Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Joe Negri: From Handyman To Jazz Guitarist

From NPR:

If you or someone you love grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, you may remember Joe Negri as Handyman Negri, the affable guy who solved problems in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. But jazz fans know him as a guitar virtuoso. At the age of 84, Negri has just released a new CD, his first in the stripped-down setting that showcases his finger-work.


"So I noted that living wasn't easy in New York. The kids had babysitters. Somebody had to take them to the park to play. The whole scene just kind of turned me off. So we packed up, came back to Pittsburgh."

That's when Negri started working in television. He appeared on the
Ken Griffin Show, the Buzz and Bill Show and, finally, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood — all shot in Pittsburgh.

"Most people know him as an actor. They don't quite realize what they have here, you know?" says Mike Tomaro, the head of the jazz studies department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where Negri teaches. "They're missing a treasure. Not just a Pittsburgh treasure, but a musical treasure."


But Rogers did find ways for Negri to perform on the show.

"He found me a music shop, decided it should be Negri's Music Shop. And that was a wonderful part of the show, I enjoyed that. Because we brought in a lot of good guests, a lot of good musicians."

Including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Ellis Marsalis and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Actor David Newell, who played Mister McFeely on the show, says Negri introduced thousands of kids to jazz.

Read or listen to the rest

So, of course, I love this guy because I actually remember him from Mr. Rogers, and his guitar playing really is top notch, which you can hear if you click through and listen to the report. But I am definitely struck speechless by his career trajectory: he decided life as a professional musician was too tough so he became...a professional actor. And succeeded. I mean, I know life is tough as a professional artist, but as a musician there's more merit involved--you've always got your chops. But acting is far more arbitrary. Skill is less important in the professional world, at least on television, than the vagaries of personality and looks. That is, you have far less control over how you are perceived by the powers that be as an actor than as a musician. And Negri succeeded.

But really, he's a far better guitar player than he is an actor. Don't get me wrong. I really like his Handyman Negri character, but the stuff I heard on the radio this afternoon blew me away. He's got a sound that takes me away like Duke Ellington or Miles Davis in their more dreamy moments, but it's not just the sound: Negri really is a virtuoso, playing his guitar like it was an extension of his mind.

I think I'm going to get his CD.