No Right Answer

By Ron Ciancutti

Long past midnight at the ripe old age of 13 as I hid under the covers of my bed, I happened across a late-night AM jazz station. Through the little speaker of my Japanese import, I heard the sounds of a very young horn player named Chuck Mangione. His quartet was playing some of the most unique-sounding jazz I had ever heard (The Land of Make Believe, 1973), and I knew right then that my interest in playing drums had increased tenfold with the notion that I could one day make magical music like that.

The next morning, I did a little research. Mangione was not playing a trumpet, but a flugelhorn. It had a wider distance between the bends of the brass, and it provided a richer, deeper sound—very unique at the time. Since he was Italian like me, his talent was twice as attractive as I really sought out any musicians whom I felt I had something in common. “Was this really a direction a man could take with his life?” I pondered. “Could I make a living doing something so pleasurable?”

Musical Inspiration
That day I pedaled my bike to the local music store and bought Mangione’s album; I played it until it started to skip in places and needed cleaning from accumulated needle dust. Mom was impressed. It wasn’t the typical, blasting hard rock that most of my peers were addicted to at the time. It was handsome, refined, emotional, sensitive music, stuff I wanted to play one day.

The following month Mangione appeared on PBS with his band, and I was mesmerized by the sensitive manner in which the players performed. It seemed that every note was crafted and selected; the love, the passion of the performance was every bit as compelling as the sound. The drummer, a young and imaginative talent named Steve Gadd, moved his sticks in an absolute blur. I couldn’t have been more inspired.

As time passed, I continued to study percussion and drums, and by the time I reached high school, I was adept at all auxiliary percussion (conga, bongo, tambourine, marimba, maracas, timbales, tympani), but especially the drum set.  I played in the marching band, symphonic band, symphonic ensemble, and jazz band. To be sure everyone knew I was “THE drummer,” I always had my sticks with me and would drum endlessly on my thigh through study hall; I had to keep my wrists limber.

Feels So Good
In 1977, Mangione released the Feels So Good album, and the title song got a great deal of play on pop radio. Suddenly, my well-kept secret was common knowledge. He had become a household name, and his music rang out of car stereos and music storefronts wherever I went.

Of course, I bought the album and loved almost every track on it. Again I played it over and over, and then one day when I got to my jazz band class, the director had chosen the Feels So Good sheet music, so indeed I would now be playing actual Mangione tracks. I practically had the whole drum part down pat already as I had been playing it in my mind; the first time through, I recall being so jazzed that it was difficult to breathe. The music just swelled within me. In time, the band got the piece down solid, and it became our “opener” whenever we played at mall openings, benefits, concerts, etc.

The song became such a signature piece that when the band went to an invitational “contest” that fall at a small college about two hours from home, we chose that as the “contest piece,” performed for judges to grade and submit a competitive score.

Following the performance, we were given a very high score, and word came backstage that one of the judges was one of the primary woodwind players from Mangione’s band. As several other schools had used this popular song as well, the judge asked if he could handpick some kids from each band and perform an impromptu version of Feels So Good with him on all woodwinds. He selected me to be the drummer. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I happily agreed and played four songs with the group that evening at the closing concert. It was an experience of a lifetime.

Riding The Wave
I was convinced my life would be spent making music. Upon returning home, I dedicated myself to practice, and while scouring the TV Guide for possible performances by Mangione, I came across an interesting documentary. I learned the story of “The Children of Sanchez.” Evidently, while reporting on a hunger and thirst recovery effort in the city of Sanchez, a small-time film maker realized that the wars that raged in the villages were interesting enough to merit more than a news story. He created a documentary and it was so compelling he felt it needed a musical score as well.

Through a series of circumstances, Mangione, who had just finished the Feels so Good album, was approached about creating the score, but it had to be done in a very short time. The story goes that Mangione and his band locked themselves in a hotel room for four days and completely created the score for The Children of Sanchez double album (1978). It is some of the most beautiful and sensitive music I have ever heard, and the romantic story of the score’s creation enhanced that greatly.

I snapped up the album, and within weeks I saw on PBS a live performance of it being played at Carnegie Hall by Mangione and his band. Replete with a colored-light stage and a band in flowing robes and dashikis, the performance was so stirring I couldn’t sit still while watching this treasure, convincing me even further that a life in music was inevitable. It wasn’t just the incredible sound. It was watching this man let music involve him and his life as he sailed from one meaningful project to the next. It looked like such a charmed existence.

A Realistic View
As 1978 played out, my parents took me on several college visitations. Some of the schools were interested in my musical ability and offered various discounts and scholarships based on my talents and how they would be used. Most schools, however, were still very expensive, and I began to realize that the study of music was more about teaching, performing within the college community, and contributing endlessly to the continuation of music as an art. Yes, some amazing stars came out of colleges after studying for years, but the folks who played jazz like me got their education on the road. They played and got rejected and were applauded.  They had good nights and bad nights and the gamut of emotions that went with it. “For the love of the game,” as it were.

I decided instead to go to a state college and achieve a functional, more “usable” degree in business. I reasoned that I could play my drums in the evenings, form a small jazz band, hit all the local clubs, and just love it for what it was. I guess at one time I thought I could be the starving musician who lived in the artsy part of town and took the knocks, but I was not raised that way. I was too conservative, too “bird in the hand” for such adventure. I played it safe and did what I was “supposed” to do.

Smoke In Mirrors
Sometime after college graduation, I heard Mangione was coming to town, and I bought tickets for a few friends and myself. The venue was outdoors and the breeze was beautiful on a balmy night. He had just recorded another “poppy”-type album that he seemed to have been drawn to ever since his “Give It All You Got” song had been popularized for one of the Summer Olympic Games. The concert opened with one or two of these very invigorating songs, and then he settled into some of the older, more recognizable music that the audience adored—those people who had stopped drinking their Chablis long enough to notice.

Right before intermission the sound of a phone backstage was vaguely audible, and due to the angle of our seats and the scarcity of the outdoor stage structure, I could see Mangione had been summoned to talk to someone on the phone. So animated was he with the person on the other end of the call that I was sure it had something to do with the lighting or stage. I began to look around the catwalk and lighting team to see if someone was talking to him. They weren’t. It actually began to appear that it was a personal call. The band ended the song without Chuck, and the members broke for intermission. He remained on the phone and was literally screaming into it. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Somewhere in his world, something had gone wrong and he was clearly angry about it.

The band later resumed playing, and Mangione came back and got into the next set without uttering a word to the audience or band.  He played his solo and then went backstage, picked up the phone, and began yelling into it again. It was very disturbing. This pattern went on for most of the second half of the performance. He played the last couple tunes with a bitter look on his face, like he couldn’t wait to get off the stage. The audience picked up on it, and the enthusiasm of the whole evening deflated like an old balloon. He waved goodbye, but the audience didn’t even attempt to applaud for an encore. My emotions were so mixed at that point that I just sat in my seat, shaking my head.

Passion Or Principle
The passionate life I thought was my ultimate goal was no more attainable for me than it was for Chuck Mangione. Reality indeed … bites. I had problems, he had problems. Whether or not his days were filled with reckless musical abandon seemed moot. He had a job and I had a job. In the end, I guess we are all bound by a sense of duty that tugs us into the right lane and pulls us along through life.

On summer evenings, after the lawn is cut and hedges are trimmed, I open the umbrella that covers the table out back. Settling into a chair in the shade, I open a cold beer and crack my bag of stadium peanuts as I listen to the Cleveland Indians stumble through another year; the dog is at my feet and my family inside settles into their evening as well. The shadow of my home looms behind me; two cars and their payments lay in front of me. I am 34 years and counting into my retirement plan, so the career I chose is more behind me than in front of me. Did I do the right thing? Should my life have been one of passion before principle? How do I advise my children when they cross this same bridge one day? Since there is no right or wrong, the answer is clear.

You simply must decide for yourself. 

And then the hard part comes—you have to live with it.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at