are a lot of people out there who like this music," she says. "They don’t know that they should support it, and they don’t necessarily go out to concerts. They’re people who buy jazz CDs and listen at home. But I think that they are starting to come out."

Cleveland’s predilection for jazz "depends on what kind of jazz you’re talking about," Dominick says. "There are two different ends to the spectrum in Cleveland. There’s the traditional thing, led by Ernie Krivda, and then there’s the more progressive, more modern sound, led by Jack Schantz and his Jazz Unit. I love both of them, but for the most part, Cleveland people are drawn more toward the traditional end.

"I could get a rhythm-and-blues band together and play at some R&B club and the place would be packed," he continues. "But you’re just not going to do that with jazz. So I want to play my kind of thing, and at the same time attract people — maybe some fans of jazz, or maybe some new people — and hold their attention, and maybe make them want to go out and buy records of other people and learn more about the music. That’s my goal."

Toward that end, he gets good help. Matt Elliott (above, left) plays bass in the Dominick Farinacci Trio. He’s five years older than Dominick, but he freely admits that he didn’t have his game nearly as much together when he was 17. Pianist Joe Hunter (above, right), like Steve Enos, is both teacher and colleague to Dominick. He teaches improvisation at Tri-C, and maintains a regular gig in the Fat Tuesday Big Band and a semi-regular gig in Dominick’s trio. And of course, there’s Krivda, who made the rules clear to Dominick from the beginning, and even sent him home early on a couple of his first gigs with the Fat Tuesday Big Band because he wasn’t prepared.

"The thing that we talk about all the time is, in very short order, he’s not going to be a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old trumpet player anymore," says Krivda. "He’s going to be a 25-year-old trumpet player, and the thrill that people get from seeing a young musician is going to be gone, and his abilities are going to have to stand on their own. This is stressed over and over. It certainly is in the back of his mind all the time."

And that’s what pushes him the hardest. Back in the dining room at Nighttown, Dominick relays a joke he heard just a couple days earlier: "This little boy says to his mother, ‘Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a jazz musician.’ And the mother says, ‘Well, now, you know, you can’t do both.’"

He cracks a grin that’s boyish and knowing at the same time. It’s a good joke, but one that he’d prefer not to be the punchline of. He remembers Clifford Brown — master of his craft at a young age and yet still full of potential — and he picks a point on the smooth wooden tabletop with his index finger and draws an imaginary line.

"I want to get from where I’m at right here to someplace as close to Clifford as possible," he says. "And hopefully, eventually, attempt to pass him. That’s my goal. I doubt if I’ll get there, but that’s my goal. And all these things that happen in between — yeah, I’m excited about them, but I still never lose the will to practice. I still have so far to go."



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