Cardella: Old Friends

I like to spend a portion of each day listening to music. And when I’m in a reflective mood as I was the other day, I scroll through my Amazon Music Unlimited to a vast collection of albums by my favorite jazz pianist, Bill Evans. As I leaned back in my recliner and let Evans’ beautiful sound wash over me, I was transported back in time.

I traveled back to the ‘60s to Ray’s Luncheonette at 9th and Wolf. On the second floor above the luncheonette, a teenager played piano. James Guglielmo. The guys and I were entranced by his playing.

By then, Jim was already composing his own beautiful music. If we weren’t listening to  Jimmy play, we listened together with him to jazz on an FM radio. The music that we called “the sounds.” At least a few of us did. The other guys on the corner tolerated us. Bobby DiDio lived next door. He’d place his huge German radio on his doorstep. Jimmy and I would gather around with him to listen to “the sounds.” And now on a recliner in my apartment in June 2022, Bill Evans was no longer playing the piano, in my mind it was Jimmy.

Later that day, I began to wonder what ever happened to Jimmy? How had life treated him? Was he still playing lovely music? At that moment it became important that he was alive and well somewhere in this world. That’s the way it is with friends. You may not have seen them in years, but they are always with you. The years can drift by without seeing them, but they’re always with you — waiting for your memories to bring them back to life. Sixty-plus years had passed since Jim and I hung out on the corner of 9th and Wolf.

I thought about the time we went to old Convention Hall for some kind of French cultural exhibit that featured jazz/classical pianist Bernard Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer had come to America to live and to play his unique style of jazz. His first album had recently been issued. He was an acquired taste. Not everyone liked their jazz with a Bach riff. But Pfeiffer had become immensely popular with a small group of jazz aficionados that listened to my jazz show on WHAT-FM. So we went — not for the French culture — but to see Pfeiffer perform. He was in great form on that day. He wowed Jimmy and me. Not so much the folks there whose connection with jazz was non-existent. They walked out in droves as both of us shook our heads sadly. All those happy memories made me decide to try to find Jim and connect with him. I realized it was a long shot.

I found his Facebook page, which referred me to his web site. I logged on. The age and background seemed to match Jimmy — now James Guglielmo. He played piano professionally and taught music. But this guy sang like Bobby Short and I never knew Jimmy to sing. In the CONTACT portion of his website, I messaged, “Is this Jimmy from 9th and Wolf?” And it turned out it was.

Jim lives in Philly, not far from me. I invited him and my friend Salvi, his one-time neighbor, for lunch at my place. And so we met last week.

About his singing, Jim decided to take vocal lessons at the age of 68. If no one would record his songs, he’d sing them himself.

We played some of Jim’s music as he told us his story. As a young man, he borrowed $1,000 and took a bus to Las Vegas. Worked as a busboy until he found a gig. His career took off. Jimmy from 9th and Wolf accompanied the great Rita Moreno. Did some dates with Elvis and Mel Torme. Even accompanied a monkey act on the piano. The owner of the monkeys (the animals, not the group) thought Jim’s playing made the monkeys nervous. Whaddya know — monkeys with lousy taste in music. Jim got tired of the Vegas atmosphere of that time — the mobsters, gamblers and prostitutes. Left Vegas after four years. Moved to California to continue his playing and then to a career that included being music director on major cruise ship lines. It was the heyday of cruising when the shows featured stars such as Tony Bennett and Robert Goulet. Jim saw the world. Told us the funniest stories about his adventures on the briny. My wife forgot about her intention to shop at the supermarket and she sat there with us mesmerized by Jim’s music. And all the while on my computer screen, Jimmy sang and played “The Nearness of You” or his own lovely compositions — “When You Sing Those Old Songs” — or the one he wrote with the talented Eddie Bruce on which Bruce performs, “Philly Is The City.” Just wonderful stuff.

Timing is everything in life, and especially show biz. There is no place on the radio dial where you can hear James Guglielmo or an Eddie Bruce perform their songs. So, neither is presently a household name. It’s just an accident of timing. If they had been born a couple of decades earlier, they’d be big stars performing in concert at the Kimmel Center. I can easily imagine Jimmy playing at Bemelmans Bar at New York’s Hotel Carlyle. But for me — and this is not the bias of an old friend — his music is timeless. You can access James Guglilmo’s website and buy his recordings or hear him in his YouTube concert. If that’s a shameless plug, so be it. Jim currently teaches piano at the Piano Institute at 2nd and South in Philadelphia.

I believe for our lives to have meaning, we should find some of the folks with whom we’ve lost touch over the years. Complete the cycle of our lives by reuniting with friends whom we care about. Friends like Jimmy from 9th and Wolf.

And then never let them go.