It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or it’s hot
Just give that rhythm ev’rything you got
Oh, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
—Duke Ellington and Irving Mills
The silence is deafening. Dick Fazio is dead.
The name may not mean much in the Flathead anymore, but in the late 1980s when I was entertainment editor of the Daily Inter Lake, “The Faz” was the king of jazz in Kalispell, and the king’s jazz was very cool.
Whether it was solo, trio, quartet or featured in a big lineup, Fazio was the ultimate pianist. He was also a nearly stereotypical wisecracking New Yorker, who like me had found a better life out west. I saw him perform countless times at the old First Avenue West bar in Kalispell, and interviewed him frequently about the jazz scene. In addition to performing, Faz also helped spread the gospel of jazz by working with other local fans to create the Flathead Valley Jazz Society. Although he was only in the valley for about a decade, he left a big mark on anyone who knew him.
Fazio died Monday at his home near Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 77. Unfortunately, the last few years had not been kind to Dick, who suffered a stroke in 2008, and then was hit by a series of health issues that left him unable to perform — and performing meant everything to him.
I got the word about Dick’s passing from his son, Matt, who —though nearly 20 years younger than me — became a good friend in the early 1990s. As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Faz was when Matt and I drove from Kalispell to California in a vicious snowstorm to see the Grateful Dead perform on Chinese New Year at the Oakland Coliseum.
That was in January 1993, and by then Dick had been living in Sacramento for a few years, where he was performing with a trio on the Delta King Riverboat in Old Sacramento. Dick and his wife, Margie, welcomed me into their home as Matt and I crashed there for two days. I got to watch Dick and the trio perform to the usual applause, although as always I thought his artistry was under-appreciated. His piano heroes were Erroll Garner and Bill Evans, and at his best, his smooth stylings put him in the same league with them.
As Matt told me, “Dad worked out of the standard songbook and made it his own… He could play for six hours straight and never drop a note and never play the same song twice… He was the consummate professional.”
Reminiscing with Matt, I learned a lot about Faz I didn’t know or had forgotten. He was born in New York in 1939, joined the Navy as a young man, and then pursued music studies in Ithaca, New York, where he met Robert Moog at Cornell University. Faz helped collaborate with the inventor in the developmental stages of the Moog synthesizer, the revolutionary electronic musical instrument that helped define the sound of the Sixties.
Later he moved to Washington, D.C., and played all over town and was briefly married to his first wife. It was around then when Matt was born, and dad and young son moved to Tucson in 1975. He played and taught there for about five years before moving to Montana in 1980 to perform at Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier. He kept that gig for about four seasons, and then moved to Kalispell in 1983, the year before I arrived.
He quickly got a job playing piano in the lounge at First Avenue West — a gig that he held regularly till 1991, often playing with bass player Pete Hand in a duo that was tight and swinging. During those years in Kalispell, the Faz also managed a couple of used book and record stores, including Second Hand Rose and Ron’s Roost.
Following his time in Sacramento from 1991 to 1998, he moved to Nevada, where he spent his last two decades. He made a lot of friends in the jazz scene in Vegas, and played at clubs such as Pogo’s Tavern for the better part of a decade. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFWb_Vg4DQA)
Sadly, Faz suffered a stroke in 2008 that took away mobility on his left side. By that time, Fazio was leading the band at Pogo’s and he vowed to come back and play again. He did appear in a show about two months following his stroke, performing with just his right hand.
“I’m not going to let this beat me, believe me,” the feisty New Yorker told a reporter from the Las Vegas Review Journal. “I’m on the mend. That’s what’s important. I’m determined this is not going to beat me down or take over.”
Unfortunately, the malady proved to be a stronger foe than Fazio had expected. Matt tells me Faz was never really able to return to performing as he had hoped. Nonetheless, the love of music prevailed and Dick volunteered as music director at his church. Despite being something of a renegade earlier in life, Faz ended as a devout Christian in his later years. Sadly, in January he fell down and broke his hip, which finally sapped his will to live. Taking control of the one thing he had left, Fazio refused nourishment in his final days and died in his sleep. It’s not hard to imagine that he was welcomed by an angelic choir on the other side.
No services are scheduled, but family and friends can sign an online memorial guestbook at www.bouldercityfamilymortuary.com. Margie says anyone who wants to remember “The Faz” and thank him for the music he made over the years should consider making a contribution to local musical education charities.
Matt says that Dick’s family will try to come up in the fall to spread his ashes near Two Medicine Lake in Glacier Park, “one of his favorite places in the world.”
His brief death notice advises his friends and family to “Play on,” and so I’ll close with the words of a song recorded beautifully by Bill Evans in 1977 and released after his own death in 1980. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB1PsaNx7pE)
A man is born but he’s no good no how
Without a song.
I got my trouble and woe but, sure as I know, the Jordan will roll
And I’ll get along as long as a song … strong in my soul…
—Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu
Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.