The road to success more often than not starts off as a tiny strip of flattened grass. Simple beginnings which lead to greatness can make the rise to fame that much more intriguing. An upbringing miles away from the bright lights of the pinnacle of a career makes us all believe that this is possible.
One wonders if Paolo Conte, Italy’s grand old man of jazz, ever thought that he would be treading the path to concert halls the world over when he and his brother started their piano lessons as children in the early 1940s. Perhaps he thought that he would join the long list of relatives who had practised as solicitors in the small city of Asti, in the north-western Italian region of Piedmont, for generations. Perhaps he thought the idyllic days spent at his grandfather’s farm would lead to a life tending the land.
But music was all around him and his contact with a wide range of styles soon convinced him where his life would lead. “My home was always filled with music,” Conte says. “This made it clear to me that listening to good music was paradise.”
While music had been a constant in his early life, so had law and Conte was still on the path to becoming a solicitor when his life took a turn which would lead him to the stage, not the bar. The American influence in Italy after the war had brought jazz to his ears and while still studying for his law degree at the University of Parma, that seductive genre led Conte to put his piano skills to good use in a number of amateur jazz bands around town. “Jazz had a sexiness that the other music did not have,” he says. “Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, the great masters of the sintassi and the drammaticità, they all had a great influence on me.”
It would prove to be not a fleeting affair but a passionate and deep love. While his own playing career took longer to reach fruition, Conte found early fame as a writer and composer. Already coming from an area of Italy where the French influence was deeply felt, he found himself drawn to the likes of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, developing his own style which combined traditional Italian rhythms with the dry wit and cynicism of the Francophones. It proved to be hugely popular. His work with Adriano Celentano in the late 60’s brought him his first number one hit, a Coppia piu’ bella del mond. His second success with Celentano, Azzurro, was a classic-in-waiting and has since proved to be, being performed by countless international artists.
While his composing and writing talents were sought after by everyone from Patty Pravo and Enzo Jannacci through to Johnny Hallyday and Shirley Bassey, Conte didn’t become a singing star in his own right until the 1974 album Paolo Conte on which he wrote, composed and performed. “Deciding to be the singer, I became the person for whom I had written,” he says. “It was for sincerity.” It was a connection with the genius behind some of the great jazz compositions of the 60’s and 70’s that his audience had been waiting for.
His success as a performer continued throughout the 1980s and 1987’s Aguaplano and 1990’s Parole D’Amore Scritte a Macchina, a change in direction and style with backing singers and electronic experimentalism, brought him considerable success throughout Europe. He followed up these successes on record with acclaimed tours throughout the continent and Canada. His greatest hits compilation released in 1998 brought Conte’s music to the land of jazz, bringing his influences full circle with his first US success and shows at the legendary Blue Note club in New York. He would return to the States for even bigger tours throughout the early years of the new millennium.
These days, established as one of Europe’s greatest jazzmen, Conte shows no sign of letting up. Despite all the success and with new and diverse albums and directions explored on an almost yearly basis, the 72-year-old is ever evolving. Asked what keeps him going, the Maestro says simply: “passion.”