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Piano Playing Prodigal Son Returns Home

GC native John Tesh set to bring Big Band to Westbury

The quintessential example of being able to take the boy out of his hometown but not the hometown out of the boy, John Tesh once again returns to the area in support of his latest musical project. On Saturday, May 12, he will be playing the NYCB Theatre at Westbury in support of his latest album, Big Band.

A former Garden City resident, Tesh has always carried a special place in his heart for the village despite the fact that his family moved out following his graduation from high school in 1970. Those formative years living on Seabury Road inspired him to not only lend his hometown’s name to the title track of his 1989 album, but do the same when he founded a recording imprint in 2000. When asked about this inspiration while preparing for the upcoming tour at his Los Angeles home, Tesh came up with an interesting rationale.

“I use this as a very loose analogy. Imagine Superman on the planet Krypton and all of a sudden he’s launched in that rocket to earth and for some reason, he can fly and has X-ray vision and all these other powers,” he explained. “That’s how I felt when I left the Garden City school system and went to college. Everything was just so easy. Music was easy. Classes were easy. And it was because I think being in the Garden City school system was like being in a performing arts school.”

Coming Up

Always adept at juggling different abilities, the Julliard-trained Tesh went from being a second-string soccer player and being third-string on his high school’s lacrosse team to becoming a starter on the lax squad once he started college at North Carolina State University. While studying communications and music, the Garden City native got his start as a news anchor at Durham’s WTVD, later landing a job at Nashville’s WSM-TV before becoming the youngest reporter at WCBS in New York at the age of 23.

Tesh achieved widespread fame during his decade-long stint from 1986-1996 as an entertainment anchor. It was during this time that he started fleshing out a solo career that started with a stint in Yanni’s touring band before the lanky composer/instrumentalist borrowed his experience as a sportscaster for the annual Gallic bike race 1983-1986 to title his 1988 solo debut Tour de France.

Swinging And Singing

Over 40 albums later, Tesh has primarily known as a neo-classical/new age composer who has also created numerous scores and soundtracks. So while his new album Big Band ended being a bit of a departure, all roads once again led back to Garden City.

“When I was in sixth or seventh grade, they made you choose an instrument or sing in the choir; so they handed me a trumpet and we played marching band music and jazz music—sort of the simplified versions of these songs,” he explained.

“[These were] songs that my dad brought back with him from Okinawa when he was in the service—songs like “In the Mood” and those types of tunes. Songs I had in my house and ended up playing in the jazz band and jazz orchestra in middle school and high school. We worked on [this project] for about two years, trying to see what it was going to sound like, look like and what was going to fit. We taped the PBS special in June and I’ve never had so much fun. It’s great what you can do with a big band. So there are some of my original songs in there but mostly it’s the Great American Songbook.”

Helping out with the in-concert heavy lifting is a group of sidemen who play behind fellow Long Islander Brian Setzer in his orchestra when they’re not working for Tesh during the 50-odd dates he does annually. And not unlike the Vegas-style acts of Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima, there are plenty of choreographed gags, give-and-take between the crew that includes them laughing at all of Tesh’s bad jokes in between playing standards like “Beyond the Sea” and “I’ve Got the World On a String.”

Musical Diversity

While Tesh has had the new age tag affixed to him throughout his career, the truth is that he has a broad musical range that dates back to his time playing in local bar bands as a teen including OBI East, OBI West and the Atlantic Beach Club. His was a rival band that oftentimes crossed paths with the Hassles whose own keyboardist was a pugnacious kid named Billy Joel. And while the ex-Entertainment Tonight anchor rounded out his classical music and jazz training with an affinity for the Dave Clark 5 and The Doors, his biggest influence was Rick Wakeman of Yes, who he first caught in concert while attending North Carolina State.

This creative flexibility has served Tesh well throughout his musical career. Not only did he win an Emmy for “Roundball Rock,” the ... NBA on NBC theme that was used from 1990-2002, but there was an interesting five-year span where he collaborated with Howie Mandel on the animated series Bobby’s World.

“That was great fun. Howie and I became friends. I did the underscore but we would also do songs,” Tesh explained. “He’d call me up in the middle of the night wanting to do a song called, ‘Animals Don’t Wear Underpants.’ He’d come in, I’d write the music and he’d write the words to these things and we’d have a full 80-piece choir singing, ‘Animals don’t wear underpants/they run free/they have nothing under their knees.’ I said to Howie that our biggest fear should be that we would win an Emmy for that song. ‘Fish Don’t Stink Underwater’ was another one.”

The Vanilla Syndrome

Then there are the many misconceptions about John Tesh as being this staid and boring personality who churns out new age music. In real-life, he has a self-deprecating wit and an intriguing range of musicians he likes from expected names like Harry Connick, Jr. and Dr. John to more surprisingly, Eminem, a by-product of allowing daughter Prima control of the car radio. Tesh’s ability to laugh at himself once led to his jamming with brothers Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa during an appearance the trio made on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

“I’m sitting in the green room about an hour before the show is set to air live and Frank Smiley, who’s the lead producer, comes to see me. He says Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa are here and they want to play with me,” Tesh recalls. “I knew Dweezil, but I’d never met Ahmet. So they come in and then Conan comes in in the green room. They said they had a portable keyboard and they wanted to play a song together. They wanted to know if we knew any of the same songs so I told them I was a pretty quick study and when I asked what they had in mind, they came back with Black Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard.’ I said okay, we did a quick rehearsal and it was pretty hysterical.”

Coming Home

John Tesh has played Westbury many times before. It’s an experience that he has to control his excitement over, given that it’s a stone’s throw from where he grew up. People he knew growing up often show up. This time around, Tesh expects to see his near-nonagenarian trumpet instructor Mr. Wagner and former P.E. teacher Mr. Muller, both of who play in a big band. But when you ask Tesh what his fondest memory of Garden City is, his quick reply is the Garden City Pool.

“I have a 30-year-old stepson and a daughter getting ready to graduate high school and I live in a world where you have to drive your kid or they have to drive to meet another human being. That’s the way it is in Los Angeles. So the Garden City pool was that place where you could just hang and meet everybody,” he nostalgically recalled. “My fondest memory was the hangout. I remember learning how to swim there and living on Good Humor ice cream, hanging out on the lawn. You never saw your parents because you got on your Stingray bike and took off, riding past the country club to the pool and you’re there all day. Then you ride home with your towel. Those are the halcyon moments that you always take with you.”