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Diane Armesto: a life caught in music

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When Diane Armesto begins to sing, it's as if she's in a trance. Her eyes close as her spare vocals dance around the melodies, drawing out some words melismatically, cutting others off abruptly.

            On a recent Saturday evening at the Little Theatre Cafe the three instrumentalists in her quartet --- Bill Dobbins, piano; Fred Stone, bass; and Mike Melito, drums --- provided solid support for Armesto's brooding style. Even when she was not singing, Armesto was totally caught up in the music, moving almost involuntarily; bending, nodding her head and occasionally moaning in reaction to a particularly beautiful turn of the melody in one of Dobbins' solos.

            The setting is a café where many patrons come to chat over coffee and cake before or after taking in a movie. But talk while these melodies are flowing and you will earn a glare from Armesto. She takes this music seriously; it's her life.

            And if, according to the old axiom, everything in a jazz singer's life pours out into her interpretation of a song, there is almost too much to pack into Armesto's repertoire.

            Listening to her two albums, Everything I Love and Classic Jazz Standards and Originals, or catching her quartet live, it's hard not to notice the bittersweet quality in her breathy vocals, even in the light-hearted songs. Her style and tone reflect an intense involvement in the world of jazz that began more than three decades ago.

            Armesto met legendary jazz trombonist Frank Rosolino during a trip to California in 1971.

            "I was a very mature 20-year-old," says Armesto, "and he was a very immature 45-year-old."

            Her relationship with Rosolino lasted until November of 1978, when he killed himself after shooting his two children.

            Rosolino is still very much a part of Armesto's life. She keeps a letter that he wrote to her nearby at all times. She has written a book on their life together and his breakdown. And she is attempting to find an outlet for an unreleased album, the last recorded by Rosolino.

Armesto, who has roots in Rochester and Buffalo, lives in a setting befitting a romantic jazz singer. She occupies a penthouse apartment in a downtown building with a roof terrace offering sweeping views of Rochester and beyond.

            The daughter of composer John Armesto, an Eastman School of Music graduate, and soprano Isabelle Rinker Armesto, her first exposure to music was, in keeping with family roots, Spanish in flavor. She began piano lessons at six and violin lessons at eight. Jazz entered her life unexpectedly when she was nine.

            "One day my father brought home two albums," Armesto says. "One was by Cannonball Adderley and the other was Peggy Lee's Mink Jazz. I snuck down to the hi-fi, I put those two albums on, and I fell in love. By the time I was 12, all my babysitting money went to buying jazz albums."

            She can still recall watching television in the 1960s and seeing Elvis Presley. But, unlike other teenagers, she was not interested. All it meant to her was the realization that rock 'n' roll was taking over and the music she loved was slipping deeper into the background.

            Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Armesto says, girls didn't think much in terms of professions. So she never envisioned a career of her own. She imagined she would meet a man and support his artistry, as her mother had her father's. At the University of Buffalo she majored in English, writing short stories and poetry. Though she always imagined herself writing song lyrics, she never acted on it.

            When a musician friend, Tom Mazarello, moved out west in 1971, she went to Los Angeles to visit him. Mazarello, a bass player, happened to be sharing a house with Rochester saxophonist Joe Romano and Rosolino.

            After stints in the bands of Stan Kenton and Gene Krupa and the legendary Light House All Stars, Rosolino was firmly established as one of the greatest trombonists in jazz. He had recorded with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and others, and had won Down Beat critics' polls.

            Before she heard Rosolino play, Armesto admits she lifted the needle on trombone solos. He made her appreciate the instrument. "I just couldn't believe what I was hearing, the ideas that came out of him, the taste and the sound he got."

            Along with their personal relationship, Armesto became Rosolino's manager beginning in 1973. With her promotional efforts, his career took off in the mid-1970s. At the time of his death, it was going strong; she had him booked a year in advance.

            During the time they were together, Armesto and Rosolino traveled the world. She became a booking agent for other top performers, including Conte Candoli, Billy Higgins, and Joe Farrell. She got to know many of the giants of jazz.

            She found Cannonball Adderley to be especially outgoing.

            "It was a time of a lot of racial tension, but you didn't feel it with him," says Armesto, who also had a wonderful relationship with Adderley's brother Nat, Horace Silver, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones. The list goes on. "Bill Evans was a sweet, humble man. The best musicians had a sense of humility that I find so attractive."

            Those who hear Armesto may be surprised to learn that singing was not her first professional foray into jazz. In the mid-1970s, Rosolino had brought a drum set home for one of his sons. Armesto surprised him by sitting down at the set and playing --- for the first time --- with a natural ability. When she began to study drums, she had the advantage of observing legends like Higgins. (Later, in the early 1980s, she played drums with Romano and others in Las Vegas and other cities.)

Although he earned a reputation as a lighthearted, funny man on the road, Rosolino's life had been turbulent before his involvement with Armesto. His third wife killed herself one week before their divorce was to become final.

            Armesto believes Rosolino suffered from depression at a time when there were few drugs to treat the illness. Throughout his depression, and despite Armesto's urging, Rosolino refused to seek help. She believes his pride in his Sicilian ancestry kept him from admitting he was in trouble. He had finally agreed that he would make an appointment to see a doctor just days before the murder-suicide.

            Because of the agitated state he was in, she had also convinced Rosolino to pack up a gun that had belonged to his father and ship it to his brother. But he persuaded her to put it off until after the weekend.

            Armesto was not at home when Rosolino shot his children, 7 and 9 years old, leaving one dead and the other blind and brain-damaged. She had left the house that night to pick up a check. Afterward, she went to a party so she could meet with a producer who she hoped would be interested in releasing Rosolino's latest recording. When she returned home, she did not go directly into the house. She sat in the car outside because her girlfriend wanted to tell her about a man she had recently met.

            After a while, Armesto noticed something strange; all of the lights were on in the house. When she approached the door she could hear that Rosolino was in a more agitated state than she had ever witnessed. Through all of his troubles she had never before heard him like this.

            "He was absolutely mad," Armesto says. "Just as I was turning the knob on the door I heard this smack and then a thud. I couldn't see anything in the living room but as I walked in I smelled the gun smoke. Then I saw his body between the coffee table and the couch."

            Armesto ran out of the house screaming uncontrollably. When she finally collected herself she returned with her friend.

            "I went back in," she says. "There was no movement in the house. In that split second I got the feeling that he had gone totally crazy and shot the children. I told my friend not to go in there, to call the police."

            When the police arrived, the front lawn became a sea of lights. Armesto was interrogated from 3 a.m. until 11 a.m. Later, when she read the police report, she learned that four bullets were found. Rosolino had only used three.

            "Diane is lucky she's still alive," Romano says. "She didn't know what she'd find when she walked in that door. I've gone over it in my head many, many times. I didn't understand it. How he got in that state of mind is beyond me because he did not seem like the kind of guy who would do anything like that. That was a shocker to everybody. It sent me out of LA. I sold my house in North Hollywood."

Armesto has also gone over it endlessly, writing about everything that happened and her reflections years later.

            "My relationship with him was probably what kept him alive seven years longer," she says. "His personal life was so tumultuous that his music never got off the ground in a serious way."

            Armesto wrote most of her book on Rosolino in the mid to late-1980s. She has revised it several times since then, and has had interest from a film producer. She is shopping the current version of the book to publishers.

            But, 25 years later, she is primarily focusing on her singing career, which started as a fluke.

            In the 1990s Armesto had gotten into real estate and had become an expert in rental management. Asked to give a speech before the National Apartment Owners Association, she accepted, but was so nervous about facing the crowd that she decided to do something radical.

            Armesto happened to be passing by a club where an organ duo was playing and the sign said, "Open Mic." She thought this might be a perfect way to get her stage fright licked. Armesto stepped onto the stage at the Elmwood Lounge in Buffalo and sang "It Had to Be You" in the key of C. The reaction was positive.

            "I knew right then I had to have my own group."

            Since then she's been going strong, playing in Buffalo and Rochester and holding forth at her steady gig at the Little for seven years.

            Her CD, available at many local music stores, gets lots of airplay on local jazz radio stations. She's now looking for the right promotion and management to take her to the next level.

            On her latest album, she fulfilled her college dream of writing her own songs. She collaborated with Harold Danko on "A New Autumn," a nicely understated ballad.

            "I heard the tune and I loved it, so I called him up and said 'I'd love to write a lyric.' He said, 'I'd be honored.'"

            Armesto's gig at the Little every Saturday evening is often a two-in-one experience. Dobbins is joined by Melito and Stone for some excellent trio work during the first set. Armesto steps in and out depending on how she feels.

            When Armesto joins the group for the second set, the musicians are in no way relegated to the background. Armesto's vocals are another instrument, soloing and then allowing the band return to the fore.

            She began a recent set with a decidedly up-tempo "Autumn Leaves" and then moved into a Latin-tinged "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," with wonderful percussion by Melito. Later, the trio took over, with Dobbins and Stone providing beautiful solos on an obscure Johnny Mandel tune, "I Never Told You."

            Armesto saved the best for last. Her rendition of Miles Davis' "All Blues," by now a staple on Rochester jazz radio, is the finest and somehow most appropriate tune in her repertoire.

            Her singing style is minimalist: She will often skip entire verses to allow the music to maintain its prominence. In "All Blues" she not only has trimmed the song from four verses down to two, she eliminates words she finds unnecessary from Oscar Brown Jr.'s already sparse lyrics, still managing to paint a vivid picture.

            "Sea, and sky / You and I / Sea and sky, you and I know all blues / All shades, hues / All blues."

            Her next album will be an entire collection of songs she's written with Rosolino, Higgins, Joe Magnarelli, and others.

            Armesto knows she will never put the past completely behind her. "Sometimes it seems a lifetime away; sometimes it's right next to me."

            But she now has goals for her own career.

            "The only reason that I'm here today is the great family that I have, my friends and music. I suffered a lot of pain, loss and guilt. And I loved those children."

The Diane Armesto Quartet plays at the Little Theatre Café at 8 p.m. on Saturday, January 3, and every Saturday evening beginning January 31.

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