Bob Simonelli

B: August 1, 1929 - Worcester, MA

Instruments: Saxophone, piano, accordian


by Prof. Richard Falco:

Robert "Bob" Simonelli has been a consistent presence in the Central MA music scene for more than 60 years, playing in ensembles ranging in size from Big Bands to small combos, as well as his own trios and quartets.

Born August 1, 1929 on Fox Street in Worcester, MA, Bob is the son of an Italian immigrant father, Eleuterio ("Jim") Simonelli and his wife, Mary Casale. At a young age, Bob began lessons on two instruments popular with Italian families during this period. At about age 11, he studied guitar with a Mr. Lafoss and soon followed with accordion lessons with his wife, Mrs. Lafoss.

In 1943, with his junior high school classmate and friend Fred Holovnia on piano and Bob on accordion, he played his first gig on accordion at age 13 where they played for students weekly in a dance studio in the neighboring town of Spencer, MA.

Bob took up the saxophone in 1943, which afforded him even more performance opportunities.

Many of the area musicians who were slightly older than Bob were drafted or enlisted into the Armed Services to fight in WW II. With plenty of performance opportunities available to younger musicians, Bob and Fred played in small groups and performed regularly in weddings, night clubs and dance halls. Bob also led a steady gig five nights a week at the Summerset Café in Worcester. "Teen Age Canteen" brought weekly Big Band gigs for Bob at the Worcester Auditorium with the Dave Bernie Band (who was a saxophonist and classmate of drummer Frankie Capp).

With Big Bands still in their heyday, Bob began playing saxophone at age 14 in Tony Agbay's band which rehearsed at the Lincoln Square Boys Club in Worcester, MA, from 1944-1946 and carried two arrangers in the band: Fred Holovnia (who began Big Band arranging at age 14) and Bob Isernio (who was the band's pianist and arranger). With the Tony Agbay Big Band (Helen Young, vocalist) and the Harry Ellner Big Band, Bob, Fred Holovnia, Joe Holovnia, and Bob Isernio played Tuesday nights at the Lake Side in Shrewsbury, MA. These dance bands had a bit more "jazz flare", as Bob calls it, since the young musicians had a serious interest in jazz language and improvisation. He continued working professionally with smaller ensembles during this time, especially with Fred and Joe Holovnia.

In the late 1940s Bob enlisted in the Navy Reserve, but soon found himself drafted after missing several Reserve meetings in order to accommodate his growing music performance career. Unaware of his impending draft, Bob married only months before he was called into service. He did play tenor saxophone with the Army Band at Fort Belvoir, but when asked to join the band, he declined, preferring to take engineering classes which he hoped would lead to a career after his time in the service. He pursued cartographic school as a pathway into engineering.

Although he did play while on the ship to Japan (preparing to join the Korean War), while in Korea Bob was assigned a leadership role in reconnaissance and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service.

After his 1953 discharge from the service, Bob jumped right back into performances in Massachusetts, primarily with smaller ensembles. He saw both Fred and Joe Holovnia, along with saxophonist Ray Starr, who played together with the Ed Shamgocian Quartet while Bob was overseas. Bob did join a trio led by Fred Holovnia on clarinet, with Joe Holovnia on bass, Bob on accordion. Fred was the trio's arranger.

It was in the mid-1950's that Fred Holovnia (AKA Fred Hall) designed and opened his first recording studio, Northeast Recording, located on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester. Holovnia began to run Big Band rehearsals at this location for a number of years. It was here that Bob and other ensemble members fine tuned their reading skills and experimented in composition and arranging for large ensemble. Fred and his brother Joe Holovnia, became the primary arrangers for the Fred Hall Big Band. Bob played with this Big Band for more than 20 years. In the 1960s forward, both Joe and Fred Holovnia did much of the writing for this Big Band. Bob contributed two or three charts. The band was full of excellent players, several of whom went on the road with national and international touring bands. By Fred's choice the Fred Hall Big Band did not perform often, but functioned as a workshop for writers and players. Fred recorded this band often. (Today, after more than 50 years, Fred's band still rehearses weekly at his new recording studio located in Shrewsbury, MA.)

It was in the early 1960's that Bob's cousin, saxophonist and band leader Tony Finelli, returned to Massachusetts after years of performing on the road. Finelli put together an excellent big band in which Bob played saxophone and arranged. Bob also played occasionally with the Russ Cole Big Band in many of the dance halls throughout New England.

Bob scored a wonderful gig in the 1970's with Fred Holovnia's seven-piece ensemble at the Holden Hills Country Club, where he played for nearly 7 years. This group performed three to seven nights per week. The ensemble consisted of Bob Simonelli and Ray Starr on saxophones (occasionally Don Markey or Vinnie Michitelli replaced Ray Starr), Fred Holovnia on piano, Joe Holovnia on bass, Steve Cancelli on guitar, George Thurman on drums, and Johnny Morolla on trumpet. Fred also led a trio and quartet made up of members of this group, including Bob.

With Henry "Boots" Mussulli as his new teacher and mentor, Bob studied saxophone, theory and arranging for six years. Unlike earlier saxophone teachers who employed traditional method books and conventional teaching practices, Bob recalls lessons with Mussulli where the focus was on playing jazz "heads" of the day. These "contra-facts" (new melodies written of pre-existing jazz standards, which were transcribed by Mussulli) contained all the musical elements of mature Bebop, the modern jazz language of the period. By having Bob perform these Bebop melodies with the appropriate phrasing and "jazz concepts", Mussulli hoped to impart the nuances of phrasing and articulation inherent in the composition.

However, in 1970, with little warning, Bob developed asthma. He tried to continue playing saxophone, but attacks became more frequent and intense during performances until he was forced to completely give up saxophone performances. At this time, Bob left the Holden Hills ensemble and the Fred Hall Big Band.

Abandoning the saxophone, Bob led a trio where he played piano, his son Bob James Simonelli played bass, and Eddie Dee (DeWallis) played drums. Occasionally Howie Jefferson was hired on saxophone as a fourth member.

By the 1980s Bob played piano primarily in small ensembles, favoring trios, which were more employable and portable. Playing piano and occasionally some saxophone, he worked for four years with saxophonist Ken Sawyer, Ken's wife Mary Lou and their daughter, Tisha Sawyer (currently on the faculty of Northeastern University).

In 1984, Bob passed the Professional Mechanical Engineer's Exam in Boston and became a registered Professional Engineer. From 1984 to 2002, along with his son, Bob James, Bob founded the company Engineering Design & Technology. His company sponsored several Major Qualifying Projects for students and faculty at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA.

Wanting to investigate modern piano techniques and with a keen interest in jazz theory, Bob began lessons with pianist Dick Odgren. He credits Odgren with helping him develop the skill set and confidence to explore jazz improvisation more deeply. He later continued his piano and theory studies with Geri DeMarco (wife of Jerry Bergonzi).

Today, Bob continues to play and teach. He is currently on the staff at French Music in Westborough where he teaches piano and has begun taking private saxophone students into his home studio. Bob's first son, Bob James Simonelli (AKA "Simbob"), is a very active jazz bassist, performing and recording with musicians throughout New England.

An ardent and life-long supporter of jazz, Bob is often seen checking out the jazz clubs and festivals, performing and sharing his knowledge and vast experience with younger musicians. He has contributed greatly to the local jazz scene over his many years and has done much to enrich the cultural life of New England.