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Italian pianist and bandleaderby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
Pianist Romano Mussolini, whose formidable jazz talents were often overshadowed by a controversial bloodline, died in Rome on Friday, February 3, 2006. He was 78 years old. Mussolini had recently undergone heart surgery and suffered fatal complications.
It was ironic that Romano, the youngest child of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and wife Rachele, embraced a “decadent” form of music that his father’s Fascist cohorts had banned from Italy during World War II. After the execution of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, in 1945, young Romano and his family were exiled to the island of Ischia. He learned to play piano and accordion while recovering from a childhood illness. He first heard jazz music through some albums that his older brothers had bought, and he grew to love the American art form. By the early 1950s he had developed a style similar to George Shearing’s eloquent approach to the piano, although he later assimilated some of André Previn’s classically inspired sophistication.
In 1956 Mussolini performed at the first San Remo International Jazz Festival, where he garnered much acclaim and offers to tour. He declined all comers, preferring to stay at home with his family and, perhaps, fearing retribution for his father’s actions. He ended up destitute in Rome, working as a carpenter between sporadic musical jobs, many done under an assumed name in the Naples region. He wrote jazz record reviews for several publications as well. But it wasn’t long before the jazz world began taking more notice of Mussolini. Among his supporters in the late 1950s were Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, singer Lillian Terry, Swedish baritonist Lars Gullin, and Chet Baker, who became a close friend and frequent musical associate. Mussolini’s first wife, Anna Maria Scicolone, was the sister of actress Sophia Loren and bore him two daughters.
In 1956 Mussolini’s trio recorded his self-titled debut for RCA. Trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti was an early partner. In 1963 the Romano Mussolini All-Stars recorded Jazz Allo Studio 7 (Ricordi), which earned widespread acclaim. This time he did not hesitate to accept the offers of tour packages, and his name was spread further around Europe. The album was followed by Romano Mussolini All-Stars at the Santa Tecla (Philips) later that year. In the 1980s and 90s Mussolini recorded The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong (Ca’Bianca Club), the Perfect Alibi soundtrack and Soft and Swing (Carosello), the last title an ideal description of his approach to jazz piano. Mussolini’s jobs as a sideman included three albums with multi-instrumentalist Oscar Klein’s Jazz Show, work with clarinetist Tony Scott, bassist Jan Jankeje and vibist/pianist Enzo Randisi, and arrangements and conducting for guitarist Daniele Groff.
Mussolini was also a respected painter. His memoir, “Il Duce, Mio Padre” (Kales Press), is a fascinating account of his life in the shadow of one of the 20th century’s most fearsome figures. His father and Petacci receive a wealth of respect in the book, yet Romano Mussolini clearly condemns his father’s anti-Semitic policies and much of the Fascist platform.
Romano Mussolini is survived by his second wife, Carla Maria; and three daughters, Alessandra (a deputy in the Italian parliament), Elisabetta and Rachele.
(Many thanks to John Pickford for his assistance in compiling this article.)
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.