Legendary Pianist, Spellbinding Vocalist, and Generation-Spanning Raconteur GENE DiNOVI presides first-Tuesdays-of-the-month in the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill Toronto. Born in Brooklyn, New York, it was after his first visit to Toronto as an accompanist to Carmen McRae in 1971 that DiNovi decided to make the Canadian jazz scene his permanent place of residence.
Gene DiNovi’s love for, and understanding of the popular song became strongly evident during the 1950s. His playing during these years attracted the attention of singers such as Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, and the magnificent Lena Horne. In fact, DiNovi was in demand by just about every great singer of that era, each of them wanting his backing as a musical director. It was through these stellar performers that DiNovi came to know and work with the finest songwriters of the day including Harold Arlen, Jimmy Van Husen, and Harry Warren. Although DiNovi had been recording since 1945 as a sideman and/or accompanist to jazz giants including Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae, and Buddy DeFranco, he is likely best known as Lena Horne’s accompanist, playing with her for seven years from 1955 to 1963 and occasionally after that.
DiNovi’s own songs (to lyrics by Spence Maxwell, Bob Comstock, Johnny Mercer, and others) include ‘Brand New Day’ and ‘I Can Hear the Music’ and have been recorded by Maurice Chevalier, Doris Day, Percy Faith, Peggy Lee, and Nancy Wilson. DiNovi also composed ‘The Scandanavian Suite No. One (Sweden), a Divertimento in Blue’ (for Benny Goodman), ‘Hommage à Satie’, and several other classical pieces.
Now 91 years old, DiNovi is one of the few musicians of his generation who is still actively performing. In 2017, in collaboration with outstanding Canadian journalist Jack Batten, he released his long-awaited autobiography “I Can Hear The Music” online, and more recently as a limited edition 537-page soft-cover memoir. The back-cover blurb summarizes the highlights of his illustrious life in Gene DiNovi’s own words:
“I played piano with Bird and Diz. I accompanied Lena, Peggy, Raquel, Barbra, one Dinah (Shore, but not Washington), two Franks (Sinatra and Zappa) and a Tony (Bennett). I recorded with a Pres (Lester Young) and a King (of Swing), Benny Goodman. I wrote songs with Johnny Mercer (Have a Heart) and composed an extended piece for an entire archipelago (The Scandinavian Suite). I learned lessons from a Duke (Ellington) and a Count (Basie). And I came oh-so-close to performing for a Vladimir (Horowitz)…”