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Jazz royalty in the Rogue Valley

Every so often an interview comes along that leaves me giddy with privilege. This week I enjoyed a warm and vibrant visit with a classy and talented woman who boasts a history with all the elites of ’50s and ’60s jazz extending to the original Birdland. Her name is Patti Moran McCoy, and she is still a piano-playing jazz legend.

Music has been the fabric of Patti’s family since before she was born. At 12, she performed Felix Mendelssohn’s first movement of Concerto No. 2 for piano with the symphony in Enid, Oklahoma. She was just gearing up. She first played by ear, later attending the Cincinnati Conservatory for a year with a view toward becoming a concert pianist. The cost was prohibitive, and other doors swung wide.

She met jazz musicians at the conservatory and eventually played with them, securing a top agent, Clyde Trask, who represented Doris Day. Trask signed Moran for bar gigs here and there, but they didn’t last. These joints weren’t looking for a seriously accomplished piano player. They wanted a vamp to entertain the drinking crowd.

She and singer/drummer Bev Kelly formed an act called the Modernettes. During a show, they met Steve Allen when he hosted “The Tonight Show.” Patti soon received an invitation to New York City to appear on television, along with fellow newcomers Jonathan Winters and Andy Williams.

Patti’s career blossomed with the Pat Moran Quartet. They drove to a talent agency in Chicago and immediately reaped bookings all over the country. Among their first gigs was the infamous Birdland on Broadway in NYC, where she shared a bill with Count Basie. Visit the lineup of the original performers at Birdland to see the unbelievable company with whom Moran moved and worked. There are too many to name.

“It wasn’t scary,” Patti confided. “It was just so much fun. I met everybody. It was just this electricity. I was playing a little classical one night, and there was Dizzy Gillespie and some of the guys listening to me play classical. You didn’t hear much classical at Birdland.”

Only in her 20s, she was one of very few women playing jazz. I wondered how her folks felt about her traveling around with all those men, playing in clubs.

“I played with Terry Gibbs and his big band in Los Angeles, and those guys were like big daddies watching over me.”

“Terry Gibbs and I were playing the Sands in Lake Tahoe, and jazz was kind of going out, you know, that’s when rock and roll came running around, and I used to say, ‘Oh, people like that Elvis Presley. If I ever saw him I’d spit in his face.’ So, one night I was playing there, and Elvis came in to listen to me play. He invited me to come over and have a drink with him (pause for gasp here).

“He was the most handsome man you ever saw in your life. I mean, he was so handsome you couldn’t look at him. He said, ‘Yeah, I used to play the pianer.’ But he was the sweetest person I ever met.”

Last year Pat Moran McCoy was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Oklahoma City, her hometown. She is highly revered all over the country for her contributions to jazz. And we have the privilege of having her with us. Visit her website at www.patmoranmccoy.com. She gives lessons.

A few months back I wrote about Patti’s talented daughter-in-law, percussionist Theresa McCoy, to whom Patti gave piano lessons, with Theresa peeking over the piano at Sean, Patti’s son and Theresa’s future husband. Theresa will lead a jazz quartet next Sunday, Sept. 8, from 5 to 6 p.m. for Jazz Vespers at First Presbyterian Church in Medford. The group will feature Patti McCoy on piano, Theresa McCoy on percussion, Sean McCoy-EVI on electronic valve instrument, and Jeff Addicott on bass. The hour will be positively too short.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.