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Don Baaska: Our stories

Don Baaska

My name is Don Baaska and I play piano or anything else that has keys on it. I reside in Playa Fortuna on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico in a beat up old house on the beach with my wife and two cats. She and most other people call me Baaska and I call her Scavelli. The cats are called Buddy & Smoochy and I don’t know what the cats call us—maybe Feeder and Stroker. I speak Spanish with my neighbors but with a gringo accent.

My first love is jazz, but while in high school I decided to become a professional musician. Not necessarily a great musician or a jazz musician, but a professional musician. The corollary was never to work a “day job”. Well so far have I've succeeded in both goals.

I played piano in the Happy Hour Bar the winter of 1952 in Key West Florida and was fascinated by the music on the radio from Havana, just 50 miles across the Gulf Stream. I wanted to go to Cuba but a bartender changed my mind. Frank had been a merchant seaman who got stranded in Puerto Rico and he told glowing stories of beautiful girls, incredible beaches and weather and a life style so layback it was horizontal.

So one day in May in 1953 we arrived in Puerto Rico, hitching a ride from the Miami airport on a DC 3 with a load of live chickens. We shared our bottle of rum with the pilot on the long trip and he even let me steer for a while. We planned to stay for a week but it was 17 years before I left the Island.

My first full time gig in PR was at the Caribe Hilton. I played with the dance quintet that alternated with the show band, which was led by Cesar Concepcion at the time. Name acts played the Hilton in that era.

We played “society music” for the tourists and merengues, mambos, cha cha chas & boleros for the locals. Nobody called it Salsa yet. It was a crash course in Latin music.

In the late 50's I worked with a band led by Jorge del Valle. We played for parties for the upper crust locals mostly at the Casino de Puerto Rico & Casa Espana. I made more money in one night than I made at the Hilton in a week. Lots of free time so I went fishing with mask & fins & a speargun
with some guys from Barrio Obrero. We free dove and grabbed lobsters and speared grouper and snapper which we sold to the hotels. I also took up Judo and eventually got a black belt from Sensai Takahama.

From 1960 to 1970 played at the Dorado Beach Hotel. 10 years with the same bass player and drummer six hours a night and six nights a week. We got so tight we were completing each other’s musical sentences like Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Dorado Beach was owned and managed by Laurence Rockefeller at the time and was a 5 star hotel patronized by celebs and the international jet set. One evening we had Hubert Humphreys, senator Fulbright, Leonard Bernstien and Ava Gardner in the house. Ava sent us a round of drinks every night. A real lady.

In 1970 I got “Island Happy” a disease common among gringo expatriates in the tropics. I sold the house, car & boat and gave the money to my wife who divorced me and I went to LA and got involved in Scientology.

I met Valli Scavelli there. She was a dancer who had never sung professionally. But she knew just about every tune ever written and could learn a new one in just about 3 minutes. We worked piano bars and hotel lounges and played on the Love Boat cruising up to Alaska and worked for 4 months in Japan. In 1980 we were firmly entrenched in a posh hotel lounge in Palm Springs when an old friend called from Puerto Rico to say he had a job for us in a jazz club. Palm Springs was pretty dull so we gave notice two weeks later opened in “Cats” in the Condado, PR.

Well “Cat’s” didn’t have 9 lives, more like 9 weeks but we stayed on working lounges for Jimmy Stevens Productions. Jimmy convinced us to form a dance band and work convention dates which were much more lucrative and less demanding than the lounge work. And so we prospered for many a year.

But alas, Jimmy retired and sold his agency to his secretary. She was almost as good a promoter as Jimmy but she unfortunately died of cancer and her husband took over. His show biz experience was with limos and the agency slowly but surely went down the tubes and so did our jobs as numerous competitors got in on the action.

So Scavelli and I formed our own entertainment agency and that’s where we are today. We supply anything required by a convention—steel bands, guitar trios, salsa bands, Caribbean Carnival etc. etc. Last year someone requested a dwarf and a horse. Don’t ask.

I still work the tasty ones like Latin jazz trios, solo piano, etc. and Valli sings occasionally. But for the hi-energy dance gigs we book someone else. Been there, done that.

In the summer we cruise the BVIs in our homemade catamaran, the Take 2.

We generally stay out about 6 weeks. No TV, no plumbing, no electricity. Just a lot of ocean & sky. We snorkel several hours a day and usually catch the dinner entrée and the rest of the time read and meditate. Sometimes we go ashore for ice, cold beer and gossip.

I started doing a lot of recording about 5 years ago. It’s so easy with all the equipment around these days. What caught on and started selling really well locally was “From Puerto Rico with Love” and I made vol 2 & 3 with the same format, music by Puerto Rican composers recorded by piano trio the way we played it back in the 60’s. This is extremely nostalgic to Latinos and makes a great souvenir for the tourists.

The rest of our other recordings are pretty eclectic. Check them out in the Music and CDs section.

Puerto Rico and the Great Musician In The Sky have has been very kind to me and I am grateful.

Valli Scavelli

Elvira Maria Scavelli grew up in Brooklyn. As a child she spent a lot of time with her grandmother from Naples whom she fondly remembers as the world’s greatest cook. There were lots of aunts & uncles and on Sunday the dinner table groaned under the weight of all the goodies and the dining room echoed with 20 Italians all talking at the same time.

In high school she listened to classical music and painted. Several of her paintings won awards from the NY Museum of Art. She also listened to her uncle Giro’s collection of big band records and absorbed the sound of singers of that era like June Christy, Anita Oday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and of course Sinatra.

She was given the name of Valli by a dance instructor. Valli worked as a dancer and lived in the Village in the 60’s. She didn’t sing professionally but the voice was always there. Dave Lambert took her under his wing and taught her timing. Later in LA the famous voice coach Hamilton Williams taught her placement so that she can sing five hours a night six nights a week and never get a sore throat.

In 1970, she got involved in Scientology and moved to LA. Here she met Don Baaska. After leaving Celebrity Center they formed a duo and worked steadily in hotel lounges and piano bars in California and Nevada and on the Love Boat.

While in LA Valli recorded 2 LPs with Baaska, “Floating “ and “Valli Scavelli sings Bessie Smith.” They also recorded a demo that found it’s way to England where it became a cult classic in London jazz clubs. The song was an original, “Get off the Ground”. Their names name did not appear on the label as it was recorded to demonstrate Hi Fi equipment for the manufacturer. They were recently discovered by London disc jockey Seymour Nurse and the song reissued on Ubiquity as part of a Giles Peterson compilation.

Valli has the ability to learn a song in several minutes and remember the lyrics forever and phrase the melody in her own style. She can hear any song on the radio and instantly identify the singer.

She & Baaska came to Puerto Rico in 1980 and performed in every major hotel on the Island before forming an entertainment agency, Baaska & Scavelli. They book music & acts for the convention trade and are quite successful since they know the performer’s viewpoint as well as the business end.

They both still perform but only the “tasty ones, we paid our dues”!

In the summer they cruise the Caribbean in the “Take 2”, a 26’ Wharram catamaran that Baaska built.

It’s the good life.