I've always been an improvisationalist; I didn't know what I was doing," says Rio Clemente one of the jazz piano greats of our time. "I used to play like Liberace until I heard the improvisations of jazz players. My trio has no idea what I'm going to do and neither do I. All I can say is; it keeps it fresh!"
Clemente grew up the son of a milk man in northern New Jersey with a sister who had an interest in playing the piano. From the time he was very young, Rio took to the instrument and had the uncanny ability to play by ear. "Believe it or not," he started, "I was three years old when I played my first song. It was "You Are My Sunshine" and I learned and played it by ear, just by listening to it. I played on my sister's toy piano. My sister kept bugging my dad for a real piano and back in those days, pianos were a lot of money - especially for a guy supporting a family on a milk man's salary. One day my dad saw a real piano on a curb while he was working; that was very odd for that time. So he gathered his buddies up and they helped him load it in his truck. My father brought it home and one day my aunt was over the house, I crawled up on her lap in front of that piano and played "You Are My Sunshine." She was very surprised and amazed that I was able to do so with no music; funny thing was, my sister never played that piano (laughing)."
Clemente's fascination with the ivories began to grow but his love of music still baffles him a bit. Even to this day he is unsure as to how he's been led down this path. "I don't know," he tried to explain with a laugh. "I think it was probably from listening to records and the radio. I guess it had to come from someplace. I always had a good ear. I knew all of the music from radio programs and most radio shows used music from classical composers as theme songs or during the broadcast. I could play them all and did so often. As I grew older I started taking lessons and when I was ten I was asked to play a birthday party. Can you believe it? I was ten! I was paid fifteen dollars. It was like being a millionaire! The party was for a doctor and then he threw in a ten dollar tip. I said, "Really?" I thought ‘Hmmmm I kind of like this!' I mean that was a lot of money back in the day. My dad had to work hard for that kind of cash and I did it in an afternoon; pretty neat I thought."
Now bitten by the bug that infects so many musicians, Rio sought out work, not as a pay day but because he realized he was now connected to his craft. "I played a lot of minstrel shows with no music whatsoever. I had to improvise everything but I'm guessing they liked what I did because they kept hiring me back. Like any other musician, I like to play as much as possible. I don't play for the money. I play because it's my passion. Being passionate has much to do with my demeanor and how I approach life. We all need to have a passion don't we? I played anywhere that I could and pretty much still do today," he stated with that infectious laugh which was now prevalent during much of his recollections.
Time has a way of changing things and for Rio the change was in genre and style. Never one to conform, Clemente's desire to express himself through his music grew, settling on jJazz as his mainstay because of its openness. "I gravitated towards jazz because it allows for much freedom, there is no limitation there. The reality is that you are limited only by what you're willing to know."
Rio's reputation as a jazz pianist and player grew rapidly and to this day, there is no gig too large or too small for this modest performer who was once dubbed "The Bishop of Jazz" by a friend; a moniker which has stuck with him ever since. "That still sounds funny to me," he said with an amused chortle. "I was doing a concert for a pastor friend of mine. It was the first time that I ever played in a church and I was a bit nervous because when I play I am known to wear hats. I asked him about me wearing a hat. I mean it was in a church and I wanted to be respectful because, when I was younger, men never wore a hat in church. He told me that this was an Episcopalian church and that it was fine. Come show time he tells the story about the hat and pronounces me "The Bishop of Jazz" and it was because of the hat! I didn't mind, I mean Duke Ellington wasn't a Duke, Count Basie wasn't a Count and I'm not a Bishop so I just go with it!"
Well this Holy Eminence of Jazz, who blesses any keyboard that he touches, has kept some great company over the years, even performing at the White House in 2011. "I've played with Stanley Jordan, Jeff Becker, Milt Jackson. You never know who is going to show up at the Iridium. I played with Les Paul there. He was a clown! Les was always saying funny things. He was such a pleasure to not only perform with but to be with as a person. Several years ago I was lucky enough to perform at the White House in the East Room. I didn't get to meet or even see the President but I did see his children. I was one of the Christmas holiday players. It was a beautiful experience and yet, there was something I found very unnerving. There were no Christian elements on display or involved. Geez, it was Christmas and no reference to the Christ child? I was disappointed but such is the way it goes today I suppose."
As a lover of his country and a current member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Rio wore his uniform when he played at the White House. "I'm very patriotic," he said with conviction. "I didn't view it as going to play for the President. I went to play for all of America. I wear my flag on my sleeve. I can't help it."
That feeling of patriotism was increased tenfold on that fateful September 11th morning. Clemente was in the air on his way to a performance in Colorado when the first tower was struck. "I'll never forget that day. September 11th is something that is burned into my mind, body and soul. I was in the air on my way out west to Colorado and we were turned around mid-flight. I remember looking out the window and seeing fighter jets. We were forced to turn around and land in Raleigh, NC and we couldn't even land anywhere near the terminal. They made us land way out on a far tarmac and they walked us out from quite a distance. I recall getting to a TV just in time to watch the towers collapse and that horrible feeling of being helpless. I was stuck in Raleigh for three days with no communication with family. They didn't know whether I was dead or alive."
This experience along with his service to America have kept Clemente focused on what he feels is really important; family, freedom and country. "I always end my shows or concerts with a patriotic song and I do so to remind of those who serve for us. Remind them that there is someone else willing to lay down their own life to keep us safe. I end with either "America The Beautiful" or with "God Bless America" and you'd be surprised at how many people love it. Usually the crowd all stands and sing along. It can be very powerful."
"A regular Joe", "the guy next door", "one of us", are all phrases that come to mind when one speaks with Clemente as he is all three wrapped around an enormous talent. Whether it's major concert halls, Bruschetta on Passaic Avenue in Fairfield or the Best Western near his home in Morristown every Tuesday, Rio takes on all comers. This man, who has never strayed far from his roots, has stayed firmly grounded for that same reason.
Playing a set with legendary performers like Les Paul or at the White House are seemingly no different than having a local performer join him on stage as he enjoys playing and performing just as much today as he did when he was three years of age and shows no signs of slowing down. "Hey, as long as my hands work and the passion is here, as long as they want me; I'm there!"
For more information on Rio visit www.rioclemente.com