In Memoriam: Frank Caruso (1948-2019)

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Frank Caruso (1948–2019)

(Photo: frankcarusomusic.com)

Chicago-based pianist and educator Frank Caruso died suddenly on April 22 at a relative’s home in Cary, Illinois. He was 70 years old and had been recovering from surgery following a recent fall.

Born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1948, Caruso was a prodigy who began playing professionally at age 12. He studied at DePaul University, graduating in 1968, and then served in the U.S. Navy Band for four years until 1972.

While in the Navy, he was a featured performer in Washington, D.C., at the White House’s 70th Birthday Party for Duke Ellington. In addition to performing for President Nixon, Caruso also played for President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Senator John McCain.

Caruso’s most recent album, Chosen (2017), is a trio project with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Bob Rummage. The highly acclaimed album is considered to be among Caruso’s finest recorded work.

Other recordings Caruso released as a leader include the 1985 solo album Freefall (Quaver Records); two quintet albums in collaboration with saxophonist Mark Colby, 1990’s Mango Tango (Best Recordings) and 1994’s Heart Of The City (River North Records); and the 2008 quintet album Songs From The Kingdom Of Jazz with saxophonist Jim Massoth.

Known for his artistry on multiple keyboard instruments, including accordion, Caruso performed with numerous high-profile artists, including Luciano Pavarotti, Henry Mancini, Louie Bellson, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Maynard Ferguson, Dave Douglas, Randy Brecker and the Count Basie Orchestra.

He also performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois.

Caruso wrote numerous articles on the subject of jazz theory, including Woodshed columns for DownBeat. His 2010 book Piano Improvisation: A Powerful Practical System—a complete course written with research scientist and music lover Karl Mollison—has imparted fingering secrets and helped to demystify music theory for scores of jazz students and aspiring keyboard improvisers worldwide.

According to a family member, Caruso had a second, unfinished book on improvisation in the works at the time of his passing.

An in-demand educator in the Chicago area, Caruso taught private lessons and served on the jazz studies faculty at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, for the last 15 years. “Perhaps the only thing that surpassed Frank’s passion for the music was his desire to share his knowledge with his students,” said Doug Beach, director of jazz studies at Elmhurst College. “He had the ability to meet a student at any level, connect with them and immediately make them a better musician.”

Caruso’s resume also included stints teaching jazz studies at Roosevelt University and the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

Caruso’s daughter, Deonna, created a documentary of her father’s life as a musician and family man. Titled That’s a Lot of Songs, the film was revealed to Caruso on Sept. 27, 2015, with friends and relatives present. (The full 43-minute movie can be viewed by clicking here.)

Caruso served as music contractor and/or conductor for many recordings and concerts, and he created music for many radio and TV commercials.

Social media posts immediately following Caruso’s passing extolled the pianist’s many virtues.

“Frank was a gift to us all, from the first time we played together to the last,” wrote Colby, who worked with Caruso onstage and in the studio for more than 30 years. “He was a gig warrior. No gig too tough—just hunker down and do it.”

“More than being the genius musician that he was, he was a great husband and father,” Massoth wrote in a Facebook post. “He gave up many career-making opportunities to stay in Chicago and raise a family. He drove me to be a better musician and man.”

More information about Caruso’s career is posted at his website.

Visitation will take place from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 28 at Rago Brothers Funeral Home on Chicago’s Northwest Side (7751 W. Irving Park Rd), followed by a funeral service at 11 a.m. on April 29. DB