Spider Rondinelli on percussion, with Kenny Blake on sax, Keith Stebler on keyboards, and Steve Trettle on drums, performing "Birdland" at the Backstage Bar on Oct. 30, 2007.
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Arnold Rondinelli was raised in the steel town of Clairton during the depression. And that's the only time depressing and Rondinelli have ever been used in the same sentence.
Spider Rondinelli - we were told he got the nickname from the way he thumped his kit - has been a force in Pittsburgh jazz since the early seventies.
He's mentored half the jazz artists in the City, and the other half he either hooked up with a band or hired, so it seems. He's known as one of the most entertaining and friendly guys in the business, both with other players and with the audience and fans.
After graduating from high school in 1953, he scored his first full-time gig with the band "Deuces Wild," featuring trombonist Tommy Turk, pianist Bobby Negri, bassist Danny Mastri and sax man Flo Cassinelli. They played the Point Vue Hotel in Brentwood, downtown's Midway Lounge, and the other local jazz clubs.
In 1960, Rondinelli was drafted and spent two years in the service pounding the skins with the Army Band, based at Fort Knox. The band also featured fellow Pittsburghers Art Nance, Clarence Oden and Sugar Man Stanley Turrentine.
"We played the black NCO club twice a week with Stanley's band and two nights a week with my band in Louisville," recalled Rondinelli in a Post-Gazette article.
After his discharge in 1962, Rondinelli returned home but still had an itch for the road. He joined forces with pianist Dodo Marmarosa, guitarist Ron Anthony and bassist Wilbur Ware and hightailed to Chicago.
For the next few months, the group performed at the Southern Hotel, Pink Poodle and the Gator Horn, sharing the stage there with comedian Lenny Bruce. The quartet sort of wore out their welcome in the Windy City, and Rondinelli eventually hooked up with the erratic pianist Red Garland, of Miles Davis quartet fame, in New York.
He eventually wended his way back to Pittsburgh and went to work with pianist Frank Cunimondo for a while, but still had some wanderlust. He left to join a group with Junior Williams, who he met in Chitown, and had offered him an opportunity to work in tropical St. Thomas and Aruba. Rondinelli was supposed to stay a month; he lasted four years.
Rondinelli got to meet Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, who later formed the seminal fusion group Weather Report, along with Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles on the Caribbean circuit. Hey, everyone likes to play the islands, right? And he still wears his trademark straw fedora when he performs.
After working in New York, Chicago, California, Aruba, and St. Thomas, Rondinelli came home to stay in 1972. He became the music man for Sonny Daye’s Stage Door in Oakland, playing and booking acts for the club.
"I would go to New York and book talent," said Rondinelli. "My favorites were Bob Berg, Joe Lavano and Steve Slagle. They all stayed at my house."
He also brought in NYC jazzmen Arnie Lawrence, Ronnie Cuber, and Larry Coryell. Rondinelli didn't forget the local acts, either, giving them the chance to showcase their licks for area affectionados.
Sonny Daye's has long since passed from the scene, but Spider keeps on gigging at the age of 74.
Rondinelli has performed at such venues as DeRosa's in North Versailles, the Viking Lounge in McKeesport, Dowes on 9th, the Backstage Bar, and the AVA Lounge. He also played the part of a Latin percussionist in the movie "The Cemetery Club." When he catches his breath, Rondinelli gives clinics to high school kids, and is featured in jazz festivals all over the region.
He's also a father figure to many Pittsburgh jazz players.
Saxophonist Kenny Blake, who first performed with Rondinelli in the mid-1970s, told Nate Guidry of the Post Gazette that the drummer is always thinking about fellow musicians.
"That's the way he is," said Blake. "If Spider goes on a gig and finds out there's more money then he originally thought, his first thought is to hire another musician. He's loyal to the music and the musicians."
Guitarist Ken Karsh adds this: "Spider Rondinelli, who has mentored a lot of the musicians in the Pittsburgh jazz scene and, more than anybody, has kept a lot of us working and kept the jazz scene going in Pittsburgh."
Now, he's regularly featured at Martini's in Jefferson Hills on Route 885, where he sweet-talked owners Ed and Candice Bloskis into giving him a shot in 2001 on the way to another gig.
Spider Rondinelli and the Jazz Giants make music there every Friday and Saturday. The nightly playlist features a heavy dose of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.
Pittsburgh was home to one of the great jazz scenes in the fifties and sixties, and while it may not be the top flavor any more, the City still holds its own in talent. And Spider Rondinelli is on the short list.
(Old Mon pulled a lot of the information from a 2007 article on Spider Rondinelli by Nate Guidry of the Post-Gazette.)