Monday, July 21, 2008

Monty Alexander

With all that's been going on, it's been awhile since I've written an entry. So, I'm going to take us back a couple of weeks to....

June 19, 2008
This day was a very long -awaited date on my calendar. Why? Because one of the greatest jazz pianists was scheduled to play at the new location of the Jazz Showcase---one of the oldest and most respected jazz clubs in North America. I call Monty "The Happy Piano Player".

He's also a personal friend. In fact, my relationship with Monty Alexander goes back to 1979....I had recently joined Barry Keiner's trio in Rochester, NY. Barry was a prodigious, young pianist who died tragically several years later. We were performing at a club called, "Chez Jean Pierre's" and Monty's band was working just around the corner. I would catch his band during our breaks and, unbeknown to me, he checked us out during his break. About a year later, after completing my first year in college, I received a call from New York City---it was Monty Alexander. He asked if I would join his band! My response? "Well, Monty, if I don't finish college now, I probably never will." Let's just call this one of the most regrettable decisions of my life!!

The fact is however, Monty and I have remained close friends. He would call me at college to discuss all kinds of things---life, love, family---everything. I love Monty. He is such a dear friend to me. Today meant so much to me. The fact that I was able to see him again and finally meet his wife of 10 year years, Caterina. She is an absolute delight! We go to hang out with Monty and Caterina afterward----how fun was that? We heard stories about Ray Brown and learned something of Monty's philosophy about the need for the right chemistry among musicians on the bandstand. WOW! Talk about insight!

If you ever feel like checking out one of the world's greatest jazz pianists, go to his website (click on the link above) check out his performance schedule, and please go hear him. You won't be disappointed!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Trio's Restaurant & Jazz Club

Working with our musician friends from Chicago is always an exhilarating experience---no exceptions!!. Tonight was no exception either. We get to play with Demos Petropoulos (piano) and Kimberly Gordon (vocals), a dynamic husband/wife duo with whom we've been working with more frequently. Both the lounge and restaurant areas are packed with music lovers eager for the band to begin (we can't wait, either). After opening with a couple of powerhouse standards, Kimberly joins us for the remainder of the set. The crowd is very responsive and engaged. There's nothing quite like performing with one of the best band in the area for an appreciative audience.

Not only this, our dear friends Cathy (with a "C") and Bruce drove all the way from Syracuse, IN to come and hear us. They sit in the front corner near the window enjoying dinner and drinks with our manager. Thanks, guys, for your willingness to make the drive and spend your night with us. You are dear, dear friends, indeed.

Tim and Brenda, from Elkhart, faithful supporters of our band, also greet me when I arrive. What a great surprise! I usually do not know when they'll show up, but it's ALWAYS a happy surprise when they just "pop" in at our gigs unannounced! They reserve a table right in front of the stage. It's their first time hearing Demos & Kimberly, too. Man, are they in for a treat. They aren't disappointed, either! Kimberly's vocals pack a sassy punch that's really captivating. Not only does Kimberly demonstrate that rare quality of being a true musician/vocalist, but she is also entertaining to listen to. I see it in Tim and Brenda's eyes. I scan the audience and see it among them, too. they are gripped by her stage presence, not to mention Demos' herculean piano playing. It was wonderful to see Tim & Brenda enjoying themselves so much and telling me how much they dug the music. You see, I respect Tim's feedback because he has an extensive background as a musician. he knows music, and he knows music when it's played well. Thanks, Tim and Brenda for your faithful support and for choosing to spend your evening with us!

There are just some gigs a musician gets to play where you think to yourself, "Man, can it get much better than this?!" I mean, when the music is swinging and the audience is loving it, it's hard to beat. If you are a musician, you know what I'm talking about. Tonight was one such night. But just when you think the evening can't be beat, I'm proven wrong....

It's our final set of the evening. We're in the middle of a tune, and I look up to see our dear friend Tom Vaitsas stroll in. Why is this such a surprise? Because Tom lives in Chicago, and as a full-time working pianist, he's always busy playing somewhere in Chicago. But, here he is, at Trio's in South Bend---WHAT IN THE WORLD???!! Tonight, Tom had a gig just across the street at the Marriott and heard that we were also performing close by. Tom is simply one of those rare individuals who is easy to love. We simply love him and relish any opportunity to play with him, too. Not surprisingly, Demos and Kimberly love Tom, too. As soon as the song was finished, Kimberly insists on Tom sitting in at the piano (much to his embarrassment). He told me later that he really wasn't dressed for the occasion. But who noticed?! Though I don't recall the name of the ballad, he did a gorgeous job of backing Kimberly (David and I get to along for the ride). At the conclusion of the song, the room went wild---and rightfully so! After a couple more tunes, we finish our last set and enjoy visiting with Tom and his drummer friend who accompanied him on his gig. Talk about an incredibly wonderful surprise! Like I said, working with our musician friends from Chicago is always an exhilarating experience---no exceptions! Thanks, Tom, for stopping by and visiting with us. It's always a joy to see you!

Before I sign off, I'd like to offer a special thanks to Herb Wilson and Mike (owners) for treating us so wonderful. It's a pleasure to play at your beautiful establishment. Don't forget to make your calendar for Saturday, July 26, when David and I are scheduled to play again at Trio's with two very special friend, Eric Clancy (piano) and Rich Cohen (also sax). Start time is 9:00pm. It's been years since I've seen Rich and I look forward to the reunion! Should prove to be a dynamic night of great jazz. So, bring your friends and your appetite and plan to spend the evening with us. We look forward to seeing you on Saturday, July 26th!!


Monday, June 9, 2008

Special Sunday in Chicago (Jazz, Food, AND a Sheriff)

I enjoy spontaneity. In fact, yesterday my brother, David, and I decided on an impulse to blow town and explore the Chicago jazz scene. We decided to visit our good friend Tom Vaitsas . Tom is an incredibly accomplished jazz pianist who has earned the respect of so many fellow jazz musicians working in Chicago.

(Tom Hilliker, Tom Vaitsas, David Hilliker)

Tom is a very busy musician, working roughly every night of the week--sometimes 2-3 times per day. Tom performs three nights a week with his trio (piano, bass, drums) at Bandera, an upscale restaurant on Michigan Avenue.

Since we arrive at the Windy City three hours early, we decide to swing by the home of a good friend of David's--Donald Meade. Donald lives in an apartment on the South side. I've heard so much about Donald over the years that I figured it was time to finally meet him. I knew it would mean a lot to David to see Donald again after a long silence.

Donald is one of the most interesting men I've ever met. He seems to know every (and I mean every) major jazz personality ever to grace this planet. I'm not saying he's merely met them on one or two occasions. I'm saying he's an integral part of jazz history--a member of the family of American jazz musicians. At age 79, I marveled at his ability to recall names, dates, places, and conversations, not only from just a few weeks ago, but from years past!
(Tom Hilliker & Donald Meade)

Donald entertained us for two hours with fascinating anecdotes involving many of our musical idols in jazz. The unique aspect to his stories is that he speaks in the first person. His accounts emerge from his own experiences. I don't know that Donald himself is a musician, but I can tell you that he has endeared himself to the major personalities in jazz---and this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether he can play an instrument. Donald is simply a very beautiful human being--one whom, as legendary song writer Cole Porter puts it, is easy to love. As we sat in his living room riveted by stories of Ray Brown, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, and others we laughed till it hurt! That's the other thing about Donald. He loves to laugh and he enjoys making others laugh, too.

Our two hours with Donald whizzed by. We must now pry ourselves away because Tom's trio is about to begin their gig. First, however, we must stop for Mexican food. Some time ago, Tom introduced my brother, David, to a Taqueria on Chicago's South side. It was love at first sight. We had to stop in before the gig. We shared a super-sized beef burrito and some pickled carrots--apparently a Mexican specialty. David figured it would be wise to add two more tacos to his order. When we finished eating, twenty minutes later, the food parked itself like a sack of sand in my stomach. It sure went down easy enough, but the after effects were...well...unfortunate.

After a few passes up and down Michigan Avenue, we finally found Bandera's. The trio sounded absolutely beautiful--the product of working for years with one another. I met Dave, the drummer, the night we recently played our own gig at Martini Park in Chicago. My brother introduces me to Mark, the bass player. All three men--Tom, Mark, and Dave--are just beautiful people--cordial and warm. My brother and I were hoping to sit in before the night was through; but since we didn't come dressed wearing ties, we weren't permitted to play in the band--a Bandera policy. Oh well.

Following the gig, Tom, David and I pile into my car and head to Greek Town to grab a bite to eat (our after-gig routine whenever we hook up with Tom). Wow! Was that ever a treat. Tom is Greek and speaks the language. He's also very familiar with Greek Town. By this time, 11pm, we are getting hungry again (Mexican food not withstanding). Tom recommended a place called the Artopolis Bakery & Cafe. They specialize in authentic Greek cuisine in a casual dining atmosphere. Tom talks us through the menu, making recommendations on what to order. Everything he suggests is simply fantastic! David orders a Greek pizza and potato salad. I ordered a specialty spinach and feta pita that was to die for. It came with rosemary potatoes on the side. Tom orders a colorful plate of fresh chopped vegetables with four scoops of humus garnished with Greek olives.

Tom asks if I ever had Greek coffee. Since I never had, I knew I would enjoy the adventure and it sounded like something worth exploring. I also knew that it would be a rather late night for us, so I would probably need the stuff in my system if David and I are ever going to make it back to Indiana. The coffee is served in a clear glass mug. It's strong (the way I like it), with cream (the way I like it) and sweet (the way I like it). It was absolutely delicious! Oh, did I mention that it's on ice, too? I order a second mug, and would have ordered a third and possibly a fourth, but I figure it's best that get some sleep sometime before my Wednesday gig in Elkhart.

Finally, we drive Tom back to his condo and head home. Unfortunately, we miss the Indiana exit and wind up on Interstate 94 East--clearly not where we wanted to be. About a half hour later I decide to turn on to I-65 South, thinking this will get us back on the Indiana Toll Road (bad move). We end up in Valparaiso, IN, well off the beaten trail. So, I do what most desperate male drivers do under the circumstances--I stop for directions.

It is now about 2:30am. We stop at a convenience store and the lady suggests taking Truck Route 51 North to get us on to the Toll Road. I'm so relieved to know we really aren't that far from it now. We head north and discover the route is full of twists and turns. In the darkness of the unlit streets along the way, I manage to miss one of the turns and wind up driving west (bad move). After about five miles I realize we are again lost!

David say, "Oh, I saw a sign back there that read 'Truck Route 51 North'. We drove right past it. I probably should have mentioned that to you, huh?"

"Uh...yeah. That would have been great."

So, I spin the car around and head back in search of that elusive sign. By now David is understandably tired and can't recall exactly where that sign was. It just so happens that we pass a Sheriff car patrolling the area. I thought, "Wow! What luck! I'll stop and ask him how to get back onto 51 North.

I slow down enough for him to get curious enough about our car in this little town somewhere in the middle of North West Indiana. I pull my car over and he stopped several car lengths behind me. I think to myself, "Great! David--you stay here--I'll be right back. I'm going to ask this Sheriff for directions."

So, I open my door and lope along toward the patrol car with my hands behind my back (another bad move).

He immediately thrusts open his driver's door, shines his flashlight in my eyes and screams at the top of his lungs, "LET ME SEE YOUR HANDS!"

I'm thinking to myself, "Holy Schnikees, Batman! A bit of an over-reaction?" Not only this, he's got his pistol drawn with his left hand. He now radios for backup. YIKES!!!

"Officer, I'm lost, I'm tired, and I just want to get home, Can you help me?"

The officer is visibly alarmed and prepped himself for a worst-case scenario.


"That's all."


"I honestly don't know how else to ask for directions."

The sweaty officer is so honkin' mad at me, that he shakes his head, still standing behind the driver's door and says nothing for a few minutes. He radios the other squad car with the words, "Needs directions". At this juncture, I think he's feeling quite silly.

After a few moments, the officer finally relents. Reluctantly, he describes where I need to go to find Truck Route 51 North. I thank him and apologize for startling him and reassure him that this was never my intention. It's just not my world to even guess that a police officer would feel threatened by someone approaching him with one's hands behind his back. It all makes total sense to me now; but at the time, it simply never entered my mind.

I really didn't mean to freak him out. I think we freaked each other out---only I'm the one with a gun pointed in my direction. Hmmm.... The next time I'm in need of directions, I'll just stick with the convenience store clerk.

After what seems like an eternity (through blinding rain and driving winds all along the Toll Road), we FINALLY get home around 4am. Unfortunately, David has to get up in a couple of hours for work. I don't know how he does it, but it's not the first time he's made a Chicago run when he's schedule to work the next morning.

Oh, before I sign off, let me just say that Tom, David, and I will be performing at Lucchese's Italian Restaurant on the opening night of the Elkhart Jazz Festival, June 20th. We're scheduled to perform at their new location on CR 17. Tom will actually be driving in from Chicago and rearranging his playing schedule to work with us that night! I feel so honored. It's going to be a VERY fun night of music indeed, not to mention great food and lots of festival-goers. Mark your calendar for Friday, June 20th and come join us that night. Look for a big white tent. Even if you don't mark it down on your calendar, be spontaneous and just show up!

Even without guns, spontaneity can still be fun and full of adventure.

See you on the 20th,

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

South Bend Tribune Article

Jazz Singer Eager To Support New Club
Author: Howard Dukes
May 16, 2008

Kimberly Gordon has never been to South Bend. The jazz singer's upcoming performance with Tom Hilliker's band at Trio's Restaurant and Jazz Club, however, isn't all that surprising.

Jazz artists spend a lot of time traveling around the country and performing with different bands and meeting other musicians and singers.

That kind of networking explains why the Chicago native will be at Trios on Saturday.

Demos Petropoulos, a piano and electric organ player who is Gordon's husband, played with David Hilliker at a Chicago club. Petropoulos liked what he heard from Hilliker, who is a drummer and Tom Hilliker's brother.

"I'm always looking for new talent and Demos said, 'You've got to hear this guy David. He plays hard,' " Gordon says.

So Gordon hired Hilliker to play drums.

"And I've been using him as much as I can," she says.

Meanwhile, David Hilliker was forming a favorable impression of Gordon and Petropoulos.

Once David Hilliker told his brother and bass player about Gordon, Tom Hilliker knew he wanted to perform with the singer.

"First of all, we think alike musically, and there is a real chemistry between David and (me)," Tom Hilliker says. "And I know from hearing from multiple (sources) that she's been influenced by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, so you will hear her sing a lot of songs from that era."

Gordon acknowledges that she loves singing the songs from the musical canon known as the Great American Songbook.

"I cover standards from 1900 to 1960," she says. "I think it was the golden age of entertainment and lyrics. The lyrics -- especially those from songs written between 1900 and 1940 -- will always stand the test of time."

Gordon adds that the training she received as a student in Chicago helped her once she decided to become a professional singer 15 years ago.

Gordon sang in an all-city chorus in the 1980s. The Chicago public school system's choral ensemble sings classical, American folk, gospel and Latin music for dignitaries she says.

Gordon credits the program with keeping her interested in school.

"The program also gave me basic singing techniques, like breathing and standing properly -- all of those commonsense things," she says.

Gordon got the training while singing mostly classical music with the all-city ensemble, but the methods she learned also can be applied to jazz.

"I believe that jazz is an American classical music, so it would make sense that classical music training would be very useful in jazz," she says.

Chicago is one of the major jazz centers, so players and singers have to be top-notch to get jobs. These days, it's been hard for players to get and keep jobs in Chicago, Gordon says.

The economic downturn is forcing restaurants and clubs to cut back on live music.

"I've only just begun hearing musicians say 'I lost the Thursday gig,' " Gordon says. "And owners are being honest with them and saying it's because (of) the cost of food and gas. They just can't afford it, so they're cutting back on the music."

In a way, then, Gordon's excitement about performing in South Bend is driven by her desire to promote a new venue.

"So I'm really glad to hear that a new club is opening," she says, "and I will try to get there because people need to hear the music."

Friday, May 30, 2008


Friday, May 23, 2008

Tonight we get to perform again at Lucchese's Italian restaurant. The place was packed again, as usual, through most of the evening. I just love that place because of the Lucchese family and their great staff (not to mention all the wonderful guests who express how much they enjoy our music). It's evident that many in the community also feel the same way as I do about Lucchese's! I simply cannot say enough good things about them.

I must admit, however, to an oversight from my last blog write up. I failed to mention one very helpful staff member who deserves special recognition, for sure. Her name is Tammy (with a "Y"). When we first played there back in May, she was kind enough to help orient me to where the power outlets are and showed me which room to store our instrument cases. She was so conscientious, too, of our need for an extension cord tucked away in the corner of the dining room. The only problem is, guests seated right where the cord was plugged in. We have to wait until they finish their meal and vacate the table before we can power up for our first set. The unique thing about all this is, I didn't have to worry about any of this one bit. Tammy takes care of all of it. Never mind that she already has her hands full serving guests and waiting on tables! She's going to handle this for us. And handle it she did! Thank-you Tammy (with a "Y")!

By the way... the next time you make reservations at Lucchese's, be sure to request Tammy as your server - she's a real professional at what she does and will make your dining experience a very special one, indeed!

The second staff member I want to mention is Stacy (also with a "Y"). I met Stacy during a break as I was visiting with a couple of dear friends. Stacy busses tables and is just a sweetheart. She thanked us for our music because, as she puts it, the music helps her to relax while she works! I'll take that as a compliment! Thank-you, Stacy!

All in all, the night was very special. Several groups of friends came specifically to hear us and a couple of them stayed right through the final set at 11pm. We are so grateful for your support!

The Luccheses are so kind and hospitable to us, too. (Did I mention this already?) Consistent with their tradition of great Italian hospitality, they make sure we've had something to eat. Now, I said this the last time I wrote about Luccheses that, typically, club and restaurant owners generally do not accommodate the band members. But like my Italian grandmother, they simply will not let us leave on empty stomachs! They are incredible people this way. In fact, it was big Zach (bartender, security enforcement and part-time lion tamer) who asks if we're hungry. Now, one never wants to offend an Italian by refusing an offer of hospitality. I'm not sure if Zach is even Italian. It really matters little, however, when one is dealing with a guy the size of Zach. Even if you've just had a four course meal complete with cheesecake and coffee for dessert. Perhaps you're barely breathing you've eaten so much. If Zach happens to ask if you're hungry, my advice is to reply with an enthusiastic, "Why yes - very!" (Fewer words make Italians happier). Again, Zach may not even be Italian - the issue at this point is about personal
security - you never want to offend a guy that big.

Finally, I'm often asked when we'll be performing next at Lucchese's. Since I now have someone who manages the performance schedule, my general response is usually to offer a smile and a impressively blank stare. I simply cannot remember from one day to the next where we're scheduled to be. There was a day, I suppose, when I was expected to apologize for such incompetence. However, the beauty in all this is that I no longer NEED to remember this stuff! It's now in very capable hands - handled by someone possessing an administrative skill set which I could only dream of.

So whenever I'm asked where we're scheduled play next, the only thing I need to remember anymore is that I have business cards in my pocket. I reach in, grab a card and hand it to the inquiring individual. Our business card directs you to our blogspot (which lists the trio's performance schedule). It's that easy.

Perhaps you're asking, "So, where are you guys playing next?" If so, then visit us at There you'll find our performance schedule. In case you're not asking the question, let me then simply tell you that we'll be at Lucchese's on the following dates:

June 14
July 11, 25
August 9, 23
September 6 and 20.

Don't forget to mark your calendar for a weekend of great jazz when the Elkhart Jazz Festival comes to downtown Elkhart, June 20-22. We'll also be performing for Lucchese's at their new
CR 17 location on the opening night of the festival, Friday, June 20th. It promises to be a wonderful time of great music, the best Italian food in town and fun-loving jazz lovers from all over the country.

Pick one of the dates above and come join us at Lucchese's. We look forward to seeing you!

(A word to the wise....with the exception of the Jazz Festival, don't forget to make dinner reservations or... you may wind up eating at Arby's or Dairy Queen :)