Tony Moreno was born in Manhattan, but the world he grew up in could be charted with musical notes and rhythms just as well as with streets and neighborhoods. His mother, Nina Dunkel Moreno, was considered one of the great American harpists of her day, as well as being a pianist, musicologist, and teacher. While gender discrimination kept her from performing with the major orchestras, she forged a unique career in New York playing solo, in recitals, and in chamber groups. She also made her own innovations on the harp, developing techniques which allowed her to play changes and to improvise, and thus adapted her playing to a remarkably vast array of musical styles. Her ever-expanding repertoire included 16th Century manuscripts, transcriptions of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown, Charles Ives and Schoenberg, and much more. In this way, she supported Tony and his Grandmother, and met several of the era’s most prominent composers and musicians along the way.
This commitment to music and creative growth meant that there was always music being played in the Moreno home, and that it was fundamental. Tony remembers that when his mother had rehearsals, he would simply fall asleep underneath the baby grand. But from a very young age, Tony was more than just a listener. In this richly musical environment, it wasn’t long before he started playing too. Tony took up the piano at age 3, and began composing at age 7. At age 9, Tony describes being taken with a kind of musical restlessness, which propelled him up and down the aisles of the Lincoln Center Music Library in search of more, and different. He cast his net (and imagination) far and wide: Folk and Classical music from all around the world, UNICEF field recordings, jazz, rock — it didn’t matter. Tony would bring home armloads of records for two weeks at a time, consuming any and every form within reach in an effort to satisfy a hunger for a new musical direction.
Tony has many stories from his long career, of his travels and experiences, and the characters and luminaries he’s met. But there is one from this early period in his life that communicates a lot about who he is and where he comes from. In this story, Tony receives his first-ever drum set, and at the same time lays the foundation for what would become a significant lifelong relationship with a musical giant. It begins with one of Tony’s typical walks from the library to his home, with his arms filled with records, as usual. His circuit took him past a jazz club called La Boheme, and on this day in 1967, now aged 11, Tony stopped to look in the window.
“Usually the heavy curtains inside the club were shut tight, but this time there was a little opening where the sun peeked through. Looking inside I saw the sunlight streaming in onto a beautiful drum set. I checked to see who would be playing that week — Elvin Jones, with Jimmy Garrison and Joe Farrell, his trio at the time. I had been listening to Elvin’s record Midnight Walk, and I had already fallen in love with his playing and sound. I had never heard anything like it before. It was immediate and direct.
When I got home, I asked my mother if she would take me one night to hear Elvin at La Boheme. At that time she was playing every night at Charles French in the Village, and her last set there was at 11 PM. Every evening I sat with my grandmother in the kitchen, dressed and ready to go, just in case. But my mom was always too tired.
Finally, Saturday night, same scenario, but she said yes. I was ecstatic.
When we arrived at La Boheme for the 1 AM set, the band was on break and the club was empty except for two people. We sat at the front table, right in front of the drums, maybe 3 feet away. I put my head down on the table and fell asleep. The next thing I knew, someone was picking me up and kissing me on the cheek. When I turned around, I saw it was Elvin. He sat me down gently and grabbed a seat with us. I was completely stunned.
While Jimmy and Joe were setting up, Elvin spoke with us. He asked me what I was doing with the drums, what I was studying. He was so kind and genuinely interested, it was easy to open up to him. I told him that I had a set of sticks and had been practicing on a Billy Gladstone pad that my mom bought for me at the old Manny’s, studying Gene Krupa’s Drum Method.
After the set, Elvin asked me if I wanted a drum set. I looked at my mom and she nodded OK. The following week we were at Elvin and Keiko’s apartment on West 89th between Columbus and CPW. It was a five story walk up, and it took us a while to get up the stairs. My mother had been crippled in a car accident when I was young. They both stood waving at us from the top floor, Keiko dressed in a beautiful kimono and Elvin in a magnificent silk robe and slippers.
It was a small studio apartment. One wall was covered in Downbeat trophies, all turning green from tarnish and rust. There was a small bed, a table and chairs and a tiny kitchenette. Elvin had been watching a John Wayne western, so we watched as well. It was on the same black and white 13” TV with a coat hanger for rabbit ears just like we had! During the commercial breaks we would talk, and Keiko offered us snacks. After an hour or two, Elvin said it was time to pick out a set of drums.
We went downstairs, where there was a door with a lock on it. When we got inside, I saw that the room was stacked floor to ceiling with drums, cases, cymbals. Elvin went for a set at the bottom — a round badge Gretsch silver champagne swirl. I never saw anything so beautiful. Meanwhile, Keiko was putting all the hardware and a bunch of sticks, mallets and brushes into a trap case. Elvin began looking for cymbals, picking out a 20” ride, 18” crash and 14” hats. All old K’s. Of course.
When we got the drums to the street, I was so pumped that I ran to the corner to get a cab. After many hugs and kisses at the curb, I returned home with my first set of drums.”
Over the next 6 years, Tony studied with Elvin Jones (when Elvin’s schedule allowed) at Frank Ippolito’s Professional Percussion Center. There, he made close friends with an astonishing pantheon of drummers: Papa Joe, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Gene Krupa, Billy Cobham. All of these powerhouse musicians contributed to young Tony’s education, but he remembers Papa Joe as being especially supportive. He showed Tony how to read arrangements, brush technique, as well as how to choose the right cymbal. Tony took Papa Joe’s advice to heart, saving up enough money to purchase a new cymbal every two months. He amassed an impressively well-curated collection at his studio at Westbeth, where he has been practicing and working since he was 15 years old. Tony describes returning to Westbeth after Hurricane Sandy and seeing these beloved cymbals shattered in the basement hallways and even scattered broken across Bethune and West Streets as his first indication of the extent of the Storm’s destruction.
Unable to bring himself to fully describe the event, Tony asked his wife Susan Wedgle to help him find the words. Susan writes:
“Tony is not verbal. You can’t get a direct response from him with the most basic of inquiries. He can tell a good story, once upon a time told a good joke and will hopefully with time weave this one into not so woeful a tale. For now, he is in mourning and inconsolable. It’s just stuff. He’s not been hurt or lost anyone in his immediate circle but he is mourning.
What he lost in the flood?
The instrument he’s played for the last twenty five years, a kit of drums that has been his voice for two decades; a 6'11'' Yamaha grand piano we have not finished paying for; music, including his library of his own compositions, his collaborators’ work including their originals, 17th Century piano studies from his mother’s library that he was working on; drum sets given or sold to him for a song and with a story that came along with them like the one about how Philly Joe Jones had to hock one kit and, well, there’s a lot of them, some ten trap drum kits; hand drums, frame drums, calabashes, bells, electronics and percussion instruments from all over the world thanks to his own vagabond lifestyle as a musician for hire and to his forty years residence in the warren of music studios that occupy the basement of Westbeth.
He has shared the dank subterranean world of Westbeth’s basement since his first space, a shoebox that he began commuting to daily at fifteen years old to ‘shed’ for the requisite 8-hour days he had committed to in his early life. Over the years, he expanded to larger spaces in the basement. He was accumulating drums and percussion instruments from his neighbors down there, musicians being uprooted, moving on, going on tour with one-way tickets. His fellow denizens of the deep have included: John Scofield, Paul Bley, Roger Squitero, Freddie and Nasheet Waits, Max Roach, Ben Monder, Peter Warren, Billy Harper, Tony Malaby, Mark Turner, Lee Konitz, Jean-Michel Pilc, Eric McPhearson, Russ Lossing; the list is endless. These guys have been life-long friends to Tony.
Tony’s studio is his rehearsal space, a recording studio, where he teaches private, group and ensemble classes for many instrumentalists, a practice room for his essential work on new music, experimenting, honing of and expanding skills, collaborations and the constant ‘shedding’ that, in twenty five years living with him, I have come to understand is what centers and provides him with his sense of equilibrium.
Over the years, Tony made improvements to his studio particularly with acoustic treatments: thick wall-to-wall rubber floor matting; an acoustically engineered hung ceiling that the building required when a theater group moved in above. He also had a Rube Goldberg type storm drainage system built with tarps and drip pans that directed pre-Sandy flood water to huge garbage pails when the buildings’ plaza seasonally drained into his studio.
All that was in the studio was lost in the flood including the front door. His drum set was such a unique kit of parts that it cannot be replaced with anything readily available on the market. No one, it seems in this era, makes a single one of his drums to his specifications. Tony will survive. But, what a blow.”
The record “Short Stories” is the culmination of over four years of playing with a group made up of close friends and artistic companions, and in many ways it represents a piece of the process of rebuilding for Tony. It also represents Tony’s gratitude — the recording itself was made possible by an outpouring of love and support from the wider musical community, from friends and strangers alike.
But what was the fate of the most-beautiful silver champagne swirl Gretsch drum set bestowed on the 11-year-old Tony by the musical Master in the silk robe and slippers? Tony says that of all the drums and equipment in his studio at Westbeth, almost but not quite a full biography’s worth of tools and memories, something made him keep Elvin’s set at home. This hopeful kernel, and Tony’s heartfelt description, could serve as a fitting dedication and epigraph for this record and the new chapter of Tony’s musical life that it opens:
“Elvin was my mentor and my spiritual father. I am his retainer, and Keiko’s as well. There was so much love between them.
If I could encapsulate Elvin in one word, it would be love.”