AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Don DePaolis, a noted pianist and composer in Pittsburgh’s jazz community for the past five decades, passed away March 20th, 2019. He was 71.
His life and career were marked by his voracious musical and intellectual appetites. Academia brought DePaolis to Pittsburgh as a young man. He would receive a BA in Physical Anthropology as a student of Dr. F. Marion Crawford at the University of Pittsburgh, becoming a member of Phi Gamma Delta. His post-graduate activities included work towards a Ph.D in Human Genetics and cleft palate research in Mexico with Dr. Seishi Oka. But the lure of musical expression would win out. While he would return to academic pursuits from time to time, and do what was necessary to provide for his family, music and mind would be his life’s work.
DePaolis was born November 18, 1947 in Uniontown, PA to parents Helen (nee Blatnick) and Louis DePaolis. Louis, a pianist and arranger, became the proprietor of two Uniontown music stores in the late 1950s (Frederick’s and The Turntable). Through his father, DePaolis began his life in music as a toddler. Louis sponsored his son's membership in the Uniontown Muscians’ Union, which Don later transferred to the Pittsbugh Musicians’ Union Local 60-471. While his early studies in classical piano literature would remain a lodestar, DePaolis’ involvement with jazz began shortly after his moving to Pittsburgh in 1965, when the contemporary explorations of John Coltrane and Miles Davis caught his imagination. By the end of the decade, he was playing with the likes of saxophonists Eric Kloss and Kenny Fisher, flutist Tom Lee, and drummer Allen Blairman.
Beginning with a notable association with Nathan Davis upon the educator’s arrival at the University of Pittsburgh in 1970 (including his recording debut on Davis’ 1971 album Makatuka), DePaolis’ career proceeded apace, with memorable stints with Roger Humphries, Eric Kloss, and Spider Rondinelli. DePaolis appeared at many of the area’s legendary jazz spots of the time, including Sonny Daye’s Stage Door, the Manteca, the Tender Trap, Walt Harper’s Attic, and the Black Magic—and in later years, the Pyramid, Crawford Grill No. 2, the Balcony, and James Street Tavern. Later associations included the John Wilson Band, Kenny Blake, and the 90's edition of Roger Humphries’ RH Factor (a particularly influential lineup to a generation of young Pittsburgh musicians, thanks to their regular Tuesday night jam sessions). His career also included road work with Buddy Rich, and Pittsburgh area performances with Joe Williams and Milt Jackson. In addition to his work as a performer, DePaolis continued developing his voice as a composer, producing a formidable body of work. His compositions have been recorded by Eric Kloss, Pat Martino, Eric Leeds, and Andy Bianco.
DePaolis appeared often through the years with his wife, vocalist Kathy Connor. They were married in 1978, and have three sons.
While DePaolis’ influence on the music community of Pittsburgh was not extensively documented, it was deeply felt by those in the know. Many players of a certain age have remarked on the knowledge and hard-won encouragement he shared with them, including Dwayne Dolphin, Christopher Dean Sullivan, Ken Karsh, Max Leake, Eric Susoeff, the late Donna Davis, Tony Campbell, John Shannon, and countless others. Passing on knowledge was of a highest priority. During the mid-1970s, DePaolis taught at the nascent Bidwell Training Center, the forerunner of the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. Letters from his students remained in his possession for the rest of his life.
DePaolis’ last decade saw extensive work with his son Tony, a bassist. Frequent appearances with quartets featuring saxophonists Erik Lawrence and Jacob Yoffee, and drummers Thomas Wendt and James Johnson III featured original compositions of both father and son. Many were released on Tony’s recording “Contemporary Dynamic,” and Andy Bianco’s “Homefront.” The two also regularly accompanied legendary guitarist Jimmy Ponder in his last years. At the time of his passing, work on a final recording project, an album by drummer Reid Hoyson featuring several of DePaolis' originals, was nearing completion. It is due to be released in the next year.
Don is survived by his wife Kathy, sons Tony, Julian and Rafael, sister Rita Dorobish (Michael), and brother David DePaolis. Funeral arrangements are private, but an informal memorial gathering will be announced at a later date.
Arrangements by Schellhaas Funeral Home and Crematory Services, Inc.