Brian DiBlassio’s mother was told she had to take piano lessons when she was a child.
His parents decided to not force their children to do the same, instead waiting for the desire to arrive.
It arrived for DiBlassio when he was 9.
“The U-M piano pedagogy program was offering free piano lessons to kids at the local elementary school. I came home and said, ‘Hey, mom, can I take piano?’” he said. “Next thing I know there’s a piano in our living room, and the rest is history.
“It’s just one of those situations being in a city like Ann Arbor where you have all these opportunities and culture, I definitely benefitted from that.”
DiBlassio, associate professor of music in the College of Arts and Sciences at UM-Flint, parlayed those early piano lessons and his experiences in an improvisation group as a youngster into a rewarding musical career and lifestyle.
An Ann Arbor native, DiBlassio went to Martin Luther King Elementary School and was part of a group called the King Combo under the tutelage of teacher Nancy Todd. DiBlassio was drawn to the drum set in Todd’s room, so became the drummer for the group during improvisation performances at a local restaurant.
“We had gigs as kids in grade school,” he said. “We had drums, horns, it was incredible. She had a big influence. After I started playing piano, I thought, ‘I can’t get enough of this, I want to hone this skill.’ Also my brother was into music, so there was a little competitive push there.
“I always stuck with it and still love it today.”
During his undergraduate studies at the University of Miami, DiBlassio played snare drums for the Hurricanes’ marching band. At the end of the 1991 season, Miami was invited to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. The Orange Bowl was played at Miami’s home stadium.
“Part of the fun thing of being in the marching band is if you make these championship games they fly you anywhere. Where’d they fly us? The Orange Bowl. Where’d we stay? Our dorms,” he joked. “I went home to Michigan (for holiday break), and I was flown back to the dorms for the championship game, then flown back home and went back to school. It was crazy.”
In 2014, he helped the nonprofit organization El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil form a mariachi band by connecting the organization with UM-Flint students. A few years after that, a group from Mexico City visited the campus and the nonprofit, and Susana Quintanilla, the nonprofit’s founder and director, asked DiBlassio to give them a jazz clinic.
“I was teaching mariachi musicians from Mexico how to play jazz with their authentic mariachi instruments. We’re talking about a Mexican harp and a big Mexican guitarrón guitar, and I was teaching them Miles Davis in a three-day master class clinic as visiting musicians,” he said. “That was fun, and it was great to revisit and support the initial idea (of the mariachi band).”
He has several outlets for his love of music, one of which is the band Los Gatos. Formed in 1997 by Pete Siers, Los Gatos plays a variety of Latin jazz. DiBlassio has been part of the group since 1999, after Siers met him on the freelance jazz musician circuit. A few years later, DiBlassio’s older brother, Al, who goes by Owl, joined the group and they remain groupmates.
The group plays primarily around Michigan and Ohio, performing at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Michigan Jazz Festival and Detroit Jazz Festival, to name a few. One of DiBlassio’s highlights with the group was when Los Gatos shared the Michigan Theater stage with renowned Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri in 2004.
“The fun thing about the way Pete leads the band is that we learn entire records, one record at a time,” he said. “We study and immerse ourselves, listen to it, learn how to play it and then go perform it. By now our book of repertoire has about 25-30 records we can play.”
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In addition to Los Gatos, he plays with Tumbao Bravo, another local Latin jazz group. He also recently played at the Kerrytown Concert House during Latin Heritage Week with Grupo Escobar, a quartet that also includes his brother.
DiBlassio said his most significant project to date was writing “Suite in F” that combined 17th century French Baroque music with jazz, a collaboration between faculty musicians at UM-Flint, the Flint School of Performing Arts and the Limonest Conservatoire in France. He and musicians from the Flint Symphony Orchestra, UM-Flint and the Ann Arbor campus recorded it at the James and Anne Duderstadt Center in 2019.
“I’ve always made an effort to accept all types of music. Sometimes musicians are in danger of getting siloed and shunning one type of music or another,” he said. “I perform classical music and jazz and rock. I play drums in a folk/blues band, and of course Latin music, and I like to keep that diverse aspect of music in my life and my teaching.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Memorable moments in the music workplace have centered around jazz ensemble performances, usually performances that have stretched the boundaries or taken risks. One semester we made an instrument out of PVC pipes to extend the range of a marimba. Other examples include arranging and performing the music of James Brown, having a student drummer beating on a metal sculpture, rapping and LP scratching as part of the performance, and joining the ensemble myself, playing piano, drums, bass, and vibraphone.
What can’t you live without?
Family, friends, music and coffee.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
From French Hall to the river.
What inspires you?
Unique music and unique, creative people — creative and forward thinking in any field or discipline.
What are you currently reading?
“The Appalachian Trail: a Biography” by Philip D’Anieri; “Leadership in Turbulent Times” by Doris Kearns Goodwin; and “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Music teachers throughout my life, and supportive fellow musicians, friends and family.